The rails of yore
When Washington State University Press first reached out to D.C. Jesse Burkhardt about a book he'd published decades earlier, the retired journalist was circumspect.
The book, "Backwoods Railroads: Branchlines and Shortlines of Western Oregon," was originally published in 1994, and its title is tight to the topic — those side rail lines that feed into the main backbone railroads rolling through the west side of Oregon.
"When WSU first contacted me, I didn't know what to think at first," said Burkhardt, 68, who lives in White Salmon, Wash. "It had been decades, and I thought they just wanted to reprint the book."
It wasn't as simple as that.
Burkhardt, who retired from journalism five years ago, was about to be put to work rewriting and updating history that he originally recorded back in the early 1990s.
The author's map of personal residence dots western Oregon, including Eugene, Springfield, Mapleton, Corvallis and Hillsboro. He even spent time a little over a decade ago working for the Woodburn Independent. Essentially every place he lived or worked had ties to railroads, and he was fascinated by the patterns of the trains, when they would arrive and depart and how often.
That spurred Burkhardt to put together the original Branchlines project with an embedded curiosity rails and the history that roll in with them trigger. Fast forward several decades and he was dispatched to revisit those old tracks, and it was a moving experience.
"I loved it once I got into it," he said. "I moved around so much (and) lived and worked in those areas, so it was wonderful to go back and record it for history.
"It was so very poignant in many ways, especially seeing so many of those tracks gone and the businesses they served shuttered."
He spent a year revisiting and recording the changes, and the result was significant.
WSU Press notes
Today, a freight train rolling over a rural feeder track on its way to or from a western Oregon railroad town is almost an anachronism. Routes may host only one train a day, or two trains a week, but still provide an economic lifeline for a number of businesses. These evolving branchlines and shortlines are taken out of service, sold or leased to new owners, and sometimes abandoned. Many are endangered, and once gone will be gone forever.
Originally published in 1994, and now updated with new content and additional images, Backwoods Railroads: Branchlines and Shortlines of Western Oregon is an engaging description of contemporary branchline and shortline railroad operations in western Oregon. This unique photojournalistic account focuses on the Willamette Valley and its bordering mountain chains — the Coast Range, the Cascades and the Siskiyous. As the state's economic heart, the area's intricate railroad network is the closest Oregon comes to the trackage density found in many eastern and midwestern states. Small companies took on much of the railway construction, hoping to profit by hauling passengers and agricultural products and by providing an outlet for logging operations in the foothills and mountains.
Burkhardt was born in 1953 in a quiet neighborhood of Jackson, Mich., where a New York Central mainline cut through the fields and trees less than a mile from home. The sound of passing trains sparked a sense of mystery and adventure, which evolved into his creative focus.
A University of Oregon graduate, Burkhardt has published eight photojournalistic books on railroad history and operations, as well as two travel adventures. As a photographer, Burkhardt appreciates the lines and angles of tracks and trains, and the way light plays along shifting surfaces. In his images of railroad infrastructure, he strives to capture the rainbow of colors, the sense of motion and the wonder of travel inherent in the subject.
About the book
Published by Washington State University (WSU) Press, Backwoods Railroads is hardbound, 8.5 inches by 11 inches, 180 pages, and lists for $60. It is available through bookstores nationwide, direct from WSU Press at 800-354-7360, or online at wsupress.wsu.edu. A nonprofit academic publisher associated with Washington State University in Pullman, Washington, WSU Press concentrates on telling unique, focused stories of the Northwest.
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