Excursion train has banner year

Chieftain file photo The Eagle Cap Excursion Train makes a brief stop on one of its fall runs out of Elgin.

A total of 1,671 passengers boarded for one of the weekend rides, according to information disseminated at the annual meeting of the Friends of the Joseph Branch Dec. 2 at the depot in Elgin.

The group’s treasurer, Ralph Swinehart of Enterprise, reported $105,400 in revenue was received to put against a total of $76,000 in expenses. Much of the profit will go to Wallowa Union Rail Authority, which owns and operates the track on which the excursion train runs.

“This figure doesn’t include money spent on motels and restaurants in the area by riders,” Swinehart said. “It’s quite an economic engine.”

The authority was formed by Wallowa and Union counties in 2003 for future economic development potential to the region. In addition to the train, a railrider concession also operates seasonally on the line.

Each weekend ride has a theme, many of which resulted in sold-out crowds, according to Janet Dodson, who coordinates sales and marketing for the excursion train.

Among the more popular were the wine and cheese and the wine and chocolate events, as well as the “train robbery” adventures held later in the year.

The season kicks off with a Mother’s Day ride, for which tickets are already available, according to Dodson. A complete list of which themes will be part of next year’s schedule is expected to be posted around Jan. 1.

A number of “familiarization tours” were also hosted last year, including travel writers and photographers from around the country. Dodson said their work provides publicity it would otherwise be impossible for the friends to purchase.

For the first time this past year, the annual July 1 ride to honor and thank military service veterans was split into two rides. It was offered free to veterans, and more than 100 packed onto each of the runs.

A portion of the annual meeting was devoted to a discussion regarding recruiting additional members to the organization, especially those willing to volunteer for the weekend runs.

President Ed Spaulding as that the only limit to boosting the group’s success was having sufficient trained individuals willing to give up part of their weekend to serve as hosts in one of the vintage rail cars.

Annual training includes an all-day first aid and safety unit, taught by Dick Burch of Joseph.

Although the group began with more than 200 members in 2004, that numbers has dwindled to around 80. Several of the original members remain active in the group, including Swinehart, Bill Oliver and Linda Cassady of Enterprise.

Significant efforts are underway to maintain and improve the rail cars used on the train. Several need new wheels. Friends of the Joseph Branch are anticipating working to obtain used AMTRAK equipment for that purpose.

An authentic caboose has been obtained and returned to original condition. It will be added to the train in 2018.

Additional improvements in the condition of the track –– including major repair of the bridge at Water Creek –– will mean speedier and longer runs. The track travels between Elgin and Joseph, but only a portion outside of Elgin is used for the excursion train. Maximum speed is 15 mph on that sector.

The donation of two semaphore blades to be erected near the Elgin depot was also announced at the annual meeting. The depot also serves as a railroad interpretive center.

A dinner train fundraiser for February 2018 is under consideration. The excursion train dining car will be transformed with linen table clothes and vintage China to recreate a grand historic adventure passengers during the ‘30s and ‘50s might have enjoyed.

Food served will be from original recipes that have been unearthed during research.

The group is also planning a showing of “The Polar Express” 6 p.m. Friday, Dec. 15, at the depot. Admission is nonperishable food items for the food bank. Free popcorn and cocoa will be served.

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