About 30 "speeder" rail motorcars and their 60 or so occupants descended on Wallowa County over the Alpenfest weekend, traveling from Elgin to Joseph on the Wallowa Union Railroad Authority tracks, bringing stares from both people and livestock.
"Speeders" are a type of railway vehicles used at one time to haul railroad workers to different areas -- mainly for track maintenance. Railroads phased them out in the 1980s
After a brief introduction to the fascinating world of speeders through Enterprise citizen, Linda Casady, the Chieftain accepted an invitation to ride. Riding with Casady and Joseph resident, Jane Glesne, we arrived in Minam in plenty of time to hitch a ride with one of the speeders.
We also talked to members of the Friends of the Joseph Branch Organization, who run the Eagle Cap Excursion Train. Several members volunteered to help with the journey, flagging down traffic or preparing crossings by sweeping the tracks.
Rick Smith, a retired electrician from California, offered us a ride on his nicely appointed Fairmont A4E speeder, a common model. The car could easily seat four, but Smith is carrying some luggage from another car.
Smith is pleasant and patient with questions. He thinks the railroad is in his blood.
"My grandfather was a railroad engineer, and I'm pretty sure that's where I got it," he said. A long-time member, Smith is on his third speeder.
The vehicles can cost from $4000-$8000. Cars vary by size and amenities. Some can be a little primitive: not being enclosed by metal or have a heater, for example. The cars most often harbor four horsepower gasoline motors although larger ones exist, some with diesel engines.
The activity has become so popular that clubs have formed over the years with members often buying and restoring vintage speeders and searching for railways that will allow them to pursue their hobby.
One such group, the North American Rail Car Operators Association, has more than 1400 members nationwide. Motorcar Operators West, of which this group is a member, is an affiliate of NARCOA and as the name implies, members come from western states.
Not just anyone gets to drive a speeder. Operators must be certified by NARCOA. Smith said that in all his years of participation, he's seen only one wreck, and that happened on a rainy track when a car didn't give itself enough room to stop before lightly hitting the car in front of it.
No such danger exists on this trip as all cars are very careful to wave red railroad flags out their window when a slowdown is approaching.
Although it was relatively cold and windy when we first arrived, the wind subsided to the proverbial roar and the sun did a nice job of warming up Smith's car, which was about in the middle of the pack.
As we pull out to cross the road at Minam, it's a slow process, and traffic creates a long line behind the crossing. Once we get going, everyone relaxes and the car travels between 15-20 mph depending on the nature of the track.
Conversation is plentiful but hard to hear unless you're sitting next to someone. The ride is relatively noisy with the "clack-clack" of the wheels rolling over sections of track, surprisingly right in time with the lead guitar of Scotty Moore on Elvis' "Mystery Train."
We make several leg-stretching and bathroom stops along the way. The speeder caravan has two cars, including Smith's, that tow porta-potties for the benefit of riders. The facilities have their own separate and very small flatbed cars to which the cargo is surprisingly tightly fastened and never shows danger of tipping over.
During the journey, Smith tells of the railways he's ridden all over the West, including California, Idaho, Nevada, Oregon, Washington, etc. As speeders are intent on getting miles under their belt, Smith said Oregon is one of his favorite places. This round-trip journey will get him in the 170-mile realm. His favorite, the Coos Bay, offers more than 230 miles.
The trip lasted more than three hours with Smith's speeder reaching speeds of up to about 28 mph. Pit stops in Wallowa and Enterprise as well as road crossings and some trestles probably make for an average speed of about 15 mph.
The tracks are obviously in need of repair for an actual locomotive to steam across them, but the journey by speeder makes for a more pleasant run. Speeder passengers have the opportunity to drink in parts of the county previously hidden from view.
Dave Balestreri is a MOW director and led the group. He noted that the organization doesn't utilize railways for free. The group paid out $3000 to the Wallowa Union Railroad Authority for the use of the tracks. Local businesses also benefited as well, as all the participants ate, slept and spent their money in Wallowa County from the evening of Friday, Sept. 27 until they departed in the morning hours of Sept. 29.
After what virtually every member described as an idyllic weekend, they gathered at the Joseph silos off of Russell Lane, swept the snow off their cars and started the engines. Nearly all the participants said they were sorry to leave. Surprisingly, most named the town of Joseph as the favorite part of their visit for the amenities it offers.
The cars carefully backed down the siding and onto the main line before departing for Elgin beneath the snowy slopes of Mt. Chief Joseph. No one looked back. After all, most said they'd be returning.