Wallowa Union Railroad and the Joseph Branch
The Joseph Branch is a 63-mile long railroad that links the communities of Elgin, Wallowa, Enterprise and Joseph in Northeast Oregon with the Union Pacific railroad in La Grande. In 1993, Union Pacific sold the Joseph Branch to Idaho Northern & Pacific as part of a package of rail lines in the area. Passenger service was prevented because the UP maintained the ownership of the right-of-way between La Grande and Elgin. By 1996, freight service to Joseph stopped. Abandonment of the line beyond Elgin was approved by the Surface Transportaiton Board in April, 1997. See History for more information about the Joseph Branch.
WURA Formed: After several years of debate on how and whether to rescue the line before it was to be dismantled, an intergovernmental partnership between Union and Wallowa Counties was formed. The Oregon Legislature contributed $2 million toward purchasing the line and limited rolling stock, to start its rehabilitation. The two counties secured a loan from the Oregon Economic & Community Development Department for the balance of the purchase price. On March 31, 2002, the purchase of the line between Elgin and Joseph was achieved. The Wallowa Union Railroad Authority was formed to operate the line and their crews started doing the work in December 2003. Freight service and an excursion train shared the track and crew in the first few years. From 2009 to 2011, a portion of the line not in use by the excursion train was leased to Union Pacific Railroad for the storage of excess lumber cars during the recession. This produced enough revenue for the WURA to retire their loan.
Excursions: The scenic train business was established as the Eagle Cap Excursion Train. The first full season of operation for the excursion train was 2004. The excursion train continues to provide scenic train rides on Mother’s Day and selected Saturdays, from late May through October on the roadless section of track between Elgin and Minam. The train operates from the Elgin Depot, 300 Depot Street, in Elgin, Oregon.
Equipment: During the days of steam engines, the Joseph Branch was limited to consolidation-type locomotives. As diesel-electric locomotives took over, early GP-type locomotives generally handled the trains. WURR has two such engines from the 1950s serving the line. Our Dining Car was built in 1947 for Great Northern as a coach car. It was sold to New Jersey Transit and was converted to a table car used by Cotton Belt. The Budd Car was built in 1938 for Santa Fe Railroad. It was sold to New Jersey Transit and then to the Cotton Belt. The Pullman Coach Car was built in 1947 for Illinois Central. The Baggage Car was built in 1962 for Southern Pacific. It carries the generator and offers open air seats. All of these cars were eventually owned by Robert McClanahan, former Cotton Belt/Southern Pacific Superintendent. The cars were operated by the Cotton Belt and were also leased out to various tourist operators. The cars were sold to Idaho Northern & Pacific Railroad in 1998 for use in Idaho and were sold to the Wallowa Union Railroad in 2003. All the cars have since received some level of refurbishment and their exteriors were painted in fall 2014. The cars were subsequently named for area rivers. The three passenger cars are enclosed and equipped with air conditioning and heat, making operating across seasons comfortable.
Staffing: The Eagle Cap Excursion Train is staffed by professional train engineers and car hosts who are volunteers from the Friends of the Joseph Branch, a non-profit organization.