Nothing helps uncover a lost railroad like the story of a heroic engineer and a runaway train.
That Friday afternoon in 1917, the temperatures climbed into the upper 90s. The four days of thunderstorms that had left a mere .02 inch of rain were over, but the air was still moist and sticky along Jackson Creek in the canyon west of Jacksonville.
Just before three in the afternoon on July 20, the Climax locomotive, under the careful control of 26-year-old engineer Denver Marsh, had pushed two empty cars up the rails to the log deck about three miles above town.
Marsh had made a lot of friends as the friendly motorman on the Rogue River Valley Railroad, taking commuters on the five-mile trip between Medford and Jacksonville.
When Spencer Bullis bought the railroad in 1916 and began extending the line into the forested hills west of town, Marsh had jumped at the chance to drive the new locomotive.
On the log deck, the engine's regular fireman stepped off the train to help load logs. Charlie Schumpf, 29, took his place in the cab and continued to stoke wood into the box, keeping the engine's steam pressure up.
With the car nearest the engine fully loaded, the log-loading crew asked Marsh to move the front car into position. Schumpf jumped down briefly and removed the chucks that blocked the locomotive's wheels from rolling back, while Marsh inched the locomotive backward.
He tried to set the airbrake, but the train began to roll back. He tried to go forwars. Full throttle! No good. Speed steadily increasing — roaring downhill — the train was out of control!
Marsh pushed Schumpf out of the cab and watched him pound into a shrub-covered embankment.
A mile from the log deck, just above the city's new reservoir, a wood trestle across a narrow canyon waited for the iron machine's arrival.
Crossing over the trestle, the cars separated, tearing up the tracks and plunging into the canyon below. The locomotive, still running backward, screeched in a brief moment of safety across the bridge, before it too derailed and slammed into a dirt bank.
Marsh jumped out, but it was too late and in the wrong direction. The locomotive fell over on its right side, crushing his legs and pinning him under the wreck. His body was bruised and torn, and badly scalded by steam and hot water from the boiler.
Both men were rushed to Sacred Heart Hospital in Medford.
Ninety-one years later, Larry Smith, executive director of the Jacksonville Woodlands Association, remembered "Fred Coffman, an old-time miner, who told me that the engine's trucks (laymen will call them wheels) were still up there. He saw them as a kid about 10 years after the accident."
Smith said he always regretted not finding out where the wreck took place before Coffman died, especially after finding photographs of the wreck at the Southern Oregon Historical Society.
Not only was the wreck location forgotten, the route of the railroad that operated for probably less than five years was overgrown and had long ago vanished from most memories — but not all.
Smith called on Tony Hess, a volunteer with the Jacksonville Parks Department who, five years ago, was appointed chairman of a citizen's advisory committee. The group was asked to recommend what should be done with the watershed land west of the city, now known as Forest Park.
Hess said members of the Motorcycle Rider's Association who own 40 acres near the park mentioned riding on the "old rail trail." With the help of Jacksonville Park Supervisor Rick Shields, who is also an ATV rider, the search was on.
"We started two years ago to identify where it was on city land and to clear some of the brush," said Hess. "Once you knew where to look, it was easy to find, as it was exposed above the reservoir."
A few Mondays ago, Hess agreed to make an excursion down the rail right-of-way and show where he thinks the 1917 wreck occurred.
"We've cleared out the upper part so it's fairly walkable," said Hess, "but down where the trestle was, above the reservoir, there are still some trees, blackberries and shrubbery that would make it difficult for the casual hiker."
After walking downhill on an easy grade for about a mile on the east side of Jackson Creek, we came to a small canyon perhaps 50 feet across and not much deeper. There was no sign of rusting wreckage.
"I am really confident that this is where the picture was taken," said Hess, looking at a photocopy of the photograph. "They cut two big trees for the tracks, put the logs across the gully and braced it straight up from underneath. You see a little cross-bracing in the picture."
Smith agreed. "Yeah, this is it," he said. "I'm 100-percent sure."
Hess said he wants to re-create the trestle as part of a hiking trail in the park, but admits it will be some time before there's enough money to get that done.
"We think the rail trail will be a major contribution to the park," said Hess, "and the beautiful part is that because it's about a perfect five-percent grade, it will help to make it ADA accessible."
In the 1917 disaster, Schumpf, who owed his life to Marsh, suffered a broken leg and some minor scrapes. Once healed, he continued working with the railroad as a fireman.
Denver Marsh, the heroic engineer, never regained consciousness and died four hours later.
The stories of his heroics and the forgotten railroad that once steamed here will be remembered again, through interpretive signs placed along the old logging railroad right-of-way and from the efforts of dedicated volunteers.
Writer Bill Miller lives in Shady Cove. Reach him at email@example.com.