Tuesday, September 30, 2008
Riding the Narrow Gauge
Up in the high country southwest of Baker City, OR lies the little town of Sumpter. The village was founded in the 1860’s when prospectors on their way to California found out they actually didn’t have to go any farther to find gold—& Sumpter was afterwards primarily a gold mining town with a narrow gauge railroad (mostly used for the local timber industry). As technologies for extracting & processing the gold improved, the town grew, & as often happens in such cases, became a real boomtown, & was nicknamed the Queen City.
Unfortunately, the town burned down in 1917—a fire started in a hotel kitchen & burned down the equivalent of 12 city blocks. This was the “bust” that happens to most boomtowns, & the “Queen City” was dethroned, as it were, though the gold mining did continue in the area with the use of large dredges, one of which is preserved in a State Park locally. The most recent dredge was in operation until 1953.Nowadays, Sumpter is known—& not very widely, at that—for two things: its Labor Day flea market, in which the whole town turns into one gigantic yard sale, & the Sumpter Valley Railroad, the remnants of the old narrow-gauge line that once ran from Baker City to Prairie City (around 80 miles). Now it runs a 5-mile stretch between Sumpter & McEwan.Our connection to the Sumpter Valley Railroad goes as follows—back in the summer of 05, Eberle & I were making preparations to get hitched—we’d been together for several years at this point, but had decided to “make it legal.” This was all very much on a shoestring—we figure that (with lots of help from lots of friends) we did the whole wedding (a small ceremony in our garden, followed by a big party a couple of weeks later) for around $300. No, I didn’t forget any zeros on that figure—try that on Whose Wedding Is It Anyway? or Wedding S.O.S. The ceremony was sweet, & the party was a blast. We even had a late night Northern Lights show—one of the best I’ve seen, even including my 25 plus years in Vermont; it wowed the dozen or so diehards who were still at it in the wee hours—including, I’m happy to say, Eberle & I.
But that’s another story. Anyhoo, during that summer I got a call one day from a very nice woman who represented the Sumpter Valley Railway & who, it seemed, was determined to have Five & Dime Jazz (i.e., Eberle & me) play on their Labor Day excursion train. However, the wedding was to take place on Friday, & she was asking us to play on Saturday. My first impulse was to turn this down; so I tried to explain to her: 1. We don’t play country music; figured that would settle matters, but no—she wanted “jazz,” & in fact what she meant by “jazz” was pretty much exactly what Eberle & I were doing at the time—namely, old standards. 2. We weren’t a “stage act”—we were more geared to background music; again, this was exactly what she wanted. At this point, I thought, “Well, I like trains—it might be fun"—& I was able to determine that Eberle was also “on board” (so to speak) with the idea, so we took the gig, & after the wedding & the wedding lunch, we packed up the flute & melodica & tenor guitar & baritone uke & headed west.
We spent the night at the Geiser Grand in Baker City—a gorgeous, historic hotel with an incredible restaurant, & headed to Sumpter—& the flea market & one-room museum & dredge & railroad—the next day.
We were booked to play on the train from Sumpter to McEwan, & then also perform on a small stage at McEwan while the passengers were fed a picnic supper. We had a blast, but I will say it’s dangerous both for performers (especially Eberle, who plays wind instruments) & their instruments (my tenor guitar has a small ding in the fretboard binding as a result of both tenor guitar & I being launched backward into the seat mid-song.) Narrow gauge railroads were constructed to negotiate rough & curvy tracks, & it is certain that the conditions between Sumpter & McEwan warrant this. The landscape you travel through is memorable—not only do you see the picturesque mountain pines & creeks, but you also have land torn up on both sides of the tracks from the years of dredging through the area. There really isn’t much else that looks like dredged land—you see it up around Warren, ID, too—heaps & heaps of earth turned up, displaced boulders, stumps, etc—the tailings.
The picnic at McEwan was good—as I recall, fried chicken with potato salad, cole slaw, baked beans, etc. The crowd was friendly, we had a good time—for some reason I recall particularly it was the one time we were both really happy with how we played “How High the Moon”…. & after the bumpy train ride back to Sumpter (in the dark) we drove off with great contentment for Indian Valley that night.
We haven’t been back to Sumpter since, sad to say. We were supposed to play there with the Spurs of the Moment the next year at Fourth of July, but we were in the midst of rehearsing for The Grub-Stake recording & couldn’t make it; the Spurs that day were an all-Leone affair: Chris, Dani & Gene. They reported the food was not as good as we had—sort of the standard burger fare—but they seemed to have had a good time, though Chris got a lot of grief from bandmates for playing “She’ll Be Comin’ Round the Mountain” for the assembled kids.Sumpter is a beautiful spot, & especially if you enjoy old trains or western history, it’s well worth the trip.
Pics from top: Train pulling into the Sumpter Station; The Sumpter Dredge; The Sumpter Flea Market; Eberle & Friends at the Geiser Grand; Yours Truly & a Train at McEwan; The Spurs of the Moment (l-r: Gene Leone, Dani Leone, Chris Leone) at Sumpter depot
Pic of me at McEwan by Eberle Umbach; Pic of the Spurs by Diane Vecchi