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August 2002
Joseph short line rolls again 
By Elane Dickenson of the Wallowa County Chieftan

The sight of a train engine pulling 11 empty cars into Wallowa County across Minam bridge Saturday morning was a historic one.
It was almost seven years since a working train had entered the county, and almost never happened again.

The first working train to arrive in Wallowa County in seven years on its way to Wallowa Forest Products to pick up a load of lumber.

It was 7 1/2 years ago, in January of 1995, that Wallowa County announced it would fight Idaho Northern plans to abandon the 60-mile rail line between Elgin and Joseph. 

“We’re trying to buy time,” Wallowa County Commissioner Ben Boswell said then.

In the end, Wallowa County had to buy more than time. This year, after many times when the struggle appeared lost, the county 
bought the railroad in order to save it. Its partner in the deal is Union County, and backing the railroad puchase with guaranteed 
funds is the State of Oregon.

Despite detractors who continue to doubt that the railroad can ever be operated economically, the county persevered.

The long battle appears to have been won this week when the first working train to enter Wallowa County in seven years left with cars full of lumber from the Wallowa Forest Products mill.

“I’ll be even happier in a a year, when a half loaded railroad car is no big deal,” said commission chair Mike Hayward Monday during a celebratory barbecue at the Wallowa mill. Hayward spent many, many hours over the last couple of years negotiating a complicated deal that would be acceptable to the county board, the county taxpaxers, the railroad, Union County and the state.

“It’s cheaper than trucking,” said mill manager John Redfield about the resumption of railroad availability in Wallowa County. He 
estimates that 12-15 loads of lumber a week will be shipped by rail from the mill each week “from now on.”

One potential of the railroad is that logs now being trucked to the mill from places like Yakima and Ellensburg, Wash., can be brought in more cheaply by train.

Redfield said that Bowman Trucking of La Grande will still be kept busy hauling chips, and because of the recent addition of a second shift, will be almost as busy as previously when it also hauled lumber.

Hayward mentioned at an earlier that there are potential buyers for the closed Joseph Timber sawmill, and that Idaho Northern, which will operate the county’s railroad for the next year, is willing to extend operation from the Wallowa millsite to Joseph in the near future. He praised Idaho Northern’s work and cooperation in getting the railroad running again.

In the past, the possibility that the reopening of the Joseph mill could hinge on an operating railroad has been brought up at public meetings.

During a Wallowa County board meeting held Monday morning, the board discussed the proposed establishment of the railroad authority and the makeup of the board of directors, but action was postponed. Hayward said that he would like Wallowa County’s representatives on the board to not only have a passion for railroads, but to “bring something to the table,” either business or railroad expertise.

It was just over a year ago when a phone call from County Planning Director Bill Oliver about the need for a permit stopped a salvage crew that arrived from Montana, ready to rip up the railroad tracks first laid in 1908.

Part of Wallowa County’s past, the railroad has now survived to play a part in the county’s future.

Copyright 2002 Wallowa County Chieftan

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