By: Verna (Cook) Weatherly
The Middle Fork River, which is a tributary, ran east and west into the John Day River. This latter river eventually turned north and later flows into the Columbia River.
It was along the Middle Fork River where the Sumpter Valley Railroad laid tracks to haul timber into Bates and lumber into Baker City. It was along the first mile of this route to Baker the Bates children walked everyday to school. It was a task we never complained about or questioned.
this day, in deep winter, it was almost too cold to snow, with the sun barely visible through a veil of white sky. If a sun ray had appeared, it would have frozen and dropped to the ground. Dana, my little sister, and I stopped by the Heaton's house. It seemed warm after being out in the cold. Alice was always good to us. She had just finished combing the girl's hair and was tying in the ribbons.
Polly, Peggy, Dana and I all left the house, walking across the road to the railroad tracks. We listened as our feet crunched noisily through the snow on the ground. Turning right, we walked past the intersection of the road and walked toward the trestle.
The trestle, which was a bridge for the train to cross the creek, where Clear Creek and Middle Fork joined, and in summer one of our favorite swimming holes. As we approached the trestle, we could look down and see the creek frozen solid. We stayed close together talking and, as we watched our breath form white vapor, we occasionally turned around to look behind us. We then pulled our scarves over our mouths, as our mothers had warned us what these freezing temperatures might do. Several other children joined us, and we felt the final dread of having to walk the long cold mile up the railroad tracks to school.
We burrowed in and did a final turn away from Bates, surrendering to the task at hand. Walking a short distance in silence, then in one confused moment, we heard a loud shrieking whistle. It sounded familiar, but what could it be? We turned around to look behind us as the shrill continued. A large black silhouette that had not been there minutes before was coming up the tracks. It was obviously the train. It was cloaked heavily in steam, which made the giant hard to follow. It clanked and hissed, accompanied by the loud ringing bell. yet the bell was barely audible when the noisy whistle blew.
The narrow tracks shortened between ourselves and this black mountain of steam. It seemed to be telling us to get out of the way. We had scurried off the tracks, when we first spotted the train, and we could not move further. The path along the track, close to the trestle, was narrow and was on a sharp incline. At the bottom of this incline was the barbed wire fence, around the large meadow.
As the massive machine approached us it appeared to be slowing down. The large black wheels screeched and clamored and it turned slower and slower. Giant arms on the wheels barely moved and steam shot out and around the tracks. It finally stopped directly next to us. It stood like a great wall of hot metal and steam. It could crunch us in a moment and never know it. We had to tilt our heads as far back as possible, and we still could not see the roof of the train. It was a bewildering experience, to stand along the side of the huge engine.
This had never happened before, where a large equipment operator, had paid any attention to us. We had walked this track for years, and this was the first time an engineer had stopped.
From out of an open window in a large box of the engine came a very friendly face of the railroad engineer. He waved his huge arm and smiled and said, "Hey, you kids want a ride?"
We were stunned. Not only had the engine stopped next to us, but the man was calling down to us. We quickly looked at each other, and in the same instant we shouted, "Yes!" and ran toward the step, leading up into the main engine. The steel step was very high, almost three quarters of our height. We grabbed hold of a perpendicular, steel rail, to try to pull ourselves up. It was impossible, so the engineer reached for each of us, and with his strong arms pulled us up into the cabin. After all of us were safely standing several feet behind the huge firebox and as far away from the open doors as possible, the engineer pulled the cord to blow the whistle and the huge iron train was again steaming up the railroad tracks.
We looked out around us, over the freezing meadow and hills, which we now towered over. Our lungs wre full of pride and our faces smiling. This giant saved us this day. It cared about us and lifted young children high into its arms and carried us as gently up the iron tracks to our country school.