The DeWitt Museum has been named one of Oregon’s most endangered places by Restore Oregon, a nonprofit committed to preserve historical sites.
The museum, once the old Sumpter Valley Railway Depot, has been preserved as a railroad museum and RV park. It houses a collection of items left from the railroad that once ran through the John Day Valley, as well as other artifacts from the past.
The railway depot is leftover from a time when the railroad was the backbone of the John Day Valley. The locomotive was slowly pushed out by the automobile as personal transportation became more accessible to the average person and more roads were built.
The Prairie City Depot was constructed in 1910 and used to help transport supplies and personnel for logging, mining and ranching activities from Baker County to Prairie City.
Later in its life, the depot was used for passenger service to Prairie City but was abandoned in 1933. The Olp family moved into the depot in the early 1940s, and in 1947, the tracks were pulled up, according to Museum Curator Bob Shive. The Olp family lived there until 1973.
Following their departure, the depot fell into disrepair and was almost torn down. However, a local group gathered donations and awareness by hiking the old rail line to preserve the building, according to Shive.
The building was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1976, and the museum moved into the building in 1983. In 1984, Prairie City assumed control of the museum from Grant County.
Though the museum is in need of a number of repairs, the situation could be worse, Shive said. The museum has tremendous support from the community, and he isn’t worried about the building being torn down anytime soon.
“We certainly haven’t given up because back in the ’70s it was in really bad shape,” Shive said.
As well as railroad memorabilia, the museum is also home to the remainder of the DeWitt family collection, consisting of everything from horse tack to medical instruments and medicine from past eras.
Restore Oregon compiles a yearly list of endangered places selected from nominations sent in from across the state. Each location is historically significant and in danger of being lost through development, demolition or neglect. Each endangered place receives assistance from Restore Oregon and a seed grant for preservation.
The DeWitt museum will receive a $2,500 seed grant from Restore Oregon to form a preservation plan and budget for repairs. Shive said the building is structurally sound but needs a new coat of paint, repairs to the siding on the building and, most of all, volunteers. Volunteering at the museum is ”a great way to study the area, history and learn more about it,” Shive said.
One such volunteer is newly elected Prairie City City Council member Frank Primozic, who has been volunteering at the museum since 2005.
Primozic said he started volunteering because he enjoys history and the museum helped him appreciate it.
“The railroad opened up the John Day Valley to the 20th century,” he said.