|Metolius looks to renovate vintage depot
Published: April 18, 2004
Metolius Mayor Darrell Agee, left background, and Tryna Muilenburg, a city councilor, examine items in a room at the
Metolius train depot which was abandoned and left virtually untouched since the early 1980s.
Rob Kerr / The Bulletin
By Jeanene Harlick
METOLIUS — Under a thick layer of dust in a room the color of mint ice cream, the ghosts of old telegraphers breathe.
A plastic visor hangs on a nail and an oil can rests on the windowsills.
Below, on a ledge, remnants of a telegraph machine sit, evoking the rail line that's outgrown them.
Clunky turn-of-the-century typewriters and adding machines languish beside them.
Old ledgers, waybills and timetables spill forth from cubby- holes, and a low desk holds a basket of charcoal. Inside a
desk drawer, pipe cleaners and inspection records mix with a post card.
It looks as if it's just closed for the day but the telegraph room in the back of the old railroad depot actually died 26
years ago. "Old head" Ted Matylinksi, one of the depot's former telegraph agents, remembers its heyday like yesterday.
"February 19, 1956 ... how time flies," Matylinski, 74, said, recalling his first day of work in Metolius. "We told the trains
where to go and what to switch ... It was all hands on."
City leaders hoping to preserve such memories have embarked on a project to restore the Metolius depot, which closed
Fresh from a failed attempt to secure its own ZIP code, the struggling community of 750 individuals is launching a new
effort at community identity. Armed with a fledgling depot committee and little else, the tiny city is bent on turning former
glory into gold.
"We kinda think the depot is the best thing we have going in the town ... We're hoping restoration will stimulate
(economic) development," City Councilor Tryna Muilenburg said. "We want to make it something really special so people
will stop in Metolius."
Following in the steps of many former boom towns, the city hopes to turn the depot, which sits on the east side of the
tracks a stone's throw from City Hall, into a railroad museum.
First on the wish list is repairing a leaky roof that will take at least $25,000 to fix. Next up is restoring the passenger
room, telegraph office and living quarters that sit next to an already-refurbished freight room.
The wood-paneled room, restored when the city bought the depot from Burlington Northern in 1983, boasts a wall of
original graffiti scribbled by railroad workers in the early 1900s.
But city leaders face hurdles. First, there's zero money in city coffers for such a project.
Another problem may be more daunting.
"We don't know what we're doing," Muilenburg frankly admits. "The thing is, we don't know anything about museums."
But that's not about to stop city leaders. They figure they'll wing it.
"We're going to be on the map some day," Muilenburg said.
Judging from similar efforts by other cities, Metolius shouldn't have much of a problem.
Restored depots dot the American landscape and seem to have little trouble securing funds.
The Clackamas County town of Canby, for example, restored its depot in 1984 with the help of a community block grant
from the federal department of Housing and Urban Development. Former Canby depot worker Herman Bergman said
the money was a cinch to land.
"They were very happy to supply us some money," he said.
City leaders see the project as a way to reinvigorate Metolius with some of the "rough and ready" character that once
distinguished it from its neighbors. Originally settled by German migrants seeking dry land farming opportunities,
Metolius developed a reputation for reckless behavior and outlandish characters.
"It was pretty rank around here," said Matylinksi, recalling a shoot-out in the old hotel on 7th and Jefferson streets many
years ago. Stuck on the same prostitute, two male borders took aim at each other in a convenience store on the hotel's
first floor, he said.
"People were ducking and dodging. There were bullet holes in the canned fruit (afterward)," he said. "One guy got hit, in
the leg I think. They hauled him away in an ambulance."
The old depot stands as the only remaining symbol of a city that once dominated local trade. City leaders saved the
building from demolition when they bought the depot for just $1 dollar in 1983. Sitting on the west side of the tracks
about 100 feet south of its current spot, the building had to be moved north, to city property.
While Burlington Northern wanted to slice the depot up and move it in pieces, city leaders weren't having any of it. After
scratching their heads a couple days, they hatched a plan.
"The county judge and some other members of the council organized some railroad workers ... and they moved the
depot in one piece," Matylinksi said. "They just jacked it up, put some stringers and rollers underneath, and wrenched it
a foot at a time."
It's small wonder the terminal inspired such loyalties. Established in 1911, it turned a sleepy town of less than 100
people into a bustling, commercial hub boasting two banks, two hotels, two newspapers and a population of 1,700 by
"It was the hottest town in the county," Mayor Darrell Agee said.
The depot, along with terminals in Madras and Bend, was the fruit of a fierce race between the Union Pacific and
Oregon Trunk rail lines to cross the Deschutes gorge and penetrate Central Oregon. Having just completed a network
of lines along the Columbia River, tycoons James Hill and Edward Harriman — who owned the Oregon Trunk and Union
Pacific, respectively — were engaged in a grudge fight to own the region, according to "Stations West, the Story of the
Oregon Railways," by Edwin Culp. Millions of dollars would be spent on wasted rail lines before the rivals realized they
needed to share portions of track to navigate the hilly terrain into Bend.
With the Union Pacific building down the east side of the Deschutes and the Oregon Trunk down the west, crews and
survey teams engaged in shoot-outs and scuffles as they staked claim to strategic spots along the canyon. The Oregon
Trunk won the race when it reached Metolius in 1911, its line snaking along the river until the town of Mecca and then
darting through Willow Creek canyon to reach Madras and Metolius. The railway soon extended its line to Bend, building
a bridge over the Crooked River that is still one of the highest rail bridges in the country.
The Union Pacific wasn't far behind. It too soon landed in Metolius, leaving the river south of the town of Kaskela, going
up Trout Creek and running along the ridge high above Madras before descending into Metolius. But unlike its rival, the
rail line went no further. Metolius became the end of the line and, as such, a focal point of the railway. A roundhouse —
for engine servicing — and turntable were built for the cars that would switch at the station.
"They had about 12 tracks at one point," Matylinksi said. "Metolius was division headquarters."
By 1915, a Central Oregon resident could catch the Oregon Trunk in the evening and be in Portland the following
morning. Boasting 150 miles of track and three bridges, the railway was by far the superior line, according to "Roads
and Rails South From the Columbia," by John Due and Frances Juris Rush.
But while more expensive and sturdy than the cheaply built Union Pacific, the rail line had its share of problems. In 1911,
a southbound passenger train running on an inadequately ballasted track derailed and plummeted into the river, 22
miles north of Sherar's Falls. Six people died, including a storekeeper from the Warm Springs Indian reservation. The
conductor and assistant superintendent of maintenance were later found guilty of negligence for going 53 miles per
hour on a track restricted to 10.
Unfortunately for Metolius, its boom didn't last. In 1923 the Union Pacific abandoned its line south of Kaskela. Within the
year, Metolius was a ghost town with just 60 residents.
By the time Matylinksi arrived in 1956, however, the tide had changed, thanks to the federal government's building of
the North Unit Irrigation District — which brought potato crops to the region. The Metolius Depot once again thrived,
shipping out more than 3,000 carloads of potatoes yearly, in addition to cattle, sheep and grain.
"In our best year we had as many as 17 trains coming through in a day," he said.
Developing a reputation as a "workhorse," the terminal scared away most telegraph agents who feared the grueling
labor. But when a vacancy opened up in 1956, Matylinski grabbed it.
"It was a day job with good pay. I wanted it," said Matylinski, who left a post in Maupin to work in Metolius.
In those days, telegraph operators were the heart of the system, responsible for transmitting the orders that kept trains
from backing up or hitting each other when schedules lagged behind timetables.
The most challenging part of the job, however, was getting those messages to locomotives barreling past stations.
Telegraph agents would attach orders to bamboo hoops and stand along the railroad as trains roared by. The
conductor would run his arm through the hoop as the telegraph agent released his; the conductor would then drop the
hoop beside the track after grabbing his message.
"You'd have a multimillion dollar train coming at you puffing smoke and steam and you'd have to hope you were far
enough away you wouldn't get hit," Matylinksi said. "It took a bit of courage to stand out there."
In later years, train order hoops evolved into broom-like devices with six-foot handles topped by a triangle of wire.
Orders were attached to the wire with string, and the hoops sent out on semaphores that shuttled messages to trains
via a pulley system.
Some of those order hoops still hang in the Metolius depot's telegraph room today. And the levers that controlled the
semaphore still stand by the window sill.
Matylinksi, who retired in 1987 after a few years at the Madras depot, said he misses the days of hard-core railroading
when satellite systems and fax machines were unheard of and keeping trains on schedule required skills that put
today's multi-taskers to shame.
"It was like an overgrown model railroad. You were the one that made that car go where it was supposed to go," he said.
"Nowadays, everything is handled by someone in St. Paul or St. Louis.
"Railroading today, it just isn't fun anymore."