Engineer for a day on the Sumpter Valley Rail Road!


Who didn’t want to be an engineer as a kid?  It’s kind of like that desire to be an astronaut or a Hollywood actress, only for me, the engineer dream came true! During my recent trip to Eastern Oregon Sam McCloskey and his daughter Jennifer Jenks allowed me to be an engineer for a day on the historic Sumpter Valley Rail Road. The railroad is a 3 foot narrow gauge heritage Railroad located in Baker County.

The rail road runs between McEwen and the historic mining town of Sumpter.  The railroad was a winner in 2014 in the Travel & Tourism Industry Achievement category. At the museum they have two steam engines and other pieces of rolling railroad equipment.

“The railroad was started in 1890 by David Eccles, a lumber tycoon who wanted to get lumber from the mountains to Baker City and Prairie City,” explained Sam.  “Our narrow gauge is an 80 mile line with 1,000 miles of rail spur.”

Sam showed us a very cool 1915 Hiesler engine that was built in 1915. “This is one of only 11 left in the world and the only wood burning one left,” Sam said. “This was bought new for WH Eccles, David Eccles brother.  It will be 101 years old this year.”

“This was found in a sawmill in Cascade, Idaho as a back up boiler,” Sam said.  “It is my favorite, it is unique more of a work horse.”

Besides the 1920 steam engine we were driving there is also a sister steam engine that Sam said was ordered new in 1920.  “It hasn’t run since 1960.  We estimate five years and half a million to restore it.”

“Our railroad originally had six cabooses, three were destroyed,” he’d added,  “then two months ago we got the last of the three cabooses remaining.”

In the museum/shop section of the Railroad they also offered a 1927 Whitcomb switch engine that was used in Baker City.  “It is the biggest gasoline engine I’ve ever seen,” Sam said.

Timothy Bishop of Baker City Tourism set up this amazing opportunity for me and he rode along taking pictures of the beautifully restored locomotive and the mountain scenery.

Sam serves not only as an engineer and fireman for the Sumpter Valley Railroad, but also the shop manager. As far as  the father/daughter engineering team Sam said, “We are the only father/daughter steam locomotive crew in the country.”

Besides being an engineering team they also work together.  “We have a  diesel mechanic shop in Baker City.”

I wondered how Sam got started with steam. He began very early at the age of eight.  “My father got a 1916 Case steam tractor.  I learned how to run that,” Sam said.

He also worked at railroad museums and said he had worked on steam tractors his entire life.

Sam and  Jennifer both took their places on the beautiful steam engine seating me in the driving seat.  The engine was already prepped. They use recycled oil as their fuel and Jennifer ensured that the water in the tank remained at the proper level.  Sam showed me how to use the throttle and the brake and to blow the horn when we came to public crossings.  Two long, one short, and then another long blow, while I did the horn, Jennifer blew the train whistle.

They kept a watchful eye on me as we trundled down the track.  I can’t put into words the excitement of pushing the throttle on this almost 100 year old machine and watching the beautiful brass gauges as we moved down the track.  Knowing that the engine was in capable hands should I run amuck allowed me the freedom to  have a blast “driving” the engine and playing engineer for the day.

This is an option that visitors can do.  Open all summer, you toocan be an engineer, just ride in the engine, or ride on the train as a passenger.  The Sumpter Valley Railroad is always looking for volunteers too.  Check out for more information.  If you go for a ride and see Sam of Jennifer tell them I said hey!