Oregon Field Guide

Christmas spirit comes to life in Sumpter, Oregon

By Jule Gilfillan (OPB)
Nov. 26, 2022 2 p.m.

Vintage trains and encounters with Santa Claus set the scene

If you’re looking for a storybook Christmas experience, you can’t get much closer than the Sumpter Valley Railroad’s Christmas train.

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Oregon Field Guide reporter Jule Gilfillan gets a hug from a very real Santa Claus at the Christmas train in Sumpter, Ore.

Oregon Field Guide reporter Jule Gilfillan gets a hug from a very real Santa Claus at the Christmas train in Sumpter, Ore.

Todd Sonflieth / OPB

Set in Eastern Oregon’s scenic Elkhorn section of the Blue Mountains, Sumpter has officially been designated a “ghost town.” But the small community west of Baker City bustles with spirit and energy during the holiday season. The piles of tailings left over from the mining that boomed here in the late 19th and early 20th centuries are hidden under a fresh, white blanket of snow, and with the most true-to-life Santa Claus this reporter has ever encountered listening to wish lists, the entire event is wrapped in a dreamy nostalgia. And all of that doesn’t even account for the trains.

Romance of the rails

The trains are a marvel. Engineer Eric Wunz walks us over to a huge hulk of an engine with a classic fluted chimney and a number 19 circled in red proudly adorning its round front.

The "number 19" engine was built in 1920 for the Sumpter Valley Railroad. The steam engine worked the narrow-gauge rails for 20 years. Today, it pulls trains for tourists through the historic area.

The "number 19" engine was built in 1920 for the Sumpter Valley Railroad. The steam engine worked the narrow-gauge rails for 20 years. Today, it pulls trains for tourists through the historic area.

Courtesy of the Baker County Library

“It was built in 1920 for the original Sumpter Valley Railroad,” says Wunz. The massive engine worked the narrow-gauge rails for 20 years during its heyday and today is usually at the head of the trains that transport tourists through the mountainous landscape. But on Dec. 9, 2021, the day before it was scheduled to pull the Christmas train, the old engine developed some distressing symptoms.

“Everything was fine last night. We had filled the locomotive up with water, lit the fire, brought the temperature up very slowly, everything was fine when we shut ‘er down last night about seven o’clock,” Wunz says. “Came here this morning and these fluids were leaking. So they developed bad leaks overnight for some reason.”

Wunz points to the wet floor of the locomotive barn. His diagnosis for what is ailing Number 19? Leaky flues.

The flues Wunz is referring to are the long tubes that boil the water that generates the steam that powers the locomotive engine. Replacing these vintage train parts will require more than a trip to the local hardware store. Not only will the team have to use a cutting torch to get the damaged flues out, but there are also only a couple of places in the United States where these parts are made. They will have to be ordered from an outfit in Pennsylvania.

The "number 19" steam train chugs through the Sumpter Valley west of Baker City.

The "number 19" steam train chugs through the Sumpter Valley west of Baker City.

Courtesy of Tamarack Films

“It’s a disappointment,” shrugs Wunz. “But anything this old, you have mechanical issues periodically. A lot of times we can fix things and make the runs. This one we can’t, so we’ll have to use the diesel locomotive instead.”

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The 50-ton General Electric diesel engine, also known as “the 720,” is hardly a disappointment. The bright orange machine growls warmly in the barn as a volunteer adorns the railings with Christmas lights and a big, round wreath.

“This is actually more rare than a steam locomotive,” said Wunz. “There’s probably only three or four of them that are still operational in the United States.”

The 720 was built in 1957 by General Electric in Erie, Pennsylvania, and it was sold to the United Fruit Company, whose most famous brand was the Chiquita banana. It went down to Panama to haul fruit and other freight until the company discontinued rail operations around 2005.

“This was actually one of the last locomotives running down there,” adds volunteer engineer and driver of this diesel, Dan Roberts.

“If you ate a Chiquita banana as a kid, there’s a good chance that this engine hauled that banana down to the banana boat,” said the Baker City resident with a chuckle.

These two engines, along with a wood-burning antique known as “The Number Three,” are the operational heart of the all-volunteer Sumpter Valley Railroad that runs this unique narrow-gauge line.

“The articles of incorporation were filed on January 3, 1971. But it took until July of 1976 to get one locomotive and two cars restored to start operating. At that point, they had about 300 feet of track down at McEwen,” recounts Operations Manager Jim Grigsby.

A lifelong railroad enthusiast, Grigsby claims to have learned to read from railroad magazines. When he happened upon the newly inaugurated club on a trip along the Elkhorn Scenic Byway in August 1976, the Aberdeen, Washington, native stopped everything to join up. He has been part of it ever since.

“A steam locomotive. There’s just something about it. It’s almost irresistible,” Grigsby says. “So, when I came down here and I saw that they had a wood-burning logging locomotive, which is always my favorite: the logging railroads. I was a logger myself at one point. Well, then, why, I was hooked. You couldn’t have drove me away with the gun.”

Christmas spirit

Once underway, which locomotive is actually pulling the train of merry riders through the snowy landscape becomes secondary. Volunteer conductors in smart blue uniforms punch tickets and lead Christmas carols on the train’s holiday-festooned carriages. Warmed by pot-bellied stoves, excited kids press their rosy faces against the steamy windows in hopes of catching a glimpse of Santa Claus, waving along the route. When that right jolly old elf steps into the carriage in person, the excitement explodes in gasps of delight.

A classic Christmas scene in Sumpter, Ore.

A classic Christmas scene in Sumpter, Ore.

Todd Sonflieth / OPB

“It’s Santa! He’s coming with candy canes!” exclaims one astonished young rider to her adult companion. Delighted smiles are exchanged and the season’s magical spell is cast.

Volunteer Sumpter Depot Manager Kim Svaty, hustling between refills of a giant urn of hot chocolate and plates of cookies, sums it up: “It gets you in the spirit and everybody’s happy, and where the world is a little crazy right now, this is a happy spot.”

This year’s Christmas trains are running from Dec. 9-11. Friday’s run is a night train to and from Sumpter Depot. Saturday’s trains are shorter, with more frequent runs to and from Sumpter. Sunday’s train leaves from and returns to the McEwan depot, departing at noon. Tickets can be purchased through the website.

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