IONE, Washington – The train lumbers through forests, skirting a highway, crossing over and then running alongside the Pend Oreille River. Using a microphone, a woman recounts the history of the area, the cadence of her speech matching the pace of travel.
On the left, an abandoned cement factory. To the right, the remains of a town. Over there is where logs used to float down the river. The train stops, suspended above the Box Canyon Dam, and the passengers peer at the sparkling water below.
“This type of stuff is always sad, you have a big boom and then it’s all gone,” Debra Shepherd said of both the train and the local history.
Shepherd was among 380 people Sunday to board the North Pend Oreille Valley Lions Excursion Train, a 10-mile scenic ride north of Spokane that has been in operation for the past 35 years.
The ride will close at the end of October.
The reason for the closure is twofold: No commercial freight travels on the track the train uses, making it too expensive to maintain, and more stringent federal railroad bridge inspection requirements are cost-prohibitive.
“Stopping the train rides is a huge trickle-down effect on everyone,” said Kelly Driver, the manager of the Port of Pend Oreille. “We don’t like the fact that it has to be done.”
Driver said the Port of Pend Oreille can’t justify maintaining the tracks; the estimate for the new bridge inspections alone was $100,000, she said. Although the tracks will no longer be maintained, Driver said, they won’t be abandoned.
She said the line would have closedeven had the federal government not changed the requirements.
“Do we feel horrible? Yes, we do,” Driver said.
Dick Norton, a member of Ione’s Lions Club board, said the ticket proceeds from the train are donated to local organizations – including the fire department, the school district and a local theater.
About 11,000 people ride the train each fall, generating about $40,000 for the local community, Norton said.
“It’s problematic for a great many people,” said Tara Leininger, the mayor of Metaline Falls and the director of the Cutter Theater. “We knew it was coming. So there really is no blame or anger in that.”
Halfway through each 90-minute ride, Cutter Theater actors board the train and “hold up” the passengers. The donated money, Leininger said, brings in $8,000 per year for the theater. The theater’s yearly operating budget is $80,000, she said.
“We have been on a financial decline for a number of years,” she said.
Between 2006 and 2014, the Lions Club donated $31,500 to the local fire district, said John Rumelhart, the district’s administrative assistant. That money is mostly used to buy equipment, he said.
Over the years, proceeds from the train rides have bought an ice rescue sled and a roof saw and have helped pay for two ambulances and other things.
Nancy Lotze, the superintendent of the Selkirk School District, said the club donates between $10,000 and $15,000 to the district annually. Last year, $3,500 of that money was used to pay for referees at high school sporting events because ticket sales to the games couldn’t cover the cost.
“The school district will be impacted in multiple ways,” she said.
Although the train will no longer run between Ione and Metaline Falls, Norton said there’s a chance the annual ride could move to Newport. The Newport Rotary Club and the Ione Lions Club are discussing a partnership to keep the ride going.
Another potential option is for the current track to be maintained via grant money or other private funding, said Driver, of the Port of Pend Oreille. The Pend Oreille River Tourism Alliance is investigating that possibility.
The ride started in 1981. At the time, it featured a single flat car with chicken wire along the sides. Now there are seven cars, pulled by an locomotive leased from the Port of Pend Orielle. The last ride is Oct. 23, but rides have been sold out for months.
Tuyen Nguyen rode the train Sunday with his family. He said he loved the scenery and the peaceful pace of the train. But it was undercut with a sense of melancholy.
“What do these folks do now if all the businesses are gone?” he said. “We wish we’d come up here more often.”
This story has been updated to reflect the fact that all rides until the last day have been sold out for months.
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