The Sumpter Valley Railroad runs a total of eighty miles between Baker City and Prairie City, Oregon. In 1890 David C. Eccles began construction of the railroad which finally reached Prairie City in 1910.
Immigrant labor crews from Australia, Greece and Japan worked on the Sumpter Valley Railroad. Beginning in the early 1890s Japanese contract laborers worked on railroads in Oregon. By 1906, immigrant Japanese laborers made up 40% of the railroad laborers. According to the Oregon Bureau of Labor Statistics for 1907, the Sumpter Valley Railway employed ninety-one individuals, fifty of whom (or 55%) were Japanese men.
The Japanese laborers maintained the tracks and created new spur lines. A Grant County resident remembered the Japanese crews this way: “The railroad was built and maintained by a Japanese crew. They lived separately from the logging crews…. When the company was through along a spur line the Japanese crew came in and picked up the old rails. If the ties were good they took those too. They had a man that made those ties with a broad axe (Figure 4). He preferred larch but would use lodgepole pine. He worked from the top, bringing his broad axe down along the sides to trim the tie” (Allen and Donaldson 1990).
Census records first document a thirty-three person Japanese crew along the Sumpter Valley Railroad in 1910. The 1920 and 1930 census records show a similar number of workers. Local stories report that the Japanese government urged people of Japanese ancestry to return to Japan in the early years of World War II. This is supported by the 1940 census which documents the Japanese population of Grant County had dropped to just nine, well over a year before the attack at Pearl Harbor resulted in the firing of the remaining Japanese American employees.
Another long-time Grant County resident recalled “my dad had many Japanese friends since they were the section gangs who repaired the Oregon Lumber Company tracks. Many times we would stop at the Japanese camp and go in and drink sake with them. They always gave dad a gallon jug of homemade sake, which is much better than what you get in the store” (Green 2008)
A section of the Sumpter Valley Railroad has been restored and is open to the public. Short excursions aboard a full restored train are offered seasonally. http://sumptervalleyrailroad.org/index.html.
To reach the Sumpter Depot and Gift Shop from Prairie City head east onto US-26 for about 15 miles. Turn left onto Highway 7, stay on Highway 7 for approximately 25 miles. Turn left onto Highway 410 for 3 miles until you reach Austin Street. Once at Austin Street your destination will be located on your right.
Submitted by: Matthew Ortmann, Malheur National Forest
japanese internment, Lumber, Railroad