The International Steam Pages

The Sumpter Valley Railway, USA, 2014

James Waite reports from a visit in January 2014. The railway's website is

The 3ft (914mm) gauge SVR dates from 1890/1 and was built primarily to serve the logging industry in eastern Oregon and also the short-lived gold boom in the Sumpter Valley which is a flat, lava-filled valley in the Elkhorn mountains to the west of Baker City, the railway's eastern terminus where it joined one of the Union Pacific's main lines. The western end closed in the 1930's and the rest of it in 1947 save for a short stretch serving a sawmill at Baker City which lasted until 1961. The five-mile stretch between Sumpter and McEwen has been rebuilt by a preservation society since the 1970's.

The line currently has two working steam locos, both of which are authentic for the line. The Heisler in these photos is W.H. Eccles no. 3, Heisler works no. 1306/1915 and started its working life on one of the numerous braches from the SVR main line which belonged to the lumber companies. Most of the main types of US articulated locos were represented on these lines and from time to time they also worked over the SVR main line. No. 3 moved on to a logging operation in Idaho after the Eccles line closed and ended up as a stationary boiler there followed by a prolonged period of covered storage. One of the preservation society's members who is a farmer bought it with the aid of a bank loan which he had told his bank manager was for the purchase of a tractor. When he found out what the farmer had actually spent the money on and asked for an explanation he was told that it ran on tracks so what was the problem!

The 2-8-2 is no 19 (Alco 61980/1920) and is something of a miraculous survivor. It was built new for the railway but was sold along with its sister loco no. 20 (minus their tenders) to the White Pass & Yukon RR in 1940 after the SVR had bought two large Mallet tanks from the defunct Uintah Railway in Colorado the previous year. The SVR converted the Mallets to tender locos using the tenders from the two Alco locos. After the 1947 closure the two Mallets were bought by the International Railways of Central America for service in Guatemala. The intention was that they would work on the infamous Palin Hill, the steep grade up from Escuintla towards Guatemala City, but they were prone to slipping and never fulfilled their true potential there. Maybe they would have been more successful if they had remained as tank locos. They ended up working freight traffic on the lightly graded line west from Escuintla and after a period of storage were scrapped in the late 60's/early 70's. Fortunately the tenders were not scrapped and remained in storage at Escuintla shed. The preservation society was able to persuade the WP&Y to sell the two locos to them at a nominal price (though the shipping must have been expensive!), bought the two tenders from the Guatemalans and reunited them with their original locos.

The coach and caboose in these photos are survivors from the days when the railway ran for real. Some of the freight stock is also original though some of it came second hand from the UP's narrow gauge lines which were in the course of conversion to standard gauge when the SVR was being built. The preservations society has supplemented this with stock drawn from many of the narrow gauge lines in the west of the US. In addition the railway has six of the ubiquitous bogie hopper wagons which originated on the East Broad Top RR and which have subsequently proved their worth on many of the 3ft gauge lines in the US. These six arrived at Sumpter third hand via the White Pass and Yukon. The railway's diesels include examples from the 3ft gauge Chitiqua lines in Panama.

This was a special weekend event put on by the society's volunteers, a really friendly and hospitable group of people, and chartered by Pete Lerro's organisation. The caboose (a survivor from the days when the line ran for real like the coach next to it) derailed on the approach to Sumpter station as the whole train was being propelled there around midday which brought a sudden halt to the proceedings! The railway despatched the Heisler to help rerail it but by then the weather was looking ominous and I decided to set off for home.

Baker City lies on Interstate 84, a motorway standard road and is about 100 miles north of Boise, Idaho and 100 miles south of Pendleton, Oregon which both have airports. Sumpter is around 30 miles west of Baker City a short distance off Highway 7. Some of the commercially run 3ft gauge lines in the US have issues with access for enthusiasts. The SVR in contrast is a really fun railway, full of character and run by really welcoming people. Highly recommended!

19 being prepared on the Friday and outside the shed early on the Saturday:.

Both locomotives ready to roll...

Both in action on Saturday:

Smokestack contrast:

Night photography session

Early start on Sunday

Sunday action (and inaction):


Rob Dickinson