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A Journey Aboard the Mount Hood Railroad in Oregon
As the misty white and gray blanket of sky covering the silvery Columbia River parted to reveal a glorious blue, the daily Hood River to Odell excursion train operated by the Mount Hood Railroad began picking up passengers from its historic depot.
Built in 1911 and now listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the Oregon and Washington Railroad and Navigation Company (OWR & NC) Craftsman-style depot replaced the original 1882 Queen Anne-style building and facilitated the town’s growth as a thriving orchard, timber and the tourism industry. The 120-passenger waiting room, considerably larger than most contemporaneous public spaces, contained a men’s smoking room and both women’s and men’s toilets. It has served as the headquarters of the Mount Hood Railroad since 1987.
Today’s addition to the train hauled by dark red, yellow and turquoise painted diesel-electric engine no. 02, included the 1056 “Lookout Mountain” open-air car, the 1080 snack car, the 1070 “Katharine” passenger car, and the 1040 caboose.
The initial jolt that signaled the tension of the car clutch was preceded by the almost imperceptible reverse slide of the train out of Hood River Station as it slowly climbed the gently sloping track past the dining car rolling stock and across the black wrought iron Hood River. bridge. The river, once the site of the Lewis and Clark expedition, looked like a dark green stream of life, whose white-exploded rock divisions, characteristic of the necessary deviations from life’s path and man’s protests about them, glittered in the sun.
Through denser vegetation, the track ran parallel to the river, whose small rapids turned the water into a raging white fury. National Forest Mt. Hood formed a density in the distance.
The Mount Hood Railroad basically came out of this forest. The Lost Lake Lumber Company, whose location in Columbia and Hood River initially provided a significant economic and employment contribution to the Hood River community, began to decline as the transfer of logs from the forest to the actual sawmill became increasingly difficult and final sale seemed the only profitable way out. Utah lumberman David Eccles, who bought the failing concern, advocated building a dam to facilitate timber transportation by log flotation, but three local businessmen thwarted the effort by quickly obtaining a 99-year lease on the proposed site and announcing the construction of their own 35 -meter facility for the production of electricity.
Eccles, who also used short logging lines to transfer lumber to his other sawmills, circumvented the countermeasure by moving the mill 16 miles upriver and laying a track to connect the two locations by railroad.
Construction of an eastern line that would route the nascent railroad through the area’s orchards would ensure its viability as a passenger and freight line, and a workforce of 150, living in six strategically placed camps, drove the first stake in April 1905. Seven months later, in November, the first locomotive reached the Hood River Bridge, and by February of the following year, a Japanese track-laying team had extended the line to Odell, the destination of today’s excursion train, 13.5 miles from its starting point. Dee, the site of the new sawmill, was reached a month later, although the eventual 22-mile section to Parkdale, the pass to Mount Hood, was not opened to the public until 1910.
The current diesel-electric engine was the ultimate design of the technology that ran on these rails, the first two locomotives were 37-year-old Baldwin Consolidation 2-8-0 units acquired by Union Pacific and retired in 1916 and 1917 and were periodically replaced by two similarly used units until the first newly acquired Baldwin 2-8-2 arrived.
The Mount Hood train, running on the track in May 2008, was slowing down and still moving in reverse, approaching a double-track switch that finally allowed it to pull its meager chain of cars forward. One of only five turntables left in the US, it originated as a record player. Since the original steam engines had to leave their steam emissions behind over their cabins and therefore always had to pull their cars in a forward direction, the turntable facilitated this earlier technology until the diesel engine replacement in 1950 eliminated its need. The original 13-car switcher was expanded to 18 cars when Union Pacific took over the railroad in 1968.
Engine 02, now ready to begin its ascent in the forward direction, in the direction of the car’s pull, resumed motion and broke through the thick pines of the Hood River Valley. Approaching Highway 35, the train followed a 14-degree curve, the sharpest line, crossing a wooden railroad trestle and paralleling Whiskey Creek, where cider was once produced. As it moved in a southerly direction, it was quite steep.
Vaulted ceiling concession car with period lamps; old-fashioned, wallpapered wooden sides; brass lamps; and wooden tables with two and four seats, a central bar with snacks and a counter. My purchased continental breakfast on the run at 10:00 a.m. included hot cinnamon rolls dipped in vanilla frosting and cranberry juice.
During the ten-year period between 1906 and 1916, the current tracks supported inter-model services when common rail cars were connected to a White-designed rail coach whose original wheels and tires were retrofitted with flanged steel units to accommodate rails. After purchasing a second, newly acquired sightseeing vehicle, the railroad operated four round trips between Hood River and Parkdale four times a day. The next 30-passenger Mack with a Pullman-like upholstered interior served for 13 years until 1935 when a fire destroyed it at Summit Station. An extensive renovation eventually earned it a place on the National Historic Register.
Today’s four-car train wound its way through peach and cherry orchards past carpeted hills, the base of which was woven with brown and green tapestries, proudly guarded on either side by tall, dark green sentinels of pine needles. The vintage train, occasionally piercing the late morning with its metal, hair-pulled whistle, rumbled through the town of Pine Grove, now 3.6 miles from Hood River at 608 feet above sea level, reeling and jingling on its longitudinal axis. The sky, barely marred by a few cotton clouds, turned an intense blue.
The smooth, inverted, bowl-shaped Van Horn Butte, beyond Pine Grove, was one of the small volcanic vents from which lava flowed to form Mount Hood, causing the Columbia River to move to its present more northerly location in Hood. River valley. Mount Hood itself, clad in its silky, dazzling white scarf of snow, rose before the locomotive.
Views from the dome of a caboose pulling three passenger cars revealed their spring reactions mimicking locomotives, as if forming a long iron tail piercing through the sometimes dense pine and orchard vegetation on the monorail toward the snowy mountain silhouette. The air, though crystal clear, smelled of burning wood far away. New Creek, which was used to power the first sawmill in the Hood River Valley and served in that capacity for a quarter of a century, went under the tracks. Mohr, 4 miles from Hood River, is named for the family that planted the area’s first orchard.
The Mount Hood train, following a single track that currently split into three, crept into the Lentz station, originally called the “Sherman Spur,” and disconnected its diesel engine. As he moved past the now motionless cars on the sideline, he reattached to the caboose. So configured, the train would push the last mile to Odell, its destination.
Pushed gently forward, the dark green passenger cars moved almost imperceptibly over the silver rails, supported horizontally by dry wooden cross-beams, passed the switch and rejoined the single siding. As the train regained speed, it clattered past the wood-scented wood into the crystal, pine-laced Pacific Northwest air toward the multi-shaded tapestry of green that blanketed the mountains and Odell, the end of today’s journey and once almost the end of the track.
When Diamond Fruit Growers centralized its operations in Odell and eliminated the section of track from Dee to Parkdale, Union Pacific Railroad estimated it could gain $150,000 in profit in exchange for its molten steel, a decision consistent with its 1986 strategy of 1987 on the divestment of 87 of its feeder railways. But Hood River County saw the move as nothing more than a loss for the railroad’s inability to continue making its economic contribution.
A newly formed railroad company, the Mount Hood Railroad, was touted as the successor to the Union Pacific, and stock was purchased by the fruit and lumber companies lining its route, which had significant stakes in its continued operation. Bus service from Parkdale, its terminus, also facilitated passenger travel to Timberline Lodge, a National Historic Landmark, allowing the railroad to connect two of Oregon’s top tourist attractions: Mount Hood and the Columbia River Gorge.
The Union Pacific takeover, however, carried one stipulation: the local Hood River Group, which wanted to keep service at the Dee-to-Parkdale end of the line, would have to buy the entire 22-mile line from Hood River or give up the possibility of keeping the railroad’s economic contribution in the valley.
After much effort, negotiation and capital, the purchase transaction was completed on November 2, 1947, and the Mount Hood Railroad, the concern I ride today, was born. Spinning its wheels with diminishing power, Engine 02 pushed its short, historic passenger car chain into Odell parallel to the concrete strip that served as its platform at 11:15 a.m., now 8.5 miles from its starting point at 712 feet above sea level. , and screeched its brakes just a few yards short of the main carriage built into the road.
Named after William S. Odell, who settled here in 1861 after traveling from California, the current one-street town with a small supermarket, church and gas station first served as a gathering place for Native Americans and was later used as a Hudson’s Bay Company route between The Dalles and Ft. Vancouver.
As I descended the three flights of stairs from the 1070 bus to street level, I looked back at the short line of open and closed cars and cabooses that had ferried me from the Columbia River today and somehow knew that this trip represented his century-plus geographic travel and the development of railroads. Operated by the Oregon and Washington Railroad and Navigation Company, the Union Pacific Railroad, and the current Mount Hood Railroad, the tracks carried lumber, freight, passengers, and tourists. The line was short, but its history is long. Like life, it will go on as long as a purpose is found for it. Unlike life, it could figure out what that purpose was.
As I walked off the platform toward the small town of Odell, with the majestic snow-capped peak of Mt. Hood rising triumphantly above the surrounding pines, I disappeared into the throng of people on the train.
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