Oregon Railroad Tries to Get Back on Track

Posted on: December 7th, 2007 by Preservation magazine

Mt. Hood RailroadFor a century, the sturdy little Mount Hood Railroad carried lumber, fruit, and passengers through Oregon's Hood River valley, 60 miles east of Portland. But a year ago, disaster struck. November rainfall, surpassing 15 inches, broke records. Part of Mount Hood's Eliot Glacier broke away, releasing torrents that poured off the mountain and damaged local trails, roads, and bridges—and the railroad. The force of the floodwaters literally changed the course of the Hood River at milepost 15, leaving 150 feet of track hanging in the air.

"The track is in place, but there's no land under it. It looks like a suspension bridge," says the railroad's general manager Michelle Marquart. For the past year, the railroad company has been working with an engineering firm to get planning and permitting in place to restore the tracks. "We have a very solid plan, but it is a very expensive plan," says Marquart.

Minor repairs to the route quickly restored service to part of the 22-mile line out of Hood River, but trains can no longer reach the terminus at Parkdale. Faced with a $ 1 million repair bill, the challenge for the historic working railroad became the search for funding that would cover restoration for a for-profit business. Many grant requests went unanswered, but the railroad has just applied to a state program called ConnectOregon II that funds transportation projects on an 80-20 basis.

"We have put in $500,000 ourselves, so we are eligible to apply for $700,000," says Marquart, who says she's optimistic about the grant. "This railroad is significant to the entire state of Oregon. We have letters of support from numerous public officials, local businesses and organizations, and many citizens."

How could just 22 miles of track capture the hearts of so many? The railroad embodies the dramatic history of life in a beautiful valley where the dawn of the railroad made many things possible, from the dangerous yet lucrative lumber business to relaxed Sunday excursions in the shadow of majestic Mount Hood.

Founder David Eccles immigrated to America in 1863 from Scotland, where traveling missionaries had converted his family to Mormonism. Eccles, who would become a self-made millionaire though his lumber empire, arrived in Hood River in search of Douglas fir. The grueling work of building trestles and switchbacks for the steam engines to traverse would soon pay off for Eccles and the booming lumbering industry, as well as the orchard owners who wanted to get their cherries, pears, and apples to market.

The railroad didn't just open the valley to new industry; it brought modern culture. Though Native Americans still camped on the banks of the Hood River in 1906 when Japanese laborers completed the railroad's first leg, the town was becoming a cultural hub. An opera house, library, university club, and Chatauqua series attracted musicians, artists, scholars, and tourists. They made rail-car excursions from the grand hotel. The Baldwin steam locomotives climbed steadily through ancient forests of fir, pine, and oak through the tiny town of Odell and on to Eccles' Oregon Lumber Company's new mill site at Dee. In 1910, Eccles extended the railroad to Parkdale, where hotel rooms ranged from fifty cents to a dollar and a meal could be had for just thirty-five cents. In 1911, Hood River's Craftsman-style depot was completed, another sign of prosperity.

The railroad has survived trouble before the November 2007 floods, most notably in 1987. The Union Pacific Railroad, which had absorbed the small business in 1967, planned to tear up a section of track deemed unprofitable. Dedicated history and railroad buffs from Portland and Mount Hood stepped in to save it. Jack Mills of Portland headed the group, which was determined to protect the historic and economic contribution of the railroad to the valley.

"We wanted to save it. Once you tear up a railroad track, it never comes back," he says. Mills recalls his shock at the words of a Union Pacific executive: "He said if we wanted to save that section, we'd have to buy the whole line. I gulped. that option had not occurred to me."

They worked out a price, and the group of investors took over. The train continued to carry some freight, and visitors came from Portland and around the country to enjoy a leisurely brunch or dinner and even murder mysteries and train robbery reenactments as they rolled through the countryside to Parkdale.

If the grant money comes through next June, the railroad can begin repairing the line. Meanwhile, Jack Mills says, the Mount Hood Railroad is in search of a like-minded new owner, "one who will appreciate what we do and not scrap the railroad out."

Today the railroad is become better-known for carrying visitors back in history than for carrying freight. A four-hour excursion though meadows and forests makes a stopover in historic Parkdale. Visitors can picnic and relax in a park with the snow-capped Mount Hood for a backdrop. The holiday "Polar Express" excursions sold out this year.

"When you ride the train to Parkdale, it is completely different from riding in a car," says local resident Sally Donovan, who helped document the extensive history that garnered the railroad, its depot, and the Parkdale site their spot on the National Register of Historic Places. "As you go along the river and through the absolutely beautiful orchards past the older homes, you really get a sense of what it used to be like."

- Catherine Fox for Preservation Online

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