June 2014 – Leaving the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument behind and continuing our scenic drive to northeastern Oregon along Route 26, we passed through lots of small towns. Each one celebrated the historic American West in its own way.
Still pondering the early 20th century sheep ranching lifestyle we had seen at the Monument, we came across a funny, fake old western town front in Dayville.
Rather than building a sheep ranching enterprise, perhaps the easiest way to make a fortune in the old west was to work at the Big Money Bank. Mark certainly thought so!
Another community we passed, named Whitney, was once a railroad town for the logging industry. Now it is a ghost town.
Rails extended in all directions from Whitney so that an immense stand of yellow pine could be harvested and shipped out on rail cars.
From 1901 to 1947 as many as 150 people called Whitney home. Today only a handful of crumbling buildings remain.
Further east in Sumpter, Oregon, we found the lovingly restored remnants of the same logging railroad line that had put Whitney on the map: the Sumpter Valley Railroad
This railway now offers excursion rides. From the brake man to the conductor to the engineer, all the positions are held by dedicated volunteers.
Volunteers work for a few years to learn all the skills necessary to be advanced to the level of train engineer, and that was the goal of several volunteers we met.
The train goes only a few miles between Sumpter and McEwen, but it is a popular ride for young and old alike.
The engineer invited Mark to have a seat in front of the engine. What an antiquated mechanical marvel that is!
The old mechanics who worked on these kinds of engines back when they were still in commercial use are now passing their skills on to younger mechanics who are learning how to restore them and keep them running.
Back on the road again, we saw snowy mountains beginning to appear on the horizon.
When we passed a field full of purple and white lupine, we had to stop for photographs!
While we were both knee deep in flowers, a fellow driving by stopped his truck and walked over to us, saying, “I was hoping someone would photograph those flowers!”
We ended up chatting with him for quite a while, right there on the side of the road. He wasn’t in a hurry and neither were we!
We had arrived on the quieter side of Oregon.
Baker City is the biggest city for hundreds of miles around. How big is big? 10,000 people live there.
How fast is it growing? The population has hovered around 10,000 since 1940!
What a contrast to other western cities like Phoenix that is 23 times the size it was in 1940, or Bend Oregon that has quadrupled in just a few decades.
When I asked at the fabulous Baker Heritage Museum in town why things haven’t changed much over the years, I was told it’s because a lot of old timers like the city just the way it is.
If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!
The nearest Walmart is 45 miles away, and there are no big box stores.
What really makes it special, though, besides its quiet, down to earth and friendly nature, is the beautiful Victorian arcthitecture all around town.
The Geiser Grand Hotel presides over downtown, along with the Baker Tower, the tallest building east of the Cascades.
Keeping a lid on growth and resisting change doesn’t mean there’s no money around, however.
Northeast Oregon is the richest part of the state for gold, and the US Bank branch in town has a glass enclosed exhibit of gold nuggets that includes a fist-sized “nugget” that was found nearby in June, 1913.
The day after unearthing it, the two men who discovered it hopped on the Sumpter Valley Railroad (which was carrying passengers as well as logs by then) to take it to Baker City to have it appraised.
At 80.4 ounces (over 5 lbs.), it is one of the largest pure gold nuggets still in existence today (most others were melted down).
At the time it was found, gold was about $18 an ounce, making it worth about $1,500 to those two lucky men.
Today, 99 years later, gold is worth over $1,300 per ounce, but as a collectible, this nugget is probably even more valuable.
One of the town’s most successful residents is Leo Adler who created a magazine distribution empire in the mid-1900’s.
He started out by walking around town at age 9 carrying the Saturday Evening Post and Ladies Home Journal!
He loved Baker City, and he left the city a substantial sum, part of which has been used to create a paved bike path through town.
While we were riding on his namesake path one day, Mark saw a young buck nibbling leaves on a tree.
He trotted right between us!
We followed him and his buddy to a big field where they started grazing, totally unconcerned with our presence.
Such is life — one of peace and tranquility — in Baker City, Oregon.
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Here is a little more info for you about Baker City, and the Sumpter Valley Railroad.
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