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home : education : schools July 24, 2017

7/11/2017 10:43:00 AM
Railroad opened Central Oregon to commerce
Sign in front of Metolius Depot, which was purchased for $1 from Burlington Northern in 1983 by city leaders to save it from demolition. photo provided
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Sign in front of Metolius Depot, which was purchased for $1 from Burlington Northern in 1983 by city leaders to save it from demolition. photo provided

By Sue Stafford

The coming of the railroad to Central Oregon in 1911 opened the area to increased commerce, with the new rails providing a way to ship out the area's timber, wheat, and livestock to new markets and to bring people into the area.

Last week, we left the tour of the historic Harriman and Hill lines in Opal City, now only a sign along the track between the Crooked River Gorge and Culver. The tour traces the railroads from south to north, although the construction occurred from north to south, from the Columbia River south along the Deschutes River, up onto the plateau and into Bend.

The railroad was completed and first arrived in Culver on April 15, 1911, by which time the town had been moved from its original site near Haystack Butte, where in 1882, the first post office was established. Several more moves were made and the name was changed to Culver after O. G. Collver, who was appointed postmaster.

When news of the coming railroad reached Culver, it was decided to move the town once again to a location along the rail line and it was originally called Culver Junction. The move resulted in a bustling town that was temporarily named the county seat in 1914 when Jefferson County was carved out of Crook County. At one time, Culver was the largest wheat-shipping station in the country.

The old wooden depot still stands in Metolius, four miles north of Culver, and efforts are underway to make it a museum. German Methodists first settled Metolius in 1903. A railroad station and post office were established in 1911 when the Oregon Trunk railroad arrived in the area, bringing many new settlers. Metolius became the railroad division point, necessitating the construction of a round house.

According to the Crook County Journal of February 2, 1911, the steel for the track south of Metolius consisted of 8,000 tons of 90-pound rails to be used in mainline construction and 7,000 tons of 70-pound material for side and passing tracks.

West of Madras is a spot that exemplifies the competition between Hill and Harriman in their railway duel. A present-day bike path marks the route along Willow Creek of the Oregon Trunk line where it crossed under the Deschutes Railroad steel bridge and entered Madras. The Oregon Trunk line, abandoned in 1928, necessitated the creation of seven tunnels along Willow Creek. Located on the Deschutes Railroad trestle is one of the largest aqueducts on any Harriman line, used to irrigate the agricultural area of Agency Plains.

Hundreds of people came from all over Central Oregon on February 15, 1915, to "Madras. The Gateway to Central Oregon" to witness the track-laying machine of the Oregon Trunk Line connect Central Oregon to distant markets, hear speeches from dignitaries, and enjoy a barbecue.

From Madras, the track was laid to the south at about two miles a day until it reached the Crooked River Gorge, necessitating the construction of a bridge before the line could continue on to Redmond and Bend.

Standing on a hillside above Pelton Dam, one can see the cuts in the landscape where ties and rails once marked the Oregon Trunk Line that traveled along the Deschutes River before turning east up Willow Creek. Until 1928, there was a railway station where Pelton Park is now located.

Seven miles northwest of Madras, along the east bank of the Deschutes River, the Vanora station of the Oregon Trunk Line was established on August 6, 1911. The town was named for Ora Van Tassell (transposing the Van and Ora), a local farmer and real estate developer who owned the property where the station was established. A post office operated in Vanora from 1911 to 1920. At one time, the town had two stores, a grade school, a nonalcoholic saloon, a baseball field, and a grain warehouse. At the nearby Vanora Cut is evidence of the blasting of solid rock needed in some places to lay the track.

Rattlesnake Canyon, adjacent to Highway 26 in Warm Springs, was the site of a major Oregon Trunk trestle as the line approached Willow Creek. Saw mills were established to provide the lumber for the wooden trestle, which crossed the mouth of the canyon. Although the trestle is gone, vestiges of the old railroad grade are still visible from Highway 26 on either side of the canyon mouth.

Rainbow Tunnel, located behind the Rainbow Store on Highway 26 in Warm Springs, is the sole remaining tunnel of the eleven that were built by the railroad and was in use from 1910 to 1923. Constructed with a curve in it, it was used for potato storage and mushroom growing, without success, after the tracks were removed. It has been the site of numerous fires set by people using the tunnel for camping and partying.

From Rainbow Tunnel, there is a one-lane access road along the old railroad grade on the south bank of the Deschutes River that goes to Mecca, now a popular site for boaters and rafters to put into the river. When the Oregon Trunk Line followed the river, a depot, several houses, and a water tower were built in August 1911 at Mecca, so named because at this point the rail line finally started to get out of the steepest part of the Deschutes canyon.

The railroad also constructed a very steep and winding road, known as Mecca Grade, up south out of the canyon to Agency Plains, where the homesteads were located. The three-mile road, though very narrow, provided a way to get supplies and people between the railroad and the homesteads.

A bridge was built across the Deschutes at Mecca and a store, a post office, and another house were built. The post office was closed in 1924 when the Oregon Trunk abandoned the line. The Mecca Grade continued to be used until its closing by the county in 1939.

The Harriman Deschutes Railroad came from the north along the Deschutes River to a naturally eroded valley that provided a gateway to Central Oregon. William Blair was the first postmaster when the Gateway post office opened in March 1913. A railroad station and stockyards made Gateway an important shipping point for horses, sheep, and cattle. There was a lumberyard, a school, and two hotels.

During the Korean War, soldiers came through Gateway on the train on their way to and from the war. In 1954 the passenger service stopped due to the popularity of the automobile, with residents driving to Madras to shop. Freight shipping by truck eventually spelled the end of freight rail service in Gateway. The post office closed in September 1956 with mail service moving to Madras. Noah Vibbert's grocery store closed in 1964; the name is still faintly visible on the side of the building.

While in Gateway, we happened to meet a fifth-generation Vibbert who owns 5,000 acres of land around Gateway, accumulated from both sides of his family. His Danish ancestors came to the area in 1878 and his seventh-generation grandchild lives in the area today.

Trout Creek was the last stop on the history tour. Today it is a campground for drift boats and a pick-up point for rafters from Mecca. In the railroad building days, it was here the two lines split again after using the same line from North Junction to South Junction, further north on the Deschutes.

The Deschutes Railroad track ran up Trout Creek into the Gateway area and on to Madras. The Oregon Trunk followed the Deschutes River to Willow Creek where it turned at Pelton and followed the creek into Madras. They continued on two separate lines to Culver. The remaining single track south of Culver was operated jointly by the Hill-Harriman system, although it was built and owned by the Harriman interests, which is evident from the stone Harriman depots in Redmond and Bend.

A tour of the historic Central Oregon rail sites is a journey back in time to understand the important role the railroads played in the settlement and growth of the area. It also gives pause to consider the scope of the engineering feats it took to lay the track.

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