1994 Idaho Northern and Pacific (INP) announced it was considering abandoning the RR from Elgin to Joseph
1997 INP granted abandonment status in April by ODOT Rail. State Parks began negotiating with INP to purchase the RR for use as a trail.
2000 Trail advisory committees were formed in Union and Wallowa Counties to explore the use of the right of way as a trail. In October 2000 members of the advisory committee took a high rail tour of the route and were surprised to learn that the tracks were in much better condition than they had been described and were usable for train traffic with minimal improvement.
Winter 2000 Wallowa County held an economic summit called Future Search to come up with a project to improve the economy. The outcome was a desire to save the railroad for present and future use.
June 2001 INP Put out call for bids to remove the rails and ties from Elgin to Joseph. They had rejected the State Parks offer of $1.2 million to purchase the line. Bid price for the salvage value was $2 million. Wallowa County said removal was in violation of the salmon recovery plan and they would need to go thru the public hearing process to get a permit to do the removal. County stopped the process after they had begun removing rails in Joseph.
July 2001 Speaker of the Oregon House, Mark Simmons from Elgin, announced that the legislature was approving $2 million for the purchase of the line, which was used as down payment of the ultimate agreed purchase price of $6.5 million for the right of way, track improvements, and rolling stock from INP. The balance of the purchase price came from loans and grants from the Oregon Economic Development Department.
Fall 2002 The Friends of the Joseph Branch was formed to promote the use and history of the line.
October 2003 The first excursion train was run on the line from Elgin to Joseph. Excursion trains have been running ever since.
November 2003 Wallowa County and Union County formed the Wallowa Union Railroad Authority through an intergovernmental agreement to jointly own and operate the line. The abandonment status was nullified and the status as a Transportation Corridor was re-established (source: ODOT Rail)
2012 The WURA Board of Directors retired debt incurred to the purchase of the rail line and equipment, gaining sole ownership of the 63-mile right of way.
2012 The Wallowa Union Historic Trail Consortium was formed (name was later changed to the Joseph Branch Trail Consortium) to promote the use of the right of way with a rails with trails project.
2013 JBTC worked with WURA, State Parks and Eastern Oregon University to develop a feasibility study for developing a trail beside the rail from Elgin to Joseph.
December 2015 WURA accepted the feasibility study.
February 2016 WURA agreed to undertake the development of a pilot project trail segment between Joseph and Enterprise with the assistance of the Joseph Branch Trail Consortium.
History of Organization
Local elected officials, business owners, recreationalists and others have considered the development of a rail-with-trail on the Joseph Branch right-of-way for many years. This rail line extends approximately 63 miles from Elgin to Joseph, Oregon. As early as 2000, the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department (OPRD) submitted an offer to purchase tracks and right-of-way from the Idaho Northern and Pacific Railroad. This offer was rejected.
At that time, commercial operations on the line had been inactive for about five years, and it was anticipated that the line would be abandoned. This potential abandonment action stimulated local leaders to action, proposing the formation of a Wallowa and Union Railway Company that would operate an excursion and freight train. As planned, the railway would also provide for designated trails along the route for hikers and bikers.
In March 2002 the rail line was purchased by Wallowa and Union Counties, with funds obtained by a $2 million grant from the state of Oregon and a loan from the Oregon Economic and Community Development Department. The Eagle Cap Excursion Train commenced operations in 2003. In 2009-2011 a portion of the line not used for the excursion train was leased to Union Pacific Railroad to use for storage of rail cars. Revenue from this lease allowed WURA to retire the loan.
On May 8, 2013, representatives of the Wallowa Union Railroad Authority Board, the Joseph Branch Trail Consortium organizing committee, and other groups met with the Oregon Parks and Recreation Commission to discuss assessment and development of the rail-with-trail project. The Commission directed Parks Department staff to participate and provide technical assistance.
History and Organization of the Joseph Branch Trail Consortium
Joseph Branch Trail Historical Timeline
Also in May 2013, the editor of the La Grande Observer supported the rail-with-trail concept by stating,
Following further consultations with the railroad authority Board, the owner of the Joseph Branch, in July 2013 OPRD prepared a draft “Framework Plan” and discussions were held with the railroad authority Board of Directors, Eastern Oregon University, organizers of the consortium, and other interested parties. The Parks Department designated managers and staff to provide coordination and to lead an assessment and evaluation of the feasibility of constructing and operating a rail-with-trail on the Joseph Branch. The consortium will support this assessment by providing support as requested by the Parks Department, university, and railroad authority. This assessment will be conducted throughout 2014 and into 2015 with a feasibility report provided the railroad authority board in January of 2016.
Elements of the assessment will include physical inspection of the rail line and right-of-way; evaluation of recreational, cultural, and economic aspects of rail-with-trail development; an expansive public outreach effort, including multiple public meetings; and consultations with landowners and government entities. An assessment report will be prepared by Parks Department and submitted to the railroad authority Board for consideration. It is anticipated that the assessment report will be completed in 2016. Next steps will then be established by the railroad authority Board.
If a rail-with-trail is developed, it will join the Eagle Cap Excursion Train, events sponsored by Cycle Oregon, and events along the Hells Canyon Scenic Byway, also known as the Wallowa Mountain Loop Road, and many other venues, in providing recreational and economic development opportunities in eastern Oregon.