The train line

Matt Wood

Once a month I have the good fortune of dining with a group of distinguished local citizens who convene in order that they may discuss (or occasionally debate) important issues of the day. This jovial assemblage represents a true cross-section of local luminaries who are part of a club formed in 1933. At our last gathering, one of two special meetings a year when spouses are invited to attend, I was presented with an envelope from one of our more experienced members which contained a hand-written recollection of bygone days when the train connected Pendleton to the Walla Walla Valley and Wallula on the Columbia River.

I have a personal interest in the aforementioned subject because it is not only intriguing local history, it is also what brought my maternal ancestors to the Helix area more than 130 years ago. My great-great grandfather helped construct the rail line which, for approximately one hundred years, ran through Vansycle Canyon. He then took up a homestead claim near Ring Station (formerly “Canon” according to my 1893 “Arnold’s official map of Umatilla County”) and began growing wheat, an activity which my son and I and several other of J.P. Dorran’s descendants still pursue.

The railroad was an absolutely vital link to the world beyond Umatilla County in 1880s and for several decades thereafter. Grain and livestock from the area were shipped out to market while farm equipment, household goods, building material and too many other things to list were shipped in. It is also important to note that passenger transport was an important role played by the railroad. My grandfather used to tell about riding the train to town to visit relatives, purchase goods, or go to the doctor. Sometimes they would even take advantage of a sympathetic crew and board the train at a rural siding such as Ring Station without the official process of purchasing a ticket.

The Great Northern Railroad served a number of places, particularly grain elevators, which are mostly forgotten these days. After departing Wallula and travelling through the Touchet Valley, one could have enjoyed a scenic trip up Vansycle Canyon passing through places such as Ring, Vansycle, and Stanton. At Killian Junction a “Y” (or split) in the tracks presented an opportunity that Yogi Berra (who was quoted as saying “If you come to a fork in the road—take it”) would have appreciated. Turning east would mean you were headed to Athena via Hillsdale (later called Duroc), Grandview and Waterman—where the steam engine could, not surprisingly, take on water. My nonagenarian friend recalled that a good number of hobos would have opted for this route in search of work in the pea harvests around Athena, Weston, and Milton-Freewater.

If the traveler of yesteryear opted for the southern route, then you were headed for Pendleton via Helix, where for many years it served a flour mill, thence Warren (now called Myrick), McCormach, Fulton, and Saxe — whereupon the track paralleled Wildhorse Creek on its way to Pendleton and the Depot now occupied by the Historical Society Museum.

Over the years, I have collected or witnessed a number of things which recall the era of steam-powered trains. I have a book of blank grain warehouse tickets for Ring Station in which the date reads 191(blank) to be filled in by the warehouseman, namely my great-grandfather. While working on a neighbor’s shed I spied a packing crate marked with a destination of “McCormach Station”. I have a photo of Helix, circa 1914, with a wooden boxcar front and center labeled “Northern Pacific”. Examinations of windmill towers in the county reveal numerous places to which they were originally shipped including Ring, Vansycle and Nolin. Havana is not only the name of Cuba’s capital city—it was also the moniker given to a grain elevator once located between Adams and Pendleton. I have a friend who has a Coca-Cola vending machine which came out of the Duroc Elevator.

While riding the Sumpter Valley railroad a few years back, I briefly lamented that I was born in 1969 instead of 1869. However, given my inability to avoid manual labor, I probably would have just ended up shoveling coal or stacking sacks of grain and fighting with a hobo over a cup of soup from some gurgling, crackling cauldron in some train yard.

Matt Wood is his son’s hired man and his daughter’s biggest fan. He lives on a farm near Helix, where he collects antiques and friends.

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