Two rides on the rail bus
Paul Franklin and Elmer Werth were small boys back in the 1920s, when a rickety railbus was shuttling travelers back and forth between the native American logging town of Grand Ronde and the farming community of Whiteson.
Though each of them made the trip only once, the experience stuck in their minds, as it represented their first train ride.
Of course, it wasn’t actually a train. It was a self-propelled White bus, retrofitted to run on the rails and converted to carry freight and mail in addition to passengers.
From 1923 to 1928, the railbus plied about 20 miles of track on daily runs between Grand Ronde and Whiteson. It passed through Willamina and Sheridan along the way.
By all accounts, the big bus rocked back and forth and bounced up and down as it lurched along the tracks.
The combination of its ungainly appearance and rollicking ride earned it the affectionate sobriquet “Galloping Goose.” A bus on rails is as gawky as a bird out of water, so it was fitting.
Some 84 years have now passed since its last local run. So you’d have to be up there in age to have taken a personal gander at the Goose during its glory days on the Grand Ronde Willamina Railroad.
Elmer Werth thinks he was about 4 years old when he and his mother boarded the Goose for the first leg of a trip to Newberg. He’s 90, so that would have made it about 1926.
“We were on the way to visit my grandmother,” he said. “I remember sitting on a cold, hard bench at the station in Grand Ronde, and I’ll never forget the really bumpy ride to Whiteson. Then we caught a train that took us from there to Newberg.”
Like many natives of the western reaches of Yamhill County, Werth calls his home community “Grand Round.”
That’s the way locals have pronounced it all his life, he said. And if you question that, he’ll point out that “ronde” means “round” in French. So there!
Werth is from a longtime Valley Junction farming family. His grandfather, Fred, bought an intact Donation Land Claim, including the land now occupied by the Spirit Mountain Casino.
His father, Fred Jr., and uncle, T.J., inherited the tract and split it in two. The casino sits on what became T.J.’s portion.
Paul Franklin, three years younger, is also a Valley Junction boy. And like Werth, it’s “Grand Round” to him.
He has no use for the uppity Umatillans living along the Grande Ronde Valley’s Grande Ronde River. For him, one extra French “e” is more than enough.
Franklin took his lone trip on the Goose in the reverse direction. He took the Red Electric from Dallas to Whiteson, then caught the Goose for the run back to Grand Ronde.
“I was between 3 and 4 years old,” he said. That would have made it not long before the Goose’s demise.
“What I remember is a lot of swaying and looking out the window at the countryside passing by,” he said.
“For some reason, I can’t seem to remember anything about Whiteson, but slowly pulling into the Grand Ronde Depot sticks in my mind. Maybe it’s because I was so excited about getting home.”
Franklin remained in Valley Junction until he enlisted in the Army at the beginning of World War II. After the war, he owned and operated a Chevron station in Corvallis, and he’s made his home there ever since.
Werth served during the war as well. He applied for air cadet training in 1941, during his junior year at Oregon State College, forerunner of Oregon State University. He was deferred until 1942 to finish his schooling, then entered the U.S. Army Air Corps, forerunner of the U.S. Air Force.
Rather than fight the enemy in the skies, however, he ended up becoming a meteorological specialist, charged with tracking storms. The results were used strategically by military planners.
Despite their own brief encounters with the Galloping Goose, both men recall it with nostalgic affection. And they have nothing but praise for the Willamina volunteers who tracked it down in 2007 and eventually succeeded in bringing it back home.
Accomplishing that goal was by no means simple. The fact is that another rail buff, noted Mount Hood Railway owner Jack Mills, had already latched onto it in Hood River.
With the help of numerous persistent supporters, including the Willamina Economic Improvement District, Mills was eventually persuaded the Goose’s rightful residence was in Willamina.
In April 2011, the volunteers gave the one-of-a-kind coach a proper base — a track bed with ties and rails. And there she now rests.
Following a photo op in front of the railbus — the cause for their coming together — Werth and Franklin ignored everyone else and huddled alone to reminisce.
After all, they are likely the only ones left around who can remember people, places and happenings in Grand Ronde and Valley Junction going back eight decades.
And that’s what I found out while OUT and ABOUT — pondering the anticipation of adventure a kid would feel clambering aboard an old-time train during the height of America’s rail era.
Karl Klooster can be reached by e-mail at email@example.com or phone at 503-687-1227.