Sumpter Valley Railway - Oregon Scenic Drives

Baker City
With the coming of the Oregon Rail-way & Navigation Co. (later becoming the Union Pacific) in 1884, it was possible to ship local products to distant markets. The vast stands of ponderosa pine attracted the attention of David Eccles and associates who planned to build a large sawmill in Baker City. To supply the mill, he incorporated the Sumpter Valley Railway in 1890. It was built in several stages, reaching farther into the mountains and opening up more timberland as the stands were cut out. The old grade is visible in places along Highway 7 as it follows the Powder River.

Boulder Gorge
This was a narrow gorge until the highway was blasted through years later. It was a favorite spot for photographers with the rugged scenery and the bridge spanning the waters of the Powder River.

The timberlands around this town were the first objective of the railroad and the rails ended here for 5 years.

Sumpter Valley Railroad Restoration
In 1971, a group of local citizens organized the restoration as a private, non-profit organization. The objective is to acquire, restore, and operate some of the old Sumpter Valley Railway equipment on a portion of the old mainline. Currently, operations extend 3 1/4 miles and additional track is being laid to Sumpter. Memberships and volunteer help are welcomed. Steam train rides are given from Memorial Day to the end of Sept. on weekends and holidays.

Gold was discovered here in 1862, but the boom came 30 years later with the opening of the hard rock mines and the coming of the railroad. Located in this old gold mining town is one of the large gold dredges that mined the valley and created the piles of gravel in its wake. It last operated in 1954 and now is located on private property. Please observe it from the highway.

Larch Summit
The railroad grade is visible for a short ways on either side of the pass above Highway 7. The maximum grade for the railroad mainline was 4 percent, not as steep as the present highway.

The SVRy rails reached here in 1901 and a sawmill was built in 1911. Visit the sign on the gravel road just off of the highway for more information about this town.

The old railroad grade can be seen on the south side of the highway on either side of the summit and in the meadow itself. This was an important departing point for the gold mines to the west in the Greenhorn area. A turning wye was located here along with a depot and several other buildings. A sign along the highway here tells of battling the winter snows with up to 7 locomotives pushing wedge plows.

The "S" Curves
The grade from Tipton to Austin was constructed using a series of "S" curves to lessen the steepness of the grade. This stretch is a popular hike with many of the original ties still in place.

This stage stop became a railroad center with the coming of the railroad. Several lumber mills were built in or near here and private branch lines radiated out into the timber stands.

A large sawmill and supporting town was built here in 1919. Logging railroad grades extended down the Middle Fork of the John Day River and up the side streams to supply the saws with logs. The field with the power poles was the town site and the mill was located along Bridge Creek just to the west. In 1964 the mill was torn down and many of the town buildings were moved to other locations.

Bridge Creek
The SVRy grade is visible in many places between Austin Jct. and Dixie Summit. The extension between Bates and Prairie City was the last portion built and the first to be torn up.

Dixie Summit
At 5,277', it was the highest point on the SVRy mainline. To maintain acceptable grades on the descent into the John Day Valley it was necessary to build 2 switchbacks just below the summit. The Forest Service has reconstructed the switchback on the south side of the highway and will soon install interpretative signs there.

Dads Creek
Below the switchbacks the grade looped back and forth along the ridges and hills, crossed Dads Creek on a high trestle, and followed Dads Creek to the John Day River. A portion of the old grade from the switchbacks to the vicinity of the Fireside Inn is visible from the highway. This is a nice walk if you have a few minutes.

Prairie City
In 1910 the SVRy reached its farthest point, 80.1 miles from Baker City. This was a major shipping point for cattle from the John Day country. The depot here has been restored and is now a museum and park. Exhibits here include pioneer ranching and railroad artifacts and a restored SVRy stockcar.

Published: 28 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


Sign up to Away's Travel Insider

Preview newsletter »