Some of my most memorable cycling moments have been entirely unexpected … like the time I found myself participating in that classic western scene — the train robbery! It was last summer and I was staying at Rockaway Beach on the north Oregon coast, visiting some friends. I was about to hop on the bike to take a quick spin along the waterfront when, to borrow a phrase, “I heard that lonesome whistle blow.”
“If you hurry you can watch the train leave,” my friends told me, so I grabbed my camera and raced along the beach access road the half mile to the town center. By the time I turned onto busy Highway 101, the OCSR (Oregon Coast Scenic Railroad) train was pulling away from the simple shelter that serves as the station and turn-around point. I increased my effort while keeping a lookout for pedestrians — and realized I had been transported through time.
I no longer noticed the cars passing me or the happy families on the train because I was now living the dream of a kid again with a Wild West dream in faraway England, to chase down a train to save the innocent passengers from the outlaws who had taken control of the caboose. With the train moving south at about 10 mph past beach houses and hotels, I easily caught up, and with the road ahead looking clear, I reached for my camera and began “shooting!”
By now, the locomotive was literally “picking up steam” and my pulse was starting to race as I kept up the pace while trying to decide how far to go with this fantasy. I put my head down and tried to get ahead of the train, visible only by the plume of smoke rising above the trees.
I should explain that the train runs five miles along the shore from Garibaldi on Tillamook Bay to Rockaway Beach, stops for half an hour, then makes the return run in reverse. This is very fortuitous for the modern cyclo-photographer, because the tracks are on the west side of the highway, and you have a mile or more to get a great “head-on” shot of the engine as it reverses down the track on its way back to Garibaldi before disappearing into the forest.
I remembered that a mile or so ahead there was a clearing and a lake beside the road and guessed I had a slight lead on the train. So when I reached the lake, I jumped off the bike and scrambled to the edge of the water — just before the train emerged from the trees and ran along a causeway crossing the lake. I got three good shots off before it headed into the trees again.
By now I was completely hooked, so I jumped back on the bike and took off for the next viewpoint — where the road looks out over the scenic entrance to Tillamook Bay. There is absolutely no shoulder here, so I leaned my bike against the rock seawall and climbed on to it to wait for the train. The tracks were now about six feet directly below me, so I had a great close-up view of the engine only a few feet away.
The train now had a running start on me and continued along the bay’s shore while I had to climb a short steep hill and descend into the fishing port of Garibaldi. When I arrived at the end of the line, the train was sitting and hissing quietly in the open-air depot by the harbor. I called the contest a tie, picked up a brochure and saw it was only a half hour before the next trip began. The time passed quickly, and as soon as the whistle sounded I rode back to a clear spot on the hill that gave a good view of the tracks and the bay.
I got more good photos and set off on the ride home. It was only then I found out why the outbound leg had been so easy — the wind was blowing from the northeast, which left me struggling on as the train pulled nonchalantly ahead! Later, I found the OCSR website and learned that the engine really is a movie veteran, having appeared in two iconic films I remember seeing: “Bound for Glory” (1975) and “Stand By Me” (1986).
It was built in Schenectady, N.Y. in 1925 and spent 86 years in McCloud, Calif., hauling logs near Mount Shasta until 1987. The boiler was converted from coal to recycled motor oil, which stills puts out a good deal of smoke. The OCSR is planning to extend the line to the famous Tillamook Cheese Co. plant by Highway 101 north of downtown Tillamook, which will add nine miles to the existing route, making the “Great Tillamook Train Chase” quite a respectable workout.
Peter J. Marsh is an outdoor and nautical writer. He was the editor of Oregon Cycling from 1988-1991. He wrote Rubber to the Road — a guidebook to bike rides around Portland (rubbertotheroad.com). He lives in Astoria, Ore., when not traveling the world on his bike. More of his writing can be found at sea-to-summit.net.