The Coast Starlight: A (Legal) Train Ride Over Willamette Summit

OK, I almost hit the throttle and took the Union Pacific Streamliner E9 over Willamette Summit, but at the last minute, thought the better of it. And I still haven’t fully given up my dream of hopping a freight and riding over the pass on an open flat car. But for now, my frustration had to be assuaged, somehow. Easy enough, if you’re willing to give up the view through the cab windshield: for $24 Amtrak will let you ride legitimately.

And the schedule is very convenient, for a quick overnight trip. The southbound Coast Starlight leaves Eugene at 5:40 PM, and the first stop is Chemult, a wide spot on Highway 97  in the dry pine-tree country of Central Oregon. It arrives in that bustling metropolis of some 300 city-life shunning souls at about 8:30 PM. And in the morning, it leaves Chemult at 9:44 AM, and arrives back home at 12:44. An overnight mini-vacation to savor the night life of Chemult, and back again. As Stephanie said: “You really know how to show a girl a good time”.

We packed supper in my backpack, and walked from our house down to the train station. It was slightly disconcerting to see it there already as we walked down Willamette Street, since in Europe the trains usually stop only very briefly. But we still had a half hour to spare before departure time; better than it running five hours late.

Heading up the healthy-sized consist of Superliner bi-level cars were two of Amtrak’s typical GE Genesis P42DC locos, each making up to 4250 hp. But a fair chunk of that power goes to keep the small rolling city air conditioned and feeding all those electronic devices taking advantage of the on-board WiFi.

The sleepers are in the front, and the four coaches in the way back. In between are the dining, observation, and the swimming-pool car-cum-day spa car. Let’s start walking…

I really had my heart set on a seat in the Observation Car, and sure enough, there was one double seat left, which also swiveled 360º to allow views in both directions. Good thing, since the best ones were mostly on the other side.

All the desperate smokers have had their nicotine fix on the platform, everyone is aboard, and off we go, looking down Willamette Street where we had just walked.

As the name implies, we generally followed the Coast Fork of the Willamette River upstream, as rivers of course usually offer the easiest gradients. Here we are just heading out, the river-side bike path where we ride so often visible below.

The fun part of riding a train even through your hometown is that it shows places, scenes, and back yards otherwise unfamiliar and innacessible. Like this very CC junkyard in Springfield. MM would love that.

It’s a very pleasant and relaxing ride up the river, crossing it several times to Oakridge, from where one gets a glimpse of snowy Diamond Peak in the background. Oakridge was once both a big lumber mill town, as well as a major train yard. In the steam days, locomotives were switched out or serviced here, and helper locomotives hooked unto the back to get the train over the 4,800 ft top of the pass, up near the flanks of Diamond Peak.

Needless to say, Oakridge is a shadow of its former self, but it does have a fine English-style pub, the Brewer’s Union, with excellent brews made right in the back room and good food. But not today, as the train doesn’t even stop in Oakridge anymore. The only thing to see where there once was a bustling freightyard is a snow plow of sorts; a bit different than usual in that the plow is underneath the car, just ahead of the second truck. But I’m sure there’s a big rotary plow stashed away here somewhere, as the snowfall can be prodigious up on the pass.

I hope you’re not disappointed, but I don’t have any really dramatic views to show you. For one, the lush trees grow tall on both sides of the tracks most of the way. And this isn’t like crossing the crest of the Rockies; the Old Cascades are a bit more like the Appalachians, except for the occasional youthful snowy volcano. The Three Sisters are too far north to see from this route, and Diamond Peak also keeps mostly to itself. But that doesn’t take away from the constantly changing views of valleys, streams, deep fern-studded woods, and other sights. It’s just that they come by quickly, and are hard to shoot.

It’s really more about the relaxed experience of the ride, and it is a very smooth and comfortable one, and of course quite slow too. I’d say the train was going about 35 to 45 mph most of the time, and a fair bit slower on the steepest part. What it did do was to whet my appetite even more for riding this route in an open freight car. The route does deviate quite substantially from familiar Hwy 58, and makes one long reverse loop on the way to the summit of the pass.

Our picnic supper was accompanied by a nice big bottle of local Ninkasi brew, which we had packed too. That caught the attention of one of the stewards, who sternly told us it was illegal to bring one’s own alcoholic beverages along. Are you going to stop the train and throw us off? So I guess the trip wasn’t totally legit after all.

Once over the top, we rolled along the shores of indigo-blue Odell Lake, but any attempt to shoot it through the brief gaps in the trees was futile. From there, the train picked up the tempo, through the monochromatic pine forests of the eastern slope of the Cascades, which gets only a fraction of the rainfall that the lush western slopes are blessed/cursed with.

In the fading light of a mid-summer’s eve, we rolled into Chemult, and a handful of us got out. Chemult is the only Amtrak stop in this whole area of Oregon, and there is a shuttle bus connecting up to Bend and such. We could see our digs for the night, the Dawson House Lodge, from the train platform. It was a roadhouse built in the twenties, and has been updated in a the somewhat cloying style that one might expect, especially the “Rose Room”, the most expensive in the place (a bottle of “champagne” is included). Hey, I know how to show a girl a good time…

The best thing about the Rose Room were the “gold” faucets on the bathroom sink and Jacuzzi tub, which had to have come out of a house or hotel in Beverly Hills, circa 1958. I wish I’d taken a shot of the faucet knobs: googie meets Goldfinger.

In the morning, we walked across the street to the Wagon Wheel Cafe for a surprisingly decent breakfast, with the deep-gold yolks of the eggs cooked just right. And then we headed back over to the open platform that is called Chemult Station, to await our train, which was running about thirty minutes late. Not bad.

I couldn’t get a shot of it, but the second locomotive was not a Genesis, but a GE Dash 8-32BWH hood unit. These are apparently used as back-ups on the West Coast Amtrak fleet. The Observation coach was jammed, which was maybe just as well. After our wild night on the town, we were quite happy to stretch out in our coach seats, and catch a little nap or two on the way home. A good time indeed.