The railroad came to Heppner with a bang in the 1880s, and left with a whimper more than 100 years later. It left in its wake a host of stories - some funny, some sad, some plain inexplicable.
Fortunately, they live on in the citizens of Heppner, many of whom are staging the story of the railroad, "Rails, Riches and Rejection," Saturday in front of the Morrow County Agriculture Museum, located at the corner of Riverside and Hinton streets, Heppner.
The event begins with dinner at 6 p.m., with the play following at 7 p.m. Tickets for both dinner and the play are $20 and can be purchased at the Bank of Eastern Oregon, Community Bank, the Heppner Chamber of Commerce, Heppner TV and Murray Drugs. In case of inclement weather, the event will be moved to St. Patrick's Catholic Church, 525 N. Gale St.
"Rails, Riches and Rejection" tells the tale of a schoolteacher, Marion Good, who arrived in Heppner in 1935. Young and homesick, Good runs into a local "mover and shaker," Thomas Ayers, who tells her the fascinating tale of when the railroad came to town. He also introduces Good to her future husband, Jerry Brosnan.
The play hits on several generations of Heppner history, ending with the railroad's departure in 1993. Doris Brosnan, Jerry Brosnan's daughter-in-law, is directing the play. It's the latest offering of the Dinner-at-the-Cemetery Players, who began dramatizing Heppner history in 2002.
The first play involved actors standing near prominent town founders' graves and reading from their letters, diaries and other documents. The group staged their drama as close to June 14 as possible, in order to commemorate Heppner's devastating 1903 flood.
"It was interesting," Brosnan said. "The wind blew and it was cold. The lanterns wouldn't stay lit."
Still, the performance garnered rave reviews. The group has produced a play just about every year since, all based on historical facts. One year, they researched court archives and dramatized the most sensational court cases in Heppner's history. There was murder, prostitution, and a runaway juvenile delinquent. Another year, they did a "Founding Day Celebration" complete with colorful characters from the past, such as the Temperance Lady.
"Usually, we just get a hare-brained idea and go with it," said Sharon Harrison, one of the producers of "Rails, Riches and Rejection."
This year's play is the biggest production yet, featuring more than 30 Heppnerites. Many characters are played by relatives or people who knew them. Life-long Heppner resident Katherine Hoskins actually appears in the play as the baby in a family that takes the train to Portland - a long and arduous journey in the early years.
Steve Rhea is playing his great-grandfather, Columbus "Lum" Adolphus Rhea, who was the first white settler on Rhea Creek. Rhea started out as a rancher and later founded the First National Bank of Heppner.
"There is a lot of history here," Steve Rhea said, referring to the cast.
The play is spiced with scenes such as the courtroom drama of Lars Larson vs. the railroad. Larson was a settler in Lexington who didn't take too kindly to the railroad edging him out of the mail delivery business, so he started coating the tracks with hog grease. When the train hit the grease, it lost traction and would nearly come to a stop. Then one day Larson greased the tracks for a mile. When the train came to a grinding halt, strong words and gun powder cartridges were exchanged. Larson sued the railroad for attempted murder, and the railroad sued Larson for obstructing their business.
The play also should draw some laughs. City Manager Dave DeMayo and his wife, Neva, play a couple on a train who witness a robbery. When the sheriff is shot in the leg, Neva yells, "Sheriff McDuffy, let me look at that wound!" while her hapless husband, searching for a bandage, pulls out a pair of bloomers.
"What's interesting is the way they have the main characters and then use flashbacks to tell the entire history of the railroad," Neva said. "It's quite innovative."