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Train off the tracks

Forest Park, a lush retreat outside Jacksonville, was once a focal point of economic activity.

A century ago, rail lines provided access to logging operations in the ravine-gouged hills west of town.

In July 1917, a Bullis Logging Railroad engineer died when his runaway locomotive crashed near the reservoir, though the exact date of the crash is unclear.

In this era of instant everything, news is often reported as it unfolds, and then it's retold with clarification and more certainty hours later. But in a time when rural communities were served by weekly newspapers, whose deadlines could be a day or more before going to press, the news lag could stretch more than a week between an incident such as a train wreck and its publication.

Apparently, that was the case in summer 1917 when a young engineer, Denver Marsh, and his fireman, Charlie Schumpf, were working above Jackson Creek.

Historical records vary as to the actual date of the wreck. The majority report holds it was July 20; others suggest July 13. The July 21 edition of the Jacksonville Post reported:

"An accident on the logging road near the City dam on Jackson Creek, Friday afternoon, resulted in the death of Denver Marsh the engineer, and Charles Schumpf, the fireman of the logging engine, had a leg broken and other injuries."

While logging continued afterward, the use of rail died out and logs were extracted by trucks. The rails and most everything but the graded right-of-way disappeared beneath brambles, shrubs and trees. But history-minded residents and railroad buffs, whose curiosity was egged on by accounts of tragedy and tales from their youth, rekindled interest in a short chapter of the region's development.

When Forest Park was aligned a few years ago to provide hiking and mountain-biking trails in a separate area from motorized trails, local historians worked their way along an incline above the reservoir. Using photos from the Southern Oregon Historical Society, they were able match the location of the crash on a hillside.

"The only thing left was the right-of-way on the hillside where they cut into the hill," said Rick Aubin, a U.S. Forest Service retiree who worked 30 years at the Star Ranger Station, and a member of the Southern Oregon Railway Historical Society. "Of course, you wouldn't know it was a railroad unless you were someone looking for it."

After finding the spot, researchers found some tools buried in the hillside near where the 40-ton Climax locomotive, designed for logging, toppled off the tracks.

With little more than an assist from horses, hand crews dug out the path of the rail line, pushing soil and rock from the bank to the edge.

"Especially on logging lines, tracks were built quick," Aubin said. "A lot of them didn't have ballast between the ties. They usually were steep with lots of sharp turns compared to normal lines like the Rogue River Valley Rail Road that ran across flat land."

The ties on the bridge were merely logs flattened on top, and other ties were fairly round, he said.

Marsh, who was born Aug. 11, 1891, according to his draft registration card, had pushed two cars up the hill to the log deck about three miles above town.

With the car nearest the engine fully loaded, the log-loading crew asked Marsh to move the front car into position. Schumpf jumped down and removed the chucks blocking the locomotive’s wheels from rolling back, while Marsh inched the locomotive backward.

As he tried to set the brake, it failed and the train careened down the track for about a mile. Marsh pushed Schumpf out of the cab, but the engineer stayed on board. As the train crossed over the trestle, the cars separated, tearing up the tracks and plunging into the canyon below. The locomotive, still running backward, crossed the bridge before toppling into a dirt bank.

"The trestle was on a slight curve, and the cars peeled the rails right off the ties," Aubin said. "It was lucky they cleared the draw before they ran off the tracks. They could've easily wrecked in the ravine."

Marsh jumped out, but to the wrong side, with the locomotive crushing his legs and pinning him under the wreck. Badly bruised and torn, he was scalded by escaping steam and hot water from the boiler.

Both men were rushed to Sacred Heart Hospital in Medford, a much slower trip than it is today.

While Schumpf recovered and returned to the railroad as a fireman, Marsh never regained consciousness and died less than a month before his 26th birthday.

It was a time when accidents were considered part of turning untamed land into productive territory.

"There was very little reaction," said historian Bill Miller, who wrote a Mail Tribune story about the search for the rail line in 2008. "The family didn't sue, it was just a sad time, then I guess it was over."

Spencer Bullis had plans to build his rail line to the Sterling Mine, but he dropped the plans and returned the railroad to William Barnum in 1918.

— Reach reporter Greg Stiles at 541-776-4463 or business@mailtribune.com. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/GregMTBusiness, on Facebook at www.facebook.com/greg.stiles.31.


A trail runner cruises along Rail Trail during the 2016 Forest Park Runs in Jacksonville, where a tragic train wreck happened 100 years ago this week. [Mail Tribune / Andy Atkinson]
Another view of the train wreck on Bullis Logging Railroad, located in today's Forest Park outside Jacksonville. [Photo courtesy Southern Oregon Historical Society]