The Wallowa Union Railroad, aka Joseph Branch, is 63 miles long and connects Elgin in Union County with Joseph in Wallowa County. As is typical of the northwest’s major trunk lines, the WURR follows the region’s waterways. The railroad uses the pathways of the Grande Ronde and Wallowa Rivers. These waters flow into the Snake, then find their way to the Pacific Ocean via the Columbia River.
A descendent of the first great railway age of development in the Pacific Northwest (1869-1893), the Joseph Branch enjoys a rich heritage as an extension of the original Oregon Railway & Navigation Company (OR & N). The OR & N’s main trunk line through La Grande was completed in 1884. By 1890, the first 23 miles of the Joseph Branch line were laid as an extension of the OR &N to Elgin. North of Elgin the country gets very rugged and it wasn’t until 15 years later that the line was extended. Most of the railroads in the northwest were being acquired by the consolidating systems of Northern Pacific, Great Northern, and Union Pacific. The Oregon Railway Extension Company was no different. With this acquisition and its accompanying financial power, the line was extended between 1905 and 1908. The completion of the line to Wallowa was celebrated with an excursion train from La Grande to Wallowa in 1908. Between 1500 and 2,000 people gathered with much fanfare to celebrate the arrival of the first passenger train in Wallowa. A centennial anniversary celebration was held at Wallowa in September 2008. By November 1908, a similar celebration welcomed the first passenger train to Joseph. In 1927, a rail siding in Joseph accessed a new grain elevator
Between World War I and the Great Depression, the Joseph Branch was used extensively for hauling logs to local saw mills. During the booming 1920s, a dedicated daily passenger train served the line with a planned and advertised direct connection at La Grande to and from Portland, Oregon. World War II, the widespread use of automobiles and a state and national system of roads impacted the use of the branch line.
In 1948 a daily, except Sunday, mixed train served the line eastward and westward making a full round trip each day. By 1949, the Joseph Branch was part of the Oregon Division. Mixed train service over the branch continued through April 1960. The final schedule showed the train operating to Joseph daily except Saturday with the return train operating daily except Sunday. The two trains operated separately with them meeting at the Gulling siding between Elgin and Lookingglass.
Freight business on this line has always included two major items: lumber and grain. Sawmills were located all along the line and grain elevators stood in almost every town. A small settlement, known as Vincent, was located at the mouth of Howard Creek, where a rail spur served the logging town of Maxville. Livestock was also once a product moved over the line.