The DeWitt Museum in Prairie City, housed in the National Register-listed Sumpter Valley Railway Depot building, is home to a collection of significant local historical artifacts and serves as an event space and gathering place for locals and visitors alike. The building itself is a rare example of a two-story rural depot, and serves as an important vestige of the area’s most significant period of development. Maintenance and improvements to the historic structure have been difficult to prioritize and funding is limited, but a dedicated community effort can see these needs met and the depot building continue to represent the history of the upper John Day River Valley and northeastern Oregon.
Originally built to transport timber for the Oregon Lumber Company, the Sumpter Valley Railway began with a route from Baker City to McEwen in 1891, continued to Sumpter in 1896, and was finally completed to Prairie City in 1910. This little railway provided a vital commercial link from the John Day River Valley to the economic hubs of Eastern Oregon.
The DeWitt Museum
Year Built: 1910
Location: Prairie City, Oregon
Stretching 81 miles through three mountain passes from Baker City to Prairie City, the railway not only hauled logs and allowed ore from the many area mines to reach the transcontinental Union Pacific Railroad, but was key to continued delivery of mail and passengers traveling to the area. Production declines in the region’s mines and the growth of highway infrastructure to support the automobile led to the gradual loss of railroad revenues. The line to Prairie City was abandoned in 1933.
Construction of the depot at Prairie City corresponded with the completion of the railroad in 1910. The two-story frame structure features bracketed eaves, clipped gables, corbeled brick chimneys, and minimal decorative details which could be categorized as Folk Victorian. Original use of the structure was divided into both service and residential areas with the waiting room, office, and baggage/freight room located on the ground floor and living quarters on the second floor for the station agent and his family.
With the railroad line, the depot was abandoned in the 1930s. In 1975, Grant County acquired the site for use as park. When funds for the depot’s restoration failed to materialize by 1979, the county considered demolition. In response, a community fundraising effort under the leadership of the Sumpter Valley Depot Restoration Committee successfully undertook the renovation of the structure. The building was listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1981 and shortly afterwards began use as a permanent home for the DeWitt Museum, a collection of artifacts and objects established by local collector Gail DeWitt which tells the story of Prairie City and Grant County.
Despite periodic maintenance and improvements over the past four decades, the depot building is in immediate need of repair. The primary areas of concern on the exterior include damaged siding, lack of paint, inadequate flashings, damaged chimneys, and damaged doors and windows. In addition to these visible exterior deficiencies, the wall and attic insulation needs to be removed and an appropriate insulation system installed. Failing to address these concerns will accelerate the decay of the structure and continue to harm the collection.
Restoration and repair work undertaken in 2007 utilized faulty materials and techniques that have left the building in a compromised condition. Freezing and thawing moisture has severely damaged the wood trim and siding, leaving some elements too degraded to restore. The roof of the depot building needs replacement or repair, and birds, insects, and other pests are nesting in the structure and causing damage.
Local constituents agreed to raise funds to hire professional expertise to evaluate, prioritize, and estimate the cost of improvements to the structure.
Restore Oregon staff visited the site and met with local constituents to discuss building needs and possible uses for Restore Oregon’s seed grant.
Listed as one of Oregon’s Most Endangered Places.