Catching A Train to Nowhere

In Eastern Oregon sits the small town of Elgin. Their many volunteers have gathered to purchase and preserve this stretch of the railroad and the vintage train that used to grace its tracks often.

The Joseph Branch is a 63-mile-long railroad that links the communities of Elgin, Wallowa, Enterprise, and Joseph in Northeast Oregon with the Union Pacific railroad in La Grande. In 1993, Union Pacific sold the Joseph Branch to Idaho Northern & Pacific as part of a package of rail lines in the area. Passenger service was prevented because the UP maintained the ownership of the right-of-way between La Grande and Elgin. By 1996, freight service to Joseph stopped. Abandonment of the line beyond Elgin was approved by the Surface Transportation Board in April 1997. See History for more information about the Joseph Branch.

I had the fortunate luck to purchase a ticket when I arrived in Eastern Oregon, as a way to see the sights without always having to drive. To learn about the area firsthand and take some awesome photos. During the first train ride, I was informed that this was open to the tourism board and since I worked for a local resort, I would have gotten the ride complimentary. Being gracious as most in this area have been, they offered me another ride, this time an upgraded dinner excursion to the two rivers.

My first ride….my very first time on a real train. I was just giddy! Like a little kid. Surrounded by my new colleagues and local business owners, I was able to learn so much about the area. During my second trip, I was able to capture some magical moments. A total of six eagles graced us with their presence. Along with an elk and several deer.

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Excursions: The scenic train business was established as the Eagle Cap Excursion Train. The first full season of operation for the excursion train was in 2004. The excursion train continued to provide scenic train rides on Mother’s Day and selected Saturdays, from late May through October on the roadless section of track between Elgin and Minam. The train operates from the Elgin Depot, 300 Depot Street, in Elgin, Oregon.

Equipment: During the days of steam engines, the Joseph Branch was limited to consolidation-type locomotives. As diesel-electric locomotives took over, early GP-type locomotives generally handled the trains. WURR has two such engines from the 1950s serving the line. Our Dining Car was built in 1947 for Great Northern as a coach car. It was sold to New Jersey Transit and was converted to a table car used by Cotton Belt. The Budd Car was built in 1938 for Santa Fe Railroad. It was sold to New Jersey Transit and then to the Cotton Belt. The Pullman Coach Car was built in 1947 for Illinois Central. The Baggage Car was built in 1962 for Southern Pacific. It carries the generator and offers open-air seats. All of these cars were eventually owned by Robert McClanahan, former Cotton Belt/Southern Pacific Superintendent. The cars were operated by the Cotton Belt and were also leased out to various tour operators. The cars were sold to Idaho Northern & Pacific Railroad in 1998 for use in Idaho and were sold to the Wallowa Union Railroad in 2003. All the cars have since received some level of refurbishment and their exteriors were painted in the fall 2014. The cars were subsequently named for area rivers. The three passenger cars are enclosed and equipped with air conditioning and heat, making operating across seasons comfortably.

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