The vision of a scenic excursion train running between Elgin and Joseph is one that inspires the group that calls itself Friends of the Joseph Branch.
Imagine traveling through some of the most scenic mountain country in Oregon at a leisurely pace in a train that features a dining car, a dining car, comfortable seats and other amenities.
If all goes well, a special run of that train could come before Christmas, with regularly scheduled trips next summer.
"It's extremely scenic, and it amazed me " said Ralph Swinehart of the route. He is a railroad booster and Friends member whose enthusiasm was sparked when he had a chance to take a high rail trip a couple of years ago. "When you leave Elgin and follow the Grande Ronde River to Rondowa ... you get a perspective that you would otherwise get only on a float trip. There's all kinds of wildlife."
Now 70 members strong and growing, the nucleus of the Friends began meeting a couple of years ago to support Wallowa and Union counties' effort to prevent the 60 miles of rail from being torn up as scrap. At one point in the summer of 2001 a salvage company had already started pulling up track before being halted for lack of a county permit.
This spring the two counties, backed by a $2 million grant and $4.5 million loan guarantee from the state, finally negotiated the purchase of the abandoned shortline from Idaho Northern and Pacific for $6.5 million. The counties formed the Wallowa Union Railroad Authority (WURA) and appointed a board of directors to manage the line. Idaho Northern agreed by contract to physically operate the short line through next May.
The two counties' main goal is to keep alive the railroad as a viable economic force, both for industry and tourism. Commissioners realized that once the track was pulled, the chances there would ever be another train running between Elgin and Joseph were very slim. Though the price paid, about $100,000 per mile of railroad right of way, seems expensive, it has been estimated that it would cost $1 million per mile to replace the track if it was removed.
Bob Casey, president of the Friends of the Joseph Branch and a former Eagle Cap Wilderness ranger, said he became interested in tourist trains after being transferred to Montana riding on one called Charlie Russell Chew Choo there. "It is so successful in Montana, I couldn't see why it wouldn't be in Wallowa County," said Casey, who retired and returned to the Enterprise area about four years ago.
This past week, at the request of WURA, the Friends of the Joseph Branch at a meeting in Enterprise started planning the inaugural scenic excursion, which will be both a fundraiser and a chance for supporters and interested persons to experience the trip first hand.
However, there were a number of uncertain factors - including the fact the three passenger cars are still parked in Emmett, Idaho - and the Friends placed a series of conditions on their agreement to organize and pay for the special trip.
The pace will be a leisurely 10-15 mph and take from four to six hours to complete, depending on how many stops there are. The three cars include a dining car, one with reclining seats and one with regular coach-type seating.
The railroad authority actually asked the Friends if it would be willing to organize three excursions over three days, and gave the weekend of Nov. 8-10 as "soft" dates.
The cost of the project would about $20,000 the group was told, with the understanding that it would have to bear the cost of the three-day run. With about 125 seats per day available on the three passenger cars that were part of the negotiated deal with Idaho Northern, the Friends agreed that about $100 would probably be the price tag for a seat on the benefit commemorative trip.
While the Friends agreed it would like to organize the run, members were concerned that they wouldn't be able to put together a quality trip plus market the tickets by Nov. 8.
Conditions placed on an early special excursion included that the train be permitted to load in Elgin (the right of way starts about a quarter of mile north of town); that the track to Joseph be opened; that Idaho Northern commits in writing to haul the cars on the date set or a penalty be charged; that the train cars be rail worthy and pass inspection by the Friends; and that they be accessible to the Friends.
The Friends of the Joseph Branch also agreed to require two months from the time all conditions are met to prepare and sell tickets for the special excusion trip, which means it would not take place until at least sometime in December.
Though they are eager to inaugurate the Elgin to Joseph run they have been envisioning for so long, the spectre of the first excursion train failing for some reason caused the Friends to be cautious. "If that happened, our name would be mud," said Vickie Correl of Elgin.
The Friends of the Joseph Branch are in the process of incorporating and applying for nonprofit status. Charter memberships will be available until the as-yet unscheduled first annual membership meeting by sending in $20 dues to Friends of the Joseph Branch, P.O. Box 997, Joseph OR 97846.