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New autumn train excursion in NE Washington replaces popular ride halted last year

UPDATED: Fri., March 24, 2017, 10:27 p.m.

NEWPORT – Train romantics smile, kids laugh and first-time riders gape as the train starts moving with a tug from the giant locomotive. The whistle blasts a warning; the odd string of purple-gold cars and antique coaches head down the track.

That’s how Bob Shanklin, who has logged over 60 years working on the railroad, describes the start of the Pend Oreille County excursion train that has been an autumn ritual for train enthusiasts and families. That scene, he said, still gives him a thrill.

The ride almost became part of railroad lore last fall.

Railroad officials told the North Pend Oreille Lions Club they couldn’t afford to maintain the track from Ione to Metaline Falls in northern Pend Oreille County any longer just for the popular ride. Without industrial customers north of Usk to pay the costs of the track, the railroad no longer needs to maintain it.

After studying the project, the Newport/Priest River Rotary Club is ready to help – at least for one year.

The Rotary recently announced a schedule for new excursion train rides, with a route from Newport to Dalkena and back. They’re going to start Aug. 12 and end Oct. 15. The 24-mile round trip will take an hour and a half.

Shanklin, a Port of Pend Oreille commissioner, was a railroad manager and worked on tracks throughout the region. And he was a member of the Lions who volunteered to work on the train rides almost from the start. After riding on dozens of excursion trains, he finds the one in northeast Washington among the best.

“We want people to come to our community and experience the train,” said Nadine Parker, chairwoman of the Rotary train ride committee. “We are planning an all-around experience.”

She said the Lions Club members who operated the ride from Ione to Metaline Falls for over 35 years set a great example. Some members will be helping the Rotary.

“We’re going to expand on some things,” Parker said. During their ride they will have historic information, music and local theater groups performing.

Although this new ride won’t offer the big visual attractions of the other, it has some new and unique views. Most of the ride can’t be seen from the highway so there are some surprises, Shanklin said.

The ride will start near Pine Street in downtown Newport behind the Pend Oreille Public Utility buildings. They will have restrooms and a handicap-access car.

Parker said the volunteers will dress in historic train-crew costumes. Free parking and areas to unload larger tour buses will be available.

After loading one of three covered open cars, three historic coaches or the caboose, the train will start the journey north. Almost immediately, the riders will become the show as they cross U.S. Highway 2, stopping traffic in both directions.

From there, they travel out of Newport at about 15 miles per hour. Those in the open cars can stand and walk around to get the best views. Snacks, drinks and restrooms are available in each car.

The train will head to the Pend Oreille River, with the first view of scenic Ashenfelter Bay.

History buffs will appreciate the stories of this historic railroad built between 1907 and 1910 by Frederick Blackwell to transport people, logs, lumber and cement.

During construction there were more than 2,000 workers, many from other countries. There are many stories from the tough construction days including one about 56 Bulgarians who couldn’t understand English refusing to work, resulting in a skirmish.

From the river flats, the train moves into a forested area on the edge of the Colville National Forest. Riders will be able to experience what it was like 100 years ago rolling through a remote forest when the railroad carried logs to the mills and people from Metaline Falls to Spokane twice a day.

After leaving the forest, the train travels away from the river and across Highway 20 through forests and pastures. Shanklin has ridden the rail thousands of times. He said there is more wildlife on this end of the track than in the north; watch for coyotes, moose, bears, deer, eagles, geese and turkeys.

The track is on the high side of the road and offers spectacular views east toward the river and mountains. There will be plenty of colorful forest views for the fall rides.

The train stops at the tiny historic rail town of Dalkena; there’s only a church and fire hall. At one time, the Diamond Match sawmill was near there. Hundreds of pilings the mill used to hold the acres of logs still rise from the river. Now they are osprey and eagle perches.

The train will have a locomotive on each end so operators don’t have to switch engines, just the crew. Riders should be ready for a possible train robbery at this notorious spot, said Parker.

The ride will continue back to the depot in Newport.

Parker is hoping to match the ridership of the Lions’ rides. They had 11,000 people ride during the past season and sold out all the rides. The rides netted the Lions about $50,000 for community projects.

The Rotary will sell advance tickets on a website that Parker said would be operational soon. They call the excursion the “Scenic Pend Oreille River Train.”

Tickets are $20 for adults and $15 for children. The train will seat 350 per ride.

The Rotary will use the ticket revenue to pay for expenses, with the rest going to community service projects. They will pay the Lions half the revenue for use of their cars. The Lions pay the Inland Empire Railroad Historical Society for use of their two coaches and one open car.