CORBETT, Ore. — Some getaways are as close as your own backyard, and I recently met a couple who can prove it. Gary and Jonette Lee share a love affair with Oregon’s railroading past and they bring it to life in their backyard near Corbett, Ore. each summer.
When the train whistle blows near Sumpter, Ore. one thing’s for sure: adventure isn’t far behind.
“Last call! Train Number One to Sumpter departing in five minutes,” shouted Sumpter Railroad conductor Daniel Bentz.
The young man strolled across the wooden planks of the McEwen Depot and played his part well in a period costume and a full-on character performance.
“So hurry and buy a ticket and then step aboard the 'Stump Dodger' because even a century later, this railroad is always on time," Bentz continued.
Up to four times a day, Baker County’s Sumpter Valley Railroad makes the twelve mile round trip run from McEwen Depot to Sumpter.
It’s a railroad that reaches back to the early days of settlement in Northeast Oregon, according to the railroad’s operations manager, Taylor Rush.
“The railway meandered in and out of every canyon throughout the Sumpter Valley as it followed the timber line in the 1880’s," Rush said. "In those days they said the railroad engine would dodge the stumps as it crawled up into the mountains and that name just stuck."
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“The original purpose of the railroad was to haul logs down to mills in Baker City where they were cut and hauled out across the nation," added Bentz. "But the railroad also hauled regular goods, passengers and during cattle season there would be long stock trains heading down to the valley."
These days, tourists have replaced the cattle and timber. Folks travel here from all over the country to escape the city hubbub, settle in for a slower pace and also learn more about Baker County‘s past.
There’s no doubt about it — the Stump Dodger connects you with Oregon’s past; and it turns out some folks just can’t get enough.
“It was back in time – just at the end of steam locomotion that I remember these great big behemoth locomotives roll by at a shattering pace and make all the glass windows shake,” said longtime railroad enthusiast Gary Lee.
Lee fell in love with trains as a boy. Decades later, he’s the chief conductor and owner of his own Baker & Grande Ronde Railroad.
“I’m fascinated by the old west and how the railroad played such an important part in the development of it," Gary said. "There’s something romantic about a train."
It’s a “romance” that he shares with his wife, Jonette Lee. Over the past 20 years, the two have transformed their Corbett, Ore. backyard into a narrow-gauge scale railroad that chugs across a make-believe Eastern Oregon.
“I sculpted all the hills and forests and other stuff,” said Gary. “As fast as I would do that she came along behind me, planting ground covers and grooming the garden for our very own railroad."
“We were novices, and we didn’t know much about a garden railroad," Jonette added. "So, we mostly used plants that were forgiving — especially when it came to watering. It’s really lots of different ground covers, like herbs with nothing really over six inches tall. It all has to be to scale just like the trains."
The work never ends, either. Gary spends all winter indoors putting together buildings, rail equipment and new track so he can spend all summer outdoors adding them to his railroad layout.
As many as seven trains can run on the 900-foot-long hand-built, hand-laid track, and Gary’s real joy comes from sharing it with young and older visitors alike.
His goal is to make it all look as realistic as possible and it’s impressive work too. For example, it took him a year to build the 22-foot-long trestle that climbs to the top of his Grande Ronde River Canyon.
Gary attributes his railroading passion to younger days with a dad who took his son to see the big trains roll across Oregon.
Today, those times fuel enough memories to last a lifetime on a railroad where imagination travels.
“You know, just a hundred years ago it was the most advanced technology available to us in the west. There were few roads and most often the only way you could get around was by rail," Gary said. "That fascinates me! It’s my inspiration!"
Be sure to follow my Oregon adventures via the Grant’s Getaways Podcast. Each segment is a story-telling session where I relate behind the scenes stories from four decades of travel and reporting from across the Pacific Northwest.
You can also learn more about many of my favorite Oregon travels and adventures in the Grant’s Getaways book series, including:
- "Grants Getaways I," Photography by Steve Terrill
- "Grant's Getaways II," Photography by Steve Terrill
- “Grant’s Getaways: 101 Oregon Adventures,” Photography by Jeff Kastner
- “Grant’s Getaways: Guide to Wildlife Watching in Oregon,” Photography by Jeff Kastner
- “Grant’s Getaways: Oregon Adventures with the Kids,” Photography by Jeff Kastner
The book collection offers hundreds of outdoor activities across Oregon and promises to engage kids of any age.