History of Austin & Bates

The Sumpter Valley Railroad arrived in Austin during 1905. In the beginning, the rails stopped at the former stagecoach stop of Austin Station. A large sawmill owned by Oregon Lumber Company was built beside the tracks at Austin. This mill was in operation during the decade preceding World War I. The passenger trains from Baker stopped at the Austin House (Austin Station) for lunch which “Ma” Austin served at her board house. The meals were served “family style” in ample proportions. From Austin, the Oregon Lumber Company laid their own tracks into the timber and brought logs to the big double-sided mill.

Austin was quite a town in its day, with several saloons, stores and even a jail. The buildings had false fronts (there was still one of these false fronted buildings standing as late as 1997). It boasted a board sidewalk also. The railroad facilities included a four-stall engine house, yard trackage and a water tank. There was a mill called the Eccles Mill near Austin. This mill was owned and operated by Bill Eccles, a brother to David Eccles, owner of Oregon Lumber Company.

The town of Austin was started by a man named Newton. In the late 1800s, Minot and Linda Austin arrived and purchased the town site, and renamed it Austin. Minot ran a stage line between Sumpter and Canyon City. Linda ran the general store, hotel and boarding house. At one time, Austin boasted a population of approximately 500 people. In about 1917, the Oregon Lumber Company built a new double-sided sawmill about a mile down the Middle Fork of the John Day River from Austin. A company owned town was built for the mill workers and was named Batesville. Later, the name was shortened to Bates. This mill remained in full operation until October 1975, when a new mill was put into operation in John Day by Edward Hines Lumber Company, the owners at that time.

The Oregon Lumber Company built a large white hotel at the side of the track close to the mill. There was a dance hall near the hotel, (later a truck barn was built on the sight of the dance hall, after it had burned down), where many dances were attended by all. Oregon Lumber Company built logging tracks down the Middle Fork and had branches up the draws and creeks to supply logs to the new mill. The lumber was then shipped on the Sumpter Valley Railroad to Baker. The rails were pulled in the late 1940s. At this time off-highway logging trucks began hauling logs in to the mill. They had 12 foot wide bunks and were stacked close to 20 feet from the ground.

There were other sawmills in the area which were the Baker White Pine mill on Crawford Creek, the Stoddard Brothers Lumber Company, later becoming Stoddard Lumber Company, did a lot of logging in the local area, hauling logs on their own trains in to their mill in Baker.

Just west of Austin Junction are the remains of a mill called the Cavenaugh mill, beside Bridge Creek. A small mill pond is still visible. This mill was built in 1929, but never sawed a board. The Depression struck and construction was halted. Bates was tucked into one of the loveliest valleys in Grant County in Eastern Oregon. It was surrounded by prime timber, with Dixie Butte (elevation 7592 feet above sea level) towering over the town. Today, Bates along with its saw mill, its railroad and all of the people who once lived there, now only exist as memories and faces in old photos of the former residents.

The technique of logging in the beginning at Austin and Bates was simple. It involved a lot of hard, physical labor. In those days of the early 1900s, most types of work did.

A crew was sent out to construct the railroad grade for the tracks to be laid on. The main line of Eccles narrow gauge railroad followed the Middle Fork of the John Day River from Bates, eventually going as as far as Camp Creek. All the track except the main line was temporary track. As the crew went out and built the grade, another crew followed behind laying track. These temporary branch lines went out into the canyons where the logging was taking place. The lumber camps came along with the railroad. The cook shack and dining room were built on railroad cars, as were many of the dwellings (boxcar houses) the men and their families lived in.

When an area was logged out, the lumber camp was dismantled. Much of it was loaded onto the flat cars, the track was taken up behind the train and the work proceeded to another area of the forest. In the beginning, until the dry kilns were built, the lumber produced at the Bates mill was loaded green onto flat cars and hauled to Baker, where it was dried in the kilns at the Oregon Lumber Company mill there.

Over the years as the industry progressed, much of the work done by the railroad was gradually replaced by trucks that hauled the logs. By 1935 there were quite a few trucks in use. The trucks hauled more and more and the railroad less and less, until about 1946 and 1947 the last rails were pulled up. That’s when the dry kilns were built.

The population of Bates ranged between a few hundred to as many as 400. As machines replaced men, the population dwindled. At one time there were approximately 125 kids in the Bates School. Bates was a close-knit community. Those who lived there were like one big family. It was a great place to raise kids. Everybody watched out for the kids. To those who lived at Bates, it was a special place and a special time in their lives.

*Photos taken in 1957 by Albert Stone and his daughter Louise Stone Labaugh