The 50-year saga of a Medco locomotive bell


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ImageBy an anonymous person

(Editor’s note- We rarely accept an anonymous letter or story, but as you read this, we believe you will understand why an exception was made.)

“It was NOT a dark and stormy night, as my fading recollection serves me , but a soft summer night with a bit of moonlight to guide us up the Butte Falls-Prospect Road toward the old Medco Camp site. Our destination was a railroad siding at the camp, where sat an old locomotive which was facing retirement from a life of hauling logs out of the western Cascade Mountains. We were two young couples crowded into a 50s-era pickup truck, but we were not out for a joy ride. A well-planned and altrusistic operation was unfolding. It was the summer of 1958, just 50 years ago this summer.

My best friend from high school, Jon, was the instigator of our mission, which was to rescue the old bronze bell from the locomotive before someone else salvaged it for scrap. Even in those days, scrap metal brought a fairly good price, and Jon could not stand the thought of such a relic being dropped into a melting furnace. It was the plan all along to hold the bell until the fate of the locomotive was decided, then return it to the restorers. It was all we could do to transfer the bell from the engine to the back of the truck, it was so heavy. Back then, maybe one or two cars a week passed by Medco Camp. The road was dirt and gravel and served a couple of ranches near Medco Pond. That night we had it all to ourselves.

Months passed, then years, which turned into decades. I was not the keeper of the bell, and I’m not certain of its travels during the past five decades. Jon served in the Navy, graduated from college, got married, and hd a career in the Bay area. The bell went with him on at least a few of his life’s excursions. My wife (who was with us that night in ‘58) and I stayed in the valley for the most part. I tried to keep track of the old Medco locomotive, and noted articles in the Mail Tribune about the last trips to Medford from Butte Falls of the steam and diesel locomotives, of the removal of the rails, and turning the roadbed into Medco Road in the vicinity of Medford.

I knew of an old Medco engine, a Willamette shay, I believe, that was donated to the City of Medford, and placed in Jackson Park, only to slowly deteriorate due to weather and vandalism. I don’t know if it was the same one from which we liberated the bell, though.

Then I noted that the Jackson Park engine had been donated for display at the new Railroad Park. I thought then that the time was getting closer for the reunion of the bell and engine. Jon was not see this happen, however, as he succumbed to ill health near the turn of the century. His loving wife stayed with their home after his passing, and thus the bell continued to be cared for.

I had an opportunity to go south in a truck a few years ago, and asked Jon’s wife if she thought it appropriate to return the bell to the railroad folks who would appreciate it and possibly restore it to use on an engine. She concurred, and I brought the well-traveled bell back to the valley. I hope to keep us perpetrators anonymous, but also want to tell the story of the Medco locomotive bell and assure any and all interested folks that the intention from the very beginning was to save this beautiful relic for posterity.

Recently the bell was successfully (anonymously) returned to members of the railroad restorers group at Medford’s Railroad Park. That brings the rescue and preservation of this relic full circle, and I hope to see the bell restored to a position of honor on a steam locomotive at the park. It would be an appropriate honor to the memory of my friend Jon.”

Editor’s note: Tony Johnson, one of the restorer group members, received a phone call about 7:30 a.m. on a recent morning wondering if the Railroad Park was open. Johnson told the anonymous caller that it was not, but several would be working there sometime after 8 a.m. Around 9:30 a.m. that same morning, the group noticed a jeep backing in near the engine. By the time they got to the location, the jeep was nowhere to be found and in its place was the old bell.

Johnson said it could be off Engine 2 or 4, which had a bell but it disappeared. He said the bell was from a Willamette Engine. There were only 33 such engines made and only six remain. The bell weighs some 150-175 pounds. When asked its value, Johnson could only guess. But he said it could bring $4-5,000 or more to the right party. Needless to say, the group at Medford Railroad Park was very excited and only wish the anonymous person would step forward so they could thank him for returning the bell and fulfilling the desire of his friend to preserve and protect the bell.

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