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Edition #106, July 15, 2009

Two Weeks from Oblivion

Photographer: Jeff Moore

                                                                                                              Photo by Jeff Moore

Two Weeks from Oblivion

Thirty years ago, you'd be hard pressed to find a busier shortline than the McCloud River. The dispatcher's office in McCloud issued orders to at least four and sometimes five crews each day. Trains operated around the clock to keep up with the combined output of the many sawmills located along the line. Paychecks issued through the general office kept food on the tables of eighty or more families. 

You'd never know that now.

The date is June 20, 2006. The place is Bartle, California, eighteen miles east of McCloud. Bartle started in the 1880's as a cattle ranch, hotel and stage stop built by brothers Abraham and Jerome Bartle. The McCloud River Railroad reached the community in 1905. Railroad facilities through the years have included a hotel, warehouses, livestock pens and scales, a balloon track, section gang headquarters, a machine shop and a water tank. By the 1970's only one siding and the water tank remained, with the tank playing an important role in the excursion program the railroad operated into the 1980's.

A series of sawmill closures in 1978 and 1979 robbed the railroad of most of its customers. The railroad continued to eke out an existence, mostly through car repair and storage and what little forest products and mineral traffic the marketing forces could find. The McCloud River struggled on until 1992, when the railroad's owners gave up and sold the property to the new McCloud Railway Company. The McCloud Railway tried hard to keep things going, but by the dawn of the 21st century the end was in sight. 

Spring is normally a time of new life and new beginnings. The sturdy old water tank has seen countless springs come and go, but like the railroad it is now old and tired. In the distance the last engineer on the railroad's payroll, representing a full one-quarter of the company's remaining workforce, guides locomotive #37 eastward. This will be the only train to make the 130 mile round trip from McCloud to the last shipper the railroad has, a sawmill at the edge of the railroad's map in the small town of Burney. A scant three empty centerbeams are on today's train, and only seven lumber loads wait at the sawmill's loading dock.  The paucity of traffic does not support the continued existence of the railroad, and the final revenue freight will rumble past the Bartle tank at the end of the following week. A year and a half later the rails themselves will be ripped from the ground.

The railroad has come and gone. Only the birds whistle in Bartle now.

Jeff Moore

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