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History unearthed

KLAMATH FALLS — After at least 110 years of hiding in brush, an extra piece of the long-gone railroad line that ran from logging sites to the Pokegama Log Chute was unearthed by the Klamath County Museum in September.

Museum manager Todd Kepple, along with volunteer Floyd Chaney and friend Rip Wagner were hiking on private land along the Klamath River, where it crosses the Oregon border into California, to check on a historical marker after the Oregon Gulch fire in the area this summer.

"The location is so remote and visited by so few people," Kepple said.

The marker was undamaged, and on the hike back, looking in an area previously covered by brush, the three men saw an old, rusty piece of rail line.

The area had been burned, and now looked like a "moonscape," Kepple said, revealing a "great piece of history that sat unnoticed for so long."

The three men inspected the rail, and later, Chaney returned to pick it up, Kepple said.

The rail is a long, rusted piece of steel, measuring 8 feet 4 inches long, with a slight bend almost in the middle.

"It's fun to find a piece on your own," Kepple said.

In the late 19th century when the timber industry in the Klamath Basin was booming, logs were transported on the "Old Blue" rail line from the cut sites to the Pokegama Log Chute, located just over the Oregon-California border, where it slid down the canyon to the Klamath River, and then floated to the small town of Klamathon, near what is now Yreka, for processing, Kepple explained.

The locomotive "Old Blue" was brought to the area from Santa Monica, Calif., according to "Klamath Echoes, No. 3," a publication of the Klamath County Historical Society. The materials for the rail line, including the locomotive, were hauled by horse team, and the engine was used by the Weyerhaeuser company to haul logs from 1892 to 1902.

The rail line was later removed, but there are no clear accounts of what happened to "Old Blue." The engine was seen in the forest after the rail line had been dismantled, as late as 1912 and 1918-20, but was likely scrapped for metal in the 1940s, the "Klamath Echoes" editor's page notes.

The museum collection includes "Old Blue's" identifying medallion, however, and Kepple is happy to now have two pieces from the rail line, which he called a "romantic chapter of local history."

"It's kinda neat that these two pieces are back together," he said.

The piece of steel rail raises questions such as, "Why would this one piece of bent rail be left?" and "How was it bent?" Kepple said.

Kepple and the museum staff can only guess the answers.

Kepple theorized that the rail piece was involved in a derailment, or it could have been at a switch where the line divided.

Greg Casassa, a retired Union Pacific brakeman who inspected the piece of rail, suspects it was never used. The ball of the rail has a bead, or seam, on it that would have worn off after even a short amount of use, he explained.

The type of rail is light, rated at only about 40 pounds per 3 feet, Casassa guessed. He researched the name of the rail's maker, Rhymney Steel, which, along with the number 79, for the year 1879, is printed on one side of the piece.

The company was based in England and transitioned from making wrought iron rails to stronger steel rails in 1876. American foundries did not yet have the ability to forge the long pieces of steel needed for rails, so several railroad companies instead bought the materials from overseas, Casassa said.

Casassa measured the museum's piece of rail to be slightly smaller than other pieces of 40-pound rail, but the European company was likely using metric measurements, which could account for the difference, he said.

The piece of rail was found on private property belonging to forestry company Green Diamond Resource Co., which has indicated that it will donate the steel rail to the museum, although the paperwork has not been completed yet, Kepple said.

"It's a great pleasure to have it back where we can appreciate it," he said of the rail.

This undated photo shows the rail that was found by Klamath County Museum staff along the Klamath River near the state border. The Herald And News / Nora Avery-Page