Train exhibit opens at High Desert museum

Slideshow: How Redmond couple built train terrain

By Mac McLean / The Bulletin / @agingbeat

If you go

What: “All Aboard! Railroads in the High Desert”

When: April 12 to July 27

Where: High Desert Museum, 59800 S. U.S. Highway 97, Bend

Cost: Included with museum admission, or $12 adults, $10 ages 65 and older, $7 ages 5-12; free ages 4 and younger

Contact: www.high desertmuseum.org, 541-382-4754

A model train blew its horn three times and pulled away from the station as it embarked on a 35-foot-long journey through a tunnel under a tall butte resembling those found in the Ochoco foothills. The train traveled across a trestle bridge that crosses deep river gorge and around two wide turns that crisscross a landscape of sand, rocks and juniper trees.

Redmond residents Frank and Anne Graham spent about 500 hours building the 9-foot-square diorama, which depicts the High Desert’s rolling landscape. They were asked to create it to illustrate some of the challenges railroad companies faced in the early 1900s as they worked to connect Shaniko and eventually Bend to the cross-country rail lines.

The diorama will be featured as part of the “All Aboard! Railroads in the High Desert” exhibit opening next week at the High Desert Museum. The exhibit looks at how trains made their way through the area and how they shaped its culture.

“Everybody loves trains,” said Margaret Lee, the High Desert Museum’s curator of Western history.

Running until the end of July, the train history exhibit will examine how having access to the rail lines changed the lives of people in Central Oregon and other parts of the High Desert. It will also examine the people who built the first rail lines, the tools they used and the challenges they faced as they cut the landscape the Grahams tried to emulate with their model train.

The history

Founded in 1879, the Oregon Railroad and Navigation Co. managed a series of small rail lines on the southern end of the Columbia River Gorge that were designed to help steamships and barges transfer their cargo so they could bypass waterfalls and other obstacles.

These early rail lines provided people from towns on the Columbia River Gorge an easy way to get to Portland — and from there to the country’s entire rail network.

When the Columbia Southern Railroad Co. built a line that connected ORNC’s stop at Biggs Junction to Shaniko in 1900, it marked the first time Central Oregon’s residents had access to this network of rail lines, and that access transformed their way of life.

“People in Shaniko could put in an order for oysters from Astoria and they would arrive there the very next day,' Frank Graham said.

Having access to the rail lines at Shaniko, which during its height was called “The Wool Capital of the World,' meant that farmers, ranchers and shepherds from across Eastern Oregon and Idaho could produce as much grain, wool and beef as they wanted without fear they would saturate their local market and be unable to sell their goods.

It also meant they had access to the national catalog stores that were operated by Sears, Roebuck & Co. and Montgomery Ward.

“All of a sudden the people who lived in these small little towns could wear what everyone else was wearing,' Frank Graham said. It also meant people could get their hands on the latest toys, tools, furniture and, in some cases, even homes.

In addition to giving them the ability to get goods they may never have had before, Lee said, having access to the country’s railroad network also made it possible for Central Oregon residents to go places they may have only dreamed of because they seemed too far away and took too much time to reach.

When the Transcontinental Railroad was completed in 1869, Lee said, people could make the 3,323-mile trip from New York to San Francisco in just seven days. Compare that to the nearly four to six months it took some of Central Oregon’s first settlers to make the 2,200-mile trip from Missouri to Oregon on the Oregon Trail.

Nine years after the Biggs Junction-Shaniko rail line was finished, railroad magnates James Hill and Edward Harriman set out to build two separate rail lines that would stretch the 152-mile distance from the Columbia River Gorge to Bend.

Hill’s Great Northern Pacific Railway and Harriman’s Union Pacific Railway, which purchased a majority stake in the Oregon Railroad and Navigation Co. in 1908, became involved in what would become known as the Deschutes River Railroad War.

Railroad workers faced many obstacles when they set out to achieve this task.

They had to build tunnels though hillsides because at the time a single-engine train could only climb 116 feet for every mile of track. These builders also had to cut across the landscape using either straight lines or wide arching turns — Lee said trains of the day needed a minimum 300-foot radius or they couldn’t go around corners with all of their cars. They needed to build high, towering bridges that could cross deep river canyons such as the Crooked River Gorge.

Frank and Anne Graham got a chance to experience these challenges firsthand this winter when they set out to design and build their model railroad for the museum’s upcoming exhibit. It gave them a new appreciation for where they live.

“Until you start doing something at this level of detail,' Frank Graham said, “you don’t really start paying attention to what our landscape really looks like.'

The model

Frank Graham, 70, designed and built six or seven model trains before he and Anne got married 10 years ago.

He probably would have built more model trains but didn’t have a place to keep his projects once they were finished because he moved around a lot during his service with the U.S. Army and career as a human resources consultant.

Looking for a way to pass the time, Frank Graham started volunteering at the High Desert Museum about four years ago when he and his wife moved to Central Oregon from Hillsboro. She has been volunteering at the museum for the past year.j

Taking part in the museum’s living history program gave Frank Graham the perfect chance to express his love for and knowledge of the region’s railroads. He dressed up as a freight agent for the Columbia Southern Railroad station at Shaniko.

The volunteering also put him in touch with other model train enthusiasts, who either worked for or volunteered at the museum. These connections eventually put him on Lee’s radar when she started thinking about how the rail history exhibit would take shape.

“When I asked Frank and Anne to build this, I asked them to consider all of the obstacles (railroad workers) faced with the High Desert landscape,' said Lee, as she watched the train go around its track in the Graham’s basement.

Frank Graham knew right off the bat this meant his model railroad had to have a tunnel because every railroad in Central Oregon has a tunnel. He also wanted to add some features that were reminiscent of Horseshoe Bend and the Crooked River Gorge, because these were two of the biggest obstacles Harriman and Hill faced when they built their rail lines to Bend.

The couple sketched out these features in a notebook and, after getting Lee’s approval, started building what they would call the Owl Creek Railway. Other than a small quarter-scale model railroad that loops around a water feature in her backyard, this was the first model railroad Anne Graham had built. It had to be done under a tight deadline so it could be put on a public display.

“We lost a lot of sleep over this,' said Anne Graham, who spent 72 hours building the arch bridge by herself.

But the long hours didn’t diminish her enthusiasm. The former engineer who built factories for Intel enjoyed the process.

“Doing something like this has been a real treat,' Anne Graham said.

But unfortunately the display is not one that can last. Lee said the museum does not have the space to store the model railroad once the exhibit is over — and the Grahams can’t take it back to in their house.

“We need our garage back,' said Frank Graham.

— Reporter: 541-617-7816, mmclean@bendbulletin.com