Just as there are ghost towns in the West there are the ghost railroads that once served them. We have a couple of them here in Wallowa County. Across the West the spur lines that ran off the main lines have pretty much gone the way of the buffalo. As a 10-year-old kid I enjoyed counting passing boxcars while waiting at crossings or watching rail cars switched at the grain elevators. Placing pennies or bottle caps on the rails to be flattened by trains was also a form of amusement.
A 12-year-old friend of mine didn’t share my enjoyment of railroads. In fact he hated them and launched a vendetta against the one that ran through the town we lived near. It was about the size of Imnaha.
It started when Keith and I were riding our bikes and found the RR crossing blocked by a parked freight train. Rather than wait I dropped my bike and drug it under a boxcar to the other side. Keith followed suit but was a little late. His bike hung a peddle on a rail just as the clatter of hitches announced the train was leaving. In a panic Keith jerked on his bike but to no avail. The boxcar lurched forward and promptly cut his bike in half. His hatred was born.
Keith’s revenge started out modestly. Things like building a snowman in the tracks to watch the train smash it were the beginning. A westbound passenger train stopped every day near noon at the local unmanned station and passengers and freight got on and off. Keith noticed that the passenger car was always stopped closest to the station and the big steam engine was about 200 feet ahead. This became the starting point for his next prank. On cold spring days water poured on steel rails instantly froze. Keith found an old bucket, broke ice in the bar ditch and hauled a few buckets of water to the rails and poured a strip of ice about 50 feet on both rails about 40 feet in front of where the noon train would park. We all gathered to watch the fun. Much better than we anticipated. The train started out OK but when it hit the iced tracks lost traction and the big steel wheels spun and lost forward motion. The fireman finally had to sand the tracks to get the train on its way.
Keith was fairly creative and the next time iced only about 10 feet of track, skipped 20 feet and iced another 10 feet, skipped 20 feet and iced more. This caused the train to not lose total forward motion on the ice but when the wildly spinning drivers came off the ice and hit the clean rail the train lurched forward, lost traction again only to lunge ahead when it hit the second clear rail. This was great watching especially if you were watching the dining car with waiters falling and soup spilling.
I became a willing recruit to assist in the joy. The joy was sporadic as it was climate-dependent but on the days the weather conditions were favorable we were right there. The crowning achievement was when Keith decided to enlist a couple of others and we iced the tracks for about a quarter-mile starting before the station. When the noon train hit the ice it slid clear through the station, stopping with a jolt about 100 yards down the line, and couldn’t get traction to back up and passengers had to walk through snow to get on and off. That was too much for the railroad. The next day railroad police showed up and came to our one-room country school for an inquisition and put the fear of God into all the participants. No one cracked and confessed even with the threat of reform school but that was the end of the joy. Keith didn’t get his bike back but did get some revenge and sweet it was.
In random conclusion: I sometimes worry about my wife. The other day when the money came out of the ATM she started squealing, “I WON!, I WON!”
Open Range columnist Barrie Qualle is a working cowboy in Wallowa County.