The Northwest Tour, organized by Motorcar Operators West meet coordinator Chris Baldo, is one of the hobby's premier events. This year's meet ran 701 miles on four railroads: Lake County (a.k.a. Nevada California Oregon), Blue Mountain, Cascade & Columbia, and the Idaho Northern & Pacific. Denny Anspach arranged the NCO as a bonus for those able get away early.
LAKE COUNTY RAILROAD
On Saturday 19 September, 14 cars set on the Lake County at the gravel pit (mp 510.5) south of Lakeview, OR. The NCO has a colorful history that includes operation as a narrow gauge until 1928. Today the track is used for two trains a week and may soon have more traffic as a lumber reloading operation is planned just north of our set on point. Departing at 10 AM under blue skies filled with cotton candy clouds, the group travels south across a wide flat valley just starting to show fall colors. Approaching Goose Lake we see lots of cattle grazing around the lakeshore. Ranch fences extend into the lake to keep the herds separated.
At 11 AM we stop at the Oregon / California state line park (mp 498) for a rest break. Crossing into California we see antelope grazing with the cattle, two bald eagles in a tree, a coyote running beside the track, and hundreds of Canada geese in the shallow water along the shore. At mp 496.3 the hull of a tour boat "Lady of the Lake" lays abandoned in the marsh.
At Willow Ranch (mp 491) is a small lumber mill and abandoned sawdust burner. At this point, rolling along at about 24 mph, we can see only the lake in front and behind us. The still water mirrors the hills, grass, trees and puffy clouds. The reflection is so perfect that I look up into the sky to see if our motorcars are mirrored there. A mile later the radio cracks out the warning of a cow on the track. Startled by our speeders, the cow wiggles between two strands of barbed wire and back into the pasture.
At the Davis Creek crossing (mp 478.6) the proprietor of a nearby deli meets us. He has our lunch orders. Moving again we are south of Goose Lake. My notes read: red lava rock ballast, entering another wide valley, both dry and irrigated farm land, Hwy 395 on the left, wave to the automobiles, good track speed, scenery is a mix of hills, trees, and pastures. At mp 462.9 we stop next to the California Agriculture Inspection Station, turn our cars on the Hwy 76 crossing, and tie up for lunch at 1 PM. The end of the Lake County line and UP interchange is five miles south of us at Alturas, CA. Our return trip is just as scenic with set off at 4 PM.
Sunday is a travel day to Walla Walla, WA with set on at 4 PM next to the Comfort Inn where we're all staying. The group gathers for dinner at Jacobi's Caf‚ located in the former Northern Pacific Railway depot built in 1914.
BLUE MOUNTAIN RAILROAD
Twenty-one cars depart Walla Walla (mp 47) at 8:20 AM Monday 21 September following Track Inspector Sean O'Brien in the hi-rail. There are several busy crossings in town; we clear the last one at 9:00 AM and head south toward Weston, OR. The Blue Mountain RR is made up of former UP branch lines. Due to the age of the track and a FRA order, our speed is held to 10 mph on the Weston Branch.
This area of eastern Washington is rolling farm country that creates a patch quilt of mostly gold and brown colors. We motor through harvested fields where wheat, barley, peas, onions, and alfalfa grew this summer. At mp 41.7 we cross the state line into Oregon and push on to Spofford where a sign on the grain elevator says "If you spill grain, clean it up." A hawk glides overhead as irrigation pipes water some fields. The open car in front of me stops to wait for a sprinkler head to slowly ratchet its' stream of water off the tracks.
After a rest stop in Milton-Freewater (mp 36.1), the group continues south on track that's a combination of straighaways and sweeping curves bending along rolling hills. A nine-mile long two- percent grade begins at Barrett (mp 33.1) and ends in a spectacular (199 degrees) horseshoe curve between mp 26 and mp 25. The tail end of our group is visible half a mile across the curve as they pass an old grain elevator and traverse a wooden trestle. At mp 21.7, with the Smith Frozen Foods plant in Weston visible not quite a mile away, we turn our cars under the Hwy. 11 overpass and return north to the top of horseshoe curve for lunch at 12:15 PM.
After lunch we stop for photos next to the grain elevator at the bottom of the hill. The 10-mph pace has put us behind schedule. In addition to not going all the way into Weston, Chris Baldo decides to also skip the afternoon break at the hotel to make up time. Back in Walla Walla at 3:00 PM we take the west leg of the wye (mp 30.1 / 46.8) and head west on the Wallula Branch.
This section of track is in much better condition, and after a few small street crossings, we make a respectable 20-mph. The rail parallels Hwy. 12 running west across a flat valley. My notes read: Whitman (mp 24) at 3:25 PM, gold harvest colors and smell of new plowed earth, a car is taken into tow at mp 20.5, grain elevators at Lowden mp 19.4, sun is low and in our eyes, tracks ahead gleam like silver, arrive Touchet (mp 15.1) at 4:05 PM. Here we turn our cars, have a rest stop, and buy snacks at the Texaco market. At 4:35 PM we start back east the 15 miles to Walla Walla and tie up for the night next to the motel at 5:40 PM.
On Tuesday 22 September we back out of our siding at 8:00 AM to the Dayton Branch switch and head north. Our destination is the oldest existing railroad depot in Washington State, thirty-eight miles away at Dayton, built in 1881. Our mileage markers reflect the mixed history of this branch; they first count up from 47 to 71 as Northern Pacific numbers, then reset to zero at Bolles and again count up as Union Pacific numbers to the wye (mp 14.1) past the Dayton station.
As we pass through golf course north of town we create a distraction for golfers on tees and greens next to the track. By 8:20 AM we enter open farm country. At Valley Grove (mp53.6) Caterpillar tractors drag wide plow/harrow combinations up and down the rolling hills preparing for winter wheat. Track speed is 20 mph allowing the cars to work a bit on the hills climbing 700 ft in altitude by Dayton.
Our first stop is Prescott mp 66.7. This small town with a farm co-op, restaurant and a few other small stores is a microcosm of the economy here: it's in trouble. The international price of wheat is at historic lows. Rather than sell at such prices, the grain is being stored awaiting a recovery. The elevators here are full and two large piles of wheat, covered with canvas, are overflow.
Rolling again at 9:45 AM we make good time on straight track parallel to Hwy. 124. At Waitsburg the main line has a broken rail joint at a highway crossing; we detour through the grain elevators on the siding. There are signs "Impaired Clearance" meaning the distance between a hopper car and the elevators is only inches; any trainman riding on a car ladder should get off! We encounter two spring frogs in this area. MOW rules say a car can be operated at 1 mph or preferably pushed through spring frogs. Despite such care, one car derails without injuries and is quickly re-railed.
We arrive in Dayton at 11:30 AM, but the wye is blocked by a stolen abandoned pickup truck. We turn on a crossing next to the station and tie up for lunch. The depot is filled with railroad memorabilia, local turn-of-the-century furniture, and a photo exhibit. Upstairs is the stationmasters' spacious living quarters that include a bay window and porch mirroring the public area below. Several stores in town are interesting: the 50's dinner with Buddy Holly's bus and the hardware store with a great exhibit of old tools on the walls.
Departing at 1:00 PM the group is back in Walla Walla with one car in tow at 3:45 PM. Using two crossings for setoff, we're all quickly on our way to East Wenatchee.
CASCADE & COLUMBIA RIVER RAILROAD
On Wednesday 23 September twenty-one cars began the first of three days on the Cascade & Columbia River Railroad. From our set on point at Rocky Reach Dam (mp 7.8) above Wenatchee we will travel north 84 miles to Okanogan on Wednesday, go another 44 miles north on Thursday to the end of the line at Oroville, and return south 128 miles to Rocky Reach on Friday.
As this is the first time speeders have operated on Railamericas' CCRRR, and not sure what to expect from us, General Manager Charlie Moore provides four railroad track workers as flaggers and personally accompanies us all the way. The result is the most generous hospitality that I have ever seen from a railroad! MOW members get to know Charlie and the crew including road master Buck Workman, whom turns out to be quite an authority on the roads' history.
Leaving Rock Reach Dam at 9:15 AM we run north following the west side of the Columbia River. Behind the dam is a small marina. Cool air blows off the water that reflects the mountains and green shore as Canada Geese float on the river that really looks like a lake. After only a few short miles we realize that this is some of the best track we ever get to ride on. The ties are strong, the rail straight and "not a rock of ballast is out of place." Further north we'll find welded rail in two, five, and even seven-mile sections. At mp 22.8 is Earthquake Point where the cliff fell into the Columbia in 1880 blocking all river navigation.
Past Entiat (mp 20.4) we start to see the many bountiful orchards that are the reason the Great Northern built this line in 1913. Goosetail Orchard at mp 28 looks like a family business occupying both sides of the track. The trend today is centralized packing with names like Custom, Trout, Blue Chelan, Paulson, Tree Top, Dole, BeeBe, Mepa, Maji, Crisp & Spicy, Brewster Heights Packing (BHP), Regal, Taplett Fruit, Dove, Gold Digger, Oro, Keystone, Blue Bird, Big Creek, Chief Tonaset, Star, and Cashmere. It is a shame that not one of these packers ship by rail. The Cascade & Columbia River Railroad carries mostly wood chips and other lumber products.
The only tunnel (397') on the line is at mp 35.2. Arriving at Chelan Falls (mp 37.7) with one car in tow, we stop for lunch. The afternoon ride takes us past the Wells Dam and on to Pateros (mp 58.9) where we meet the southbound freight at 1:20 PM. Coming into Pateros we cross two bridges and can see, around the sweeping curve of the river, the two lead power units of the freight just stopping in the yard. It's exciting to meet a train; this meet is doubly exciting because we're arriving at the same time. For safety we stop next to the freight, exit our cars and stand back 50 feet before the line of wood chip hoppers move out.
The day is warm and pleasant and not over yet with 30 miles still to go! My notes read: 2:30 PM Chief Joseph, mobile homes being used as dorms for apple pickers, deep space antenna at mp 71, photo op of group on one hundred year old bridge mp 77, Malott at 3:40 PM on CWR, stopwatch miles as fast as 25, small farms and orchards, radio reports the group is spaced out over a 1.25 mile length. We arrive at Okanogan mp 92, back into a siding and tie up at 4:15 PM. No King of France in a gold carriage ever had a better ride than we have today.
After checking into our hotel, a shuttle bus is available for touring or a trip to the nearby Indian casino. In the morning we visit the Okanogan Historical Museum with its' pioneer sod house and early farm implements such as a double bottom plow and a hog oiler.
On Thursday 24 September departing Okanogan at 11:10 AM we arrive at the CCRRR main office in Omak (mp 95.6) just 15 minutes later. Just past the office is one of the large lumber and wood chip operations served by the railroad. By 12:15 PM we're at mp 101; storm clouds tell us rain is coming. At Barker a light rain starts and we push on past Janis to Tonasket (mp 120.2) for a lunch break at 1:30 PM. The scenery is orchards on both sides of the river. At mp 124 we pass empty white cottages meant for migrant pickers. Apple prices are down and there are rumors that many orchards won't be harvested this year. At mp 135 the railroad shunts two crossings, we use the wye and back down to the end of track (mp 135.7) at Main Street in Oroville.
Dinner and breakfast is catered by the local service clubs in the relocated and restored Great Northern Depot. A genuine feeling of camaraderie has developed amoung the group. At dinner there are several speeches, but one remark by CCRRR Gen. Mgr. Charlie Moore stands out in my mind. He tells us we are "So lucky to allow a little piece of railroad equipment to make you friends."
Friend Don Piercy strolls in the door just as dinner starts. He's come from Seattle to ride south with us to Wenatchee. So 22 cars depart from Oroville at 8:00 AM on Friday 25 September under overcast skies.
At mp 131 the old irrigation flume is visible along the hills. Light rain makes the tracks slick and we space out for safety. A rail fan in an old cherry red pickup follows the group most of the morning. The railroad flaggers are out again today; on one blind crossing at the end of a rock cut I'm particularly glad to see them. By Barker at mp 110 around 10 AM the weather is sunshine with crisp fall air. Around 11:00 AM we stop again at Omak. Several people take the opportunity to inspect the engine house where the third locomotive is being serviced.
The next two hours epitomize the best of our hobby. The weather is warm with high billowing clouds, our speed is steady, the air is fresh with the smell of new cut hay, much of the rail is welded, crossings are protected, the scenery is farms tucked into the hills, and the river is smooth as a reflecting pool.
The billowing clouds start to sprinkle on us. By the 1:10 PM stop in Pateros (mp 58.9) heavy rain starts. We wait out the downpour in our car then hurry into a track side cafe‚ for lunch. Moving again at 2:40 PM the rain has stopped, the air is clean and fresh, everything glistens. We arrive at the setoff point Rocky Reach Dam at 5:30 PM. Everyone is safely off the track and clear by 6:00 PM. It's time to say goodbye to friends not going on to Idaho.
IDAHO NORTHERN & PACIFIC RAILROAD
Ten cars set on the Idaho Northern for our longest day of the tour Sunday 27 September. The IN&P is an old hand at hosting motorcar events. Our escorts Gen. Mgr. Bob Adams and Foreman Gary Orr greet us as old friends. This road was built as a branch line of the UP primarily to serve the lumber industry between Boise and Cascade. Always known as "one of the most spectacularly beautiful branch lines," the IN&P today is running tourist trains as well as lumber and wood chip freight.
Departing Emmett (mp 26.9) for Cascade at 7:30 AM we run uphill 72 miles while climbing nearly 2400 ft in altitude. The scenery starts out as rolling hills but soon turns into a narrow wooded canyon with a rushing stream fast by the rock shelf cut for the rail bed. There are four tunnels on our route today; the first is Tunnel #2 (the longest at 414') next to the Black Canyon Dam. Above the dam I see a Heron in a marshy area. We have been traveling east, but at Horseshoe Bend (mp 49.7) the track turns north. The air is crisp, the sun just touching the top of the canyon walls; our uphill speed is 25 mph; all this makes for another fine day on the railroad!
At Banks (mp 63.9) steep grades of 2 to 2.5 percent begin and last until Smiths Ferry (mp 82.7) where a footbridge from Hwy. 55 provides access across the river. At Cabarton (mp 93) the rail emerges from the woods into a high country valley where grazing cattle are a hazard on the track. Recently ballasted straight track carries us into Cascade where we turn on a crossing, back down next to the tourist train, and tie up for lunch at 11:45 AM.
The afternoon run downhill is warm with high clouds and bright sunshine. Now filled with light, the canyon takes on a new look from this morning; holly berries provide the only color amoung the evergreens. We stop at Tunnel 5 (37' long) for a group photo. Further downhill along the river fall colors of yellows, reds, and browns are starting to show. There are kayaks and rafts shooting the rapids in the river.
Back at Horseshoe Bend we make a quick stop at 3:30 PM. As we approach Black Canyon Dam jet skiers are taking advantage of the smooth water. The radio warns of a young couple walking through Tunnel #2 ahead. We arrive in Emmett at 4:35 PM. Three cars setoff leaving seven for the run west to dinner at Fruitland 24.6 miles away. The track to Fruitland is mostly straight and the crossings at Letha and New Plymouth easy to handle. Farms in this area have onions, beets, and some cattle. Our escort sets a good pace and we follow eager for a steak dinner.
After dinner we gather in the chill air for a night run back to Emmett. I think a night run is the most fun you can have in a motorcar and tonight I'm the lead car behind the hi-rail! Chris Baldo conducts a safety meeting. We are briefed to space out and allow plenty of stopping distance. We will keep our speed down such that we don't "overdrive" our headlights. Everyone with radios will go to the railroad frequency and monitor the escort's transmissions. We are to watch for automobile lights on the left and right when approaching a crossing. Each car will flash its' brake light to signal road crossing locations for the cars behind. As the lead car I do one additional thing: I turn my flashing roof strobe on when approaching a crossing and off immediately after the crossing. Someone several cars in front of me did this on my last night run and I found it very helpful.
The ride back to Emmett is almost uneventful. Approaching Letha the radio cracks out "Cows on the left!" I immediately knock the throttle down and start braking. Sure enough two Black Angus steers step onto the track between the hi-rail and me. I have plenty of time to stop. As we approach Emmett the guy behind me breaks down with an electrical problem. Not wanting to have a car that has no lights pushed in the dark, Chris directs me to back up to the last crossing and take the dead car under tow. Of course, I think all this is great fun! We're back in Emmett and set off by 9:30 PM.
This day on the Idaho Northern is the perfect end to the most outstanding tour I've ever been on. Kudos go to Chris Baldo for organizing the event and teaching us at every turn how to do it safely. Thanks especially to all the railroads and their personnel for hosting the 1998 MOW Northwest Tour.