Producer - Vince Patton
Videographers -Tom Turner, Tom Shrider
Editor - Lisa Suinn Kallem
Additional Video & Photos - “Natural Timber Country”; Ron Finne, Gorge Interpretive Center Museum, Oregon Historical Society, Clatsop County Historical Society, Don Nelsen, Vince Patton
Special Thanks - Skamania County Pioneer
Branches grasp at Don Nelsen, scratching his arms. He steps down off a log only to find the ground isn’t where he expected and lands on his knees.
Nelsen bounds right back up and heads farther into the brush.
“I just love this stuff,” Nelsen says. “It’s so much fun!”
Nelson is not satisfied merely to hike in the woods. He comes to the Columbia River Gorge to explore off trail.
“Down we go,” says Susan Langenes, Nelsen’s grown daughter as they hike near Hamilton Mountain on the Washington side of the river. She joins him occasionally for his expeditions.
Langenes says she couldn’t keep up with him in past years. Now he’s 66-years-old.
He still sets the pace.
“I can keep up with him now,” Langenes says. “For years his favorite thing to do was run through the woods.”
Langenese knows better than to expect her father to stay on trails.
“You don’t find things on trails!” says Nelsen.
All are remnants of old trains. Railroads didn’t just ride along the river past Multnomah Falls.
Nelsen found maps that show a spider web of railroad tracks all over the gorge on both the Washington and Oregon sides of the river.
There were almost no roads back in the early 1900s, just rail lines even up the steepest hills.
Nelsen says he’s hiked the gorge for 60 years since he was a boy, “And I had no idea there were railroads up here.”
The steam engines all served a single purpose: to haul out trees. Most of the gorge was clear-cut 100 years ago. The thick forests people see today are all second growth.
Once Nelsen saw the maps, he set out to retrace the very same rail paths.
He discovered the loggers didn’t clean up well after themselves.
Nelsen bends down to pick up a thick steel cable.
“This will probably still be here 500 years from now,” he says.
A century ago it would have hung high overhead, part of an elaborate “high lead” rig powered by a steam donkey engine to drag the felled trees out.
One high line cable appears to be anchored not to a tree, but wrapped around the north ridge of Table Mountain.
“How do you wrap a cable around a mountain,” wonders Langenes.
“With great effort!” laughs Nelsen.
Wherever Nelsen hikes, his Holy Grail has been to find a donkey engine like the one that sits outside the Columbia Gorge Interpretive Center.
But he’s only found parts.
In Washington, railroad logging appears to have come to an abrupt halt in 1929.
Nelson thinks he learned why when he visited the offices of the Skamania County Pioneer and skimmed old newspapers.
On September 20th, 1929, and article says, “In Greeleaf, everything was burned.”
He found historic photos of hill after hill of charred forests.
The news accounts of the day indicate 65 men narrowly escaped from the wildfire.
It took nine more years to salvage the railroad gear left behind.
The fire left behind a legend. Somewhere, deep in those burned forests was said to lie a lost locomotive.
“Of course, when I heard that, I wanted to go find it,” says Nelsen.
However, the boiler doesn’t look right for a locomotive.
“In any event it’s a mysterious thing to see in the woods,” Nelsen says. “At the very least it could have served as a water tank.”
Nelsen says he hiked 1000 miles last year in search of hidden train history.
For every large chunk of iron he finds many smaller artifacts like nuts, bolts and saw blades.
He makes a point of leaving every last one of them where he finds them.
“We don’t take souvenirs,” he says. “We leave them here. Unforunately, there are many people that don’t share my idea. In just the short ten years I’ve been exploring this area a lot has disappeared.”
The U.S. Forest Service says it is illegal to remove historical artifacts from federal land.
Langenes finds her father’s discoveries fascinating. “It opens up the history of the area in your mind,” she says.
Nelsen adds, “People walk through here and have no idea what they’re looking at. Now it may not interest most people, but I think it’s of value.”
Nelsen says he’ll keep hunting.
After all, the legendary lost locomotive remains an elusive ghost.