Pete Burg, one of the last surviving Medco crew members, visits the Medford Railroad Park where a Willamette Iron and Steel steam engine is being restored. The railroad engine was last used in 1959. - Bob Pennell

Memories from the last engineer

There may be more Medco locomotives surviving than the men who rode them down the rails.

"We think Pete is one of the few Medco crew members left and maybe the last engineer," said Joanne Burg, wife of 79-year-old Marvin "Pete" Burg. "They're just all going by the wayside."

Medco, the Medford Corporation, operated a railroad that carried logs from the forests around Butte Falls to the company mill in Medford for nearly 40 years.

"I graduated from high school in Butte Falls," said Pete Burg, "but I grew up just about 10 miles below in a place called Derby."

He said people always wanted to know why Medco would hire a "19-year-old kid" to work on the railroad, and he has a quick answer.

"Those old guys just wouldn't pick it up," he said, "and I would. I needed a job. I started firing on the railroad for, I think, $1.45 an hour."

He said he didn't expect to start at the top.

"You start by learning how to fire," he said, "and if somebody dies off, well, maybe then you get a chance someday to start running locomotives."

Firing the engines meant getting up early and driving all the way to Butte Falls in all kinds of weather.

"At first I drove my Model-A Ford — a convertible with a rumble seat and the whole bit. Boy, it was a good one," he said. "I paid $350 for it. But pretty soon I knew I needed dependable transportation, so I bought a brand-new 1948 Jeep — paid $1,800 for it — didn't even have a driver's license yet."

Arriving at Butte Falls at five in the morning, it was his job to get the locomotive ready for the day's activities.

"They were steam engines, but they didn't run on wood or coal," he said. "They were oil burners. They ran on crude oil. You had to heat it to burn it."

To "fire it up," he turned a big valve at the top of the engine to get the oil flowing, and then lit some cotton material soaked in kerosene.

"We called it 'waste,' " he said. "It was cloth you wiped off grease and cleaned parts with. You lit it with a match, threw it into the fire box and slammed the door."

The rest of the crew, an engineer and a brakeman, arrived at 6 a.m. to begin a 12- to 14-hour day.

"After making sure you kept a full head of steam, your main duty as a fireman was being the left eye of the engineer," said Burg. "You sat on the left side of the cab and looked out. Maybe the brakeman was giving some hand signals and you'd transpose them to the engineer, or maybe you were just looking out for trouble."

Burg remembers the first time he worked with his favorite engineer, Bill Oden, the man who drove what the Medco crew called the 4-Spot, the No. 4 engine on the line.

"He knew more about that engine than anybody," said Burg.

"Well, Bill had run off more firemen than Medco ever had," he said, "so, when our woods foreman told me I'd be firing for Bill, believe me, I was scared to death."

When Burg finally got enough nerve to crawl up into the cab, Oden looked at him for a second, and just grunted.

"It was the sum total of our conversation for the next three days," said Burg. "It was a lot later that I heard Bill thought I was a good fireman. That always meant a lot to me."

Burg said he had only one complaint about Oden — lunch.

"You didn't have a choice," he said. "You had to share his hot peppers, and they were like liquid fire."

In 1951, as the Korean War was "winding down," Burg was drafted and assigned to the railroad division at the Army Transportation Corps' training school at Fort Eustis, Va., where he learned how to be an engineer.

"I told the major who interviewed me, 'Sir, I know steam really well, but I don't know a thing about diesel.' He told me not to worry and I wouldn't have a problem. He was right. Out of a class of 125, I came in second."

When he came home in 1953, Medco promoted Burg to engineer on the main line between Butte Falls and the Medford mill.

"I only lasted a little over a year — 1954," he said. "You see, to make any money, you had to work 12 to 14 hours a day and I could only get eight. That just didn't cut the mustard."

Though Burg spent the rest of his working life falling timber as an independent contractor, he never forgot the memories of the Medco engines he ran and worked on.

"I worked on all of them," he said. "I ran, the 3-Spot, and it's still running over in the Eureka area.

"I've been down to Dunsmuir and they have the No. 7. It sits on a little piece of track, all by itself, and doesn't go anywhere, but it still looks like you could fire it up today and it would take right off."

In addition to those two surviving locomotives, the 4-Spot is being put back together at Medford's Railroad Park by the Southern Oregon Chapter of the National Railway Historical Society.

Jerry Hellinga, former president of the society, said the group also hopes to restore Medco's diesel engine, the 8-Spot, which the society recovered from an Arizona railroad.

"I hated with a passion running that diesel," said Burg. "It almost ran by itself. There was nothing to do."

There may not be many Medco crew members left, but it seems this veteran engineer is still "firing up" with lots of steam.

"I only regret that I didn't buy a good camera and take pictures," he said. "And I should have had the good sense to keep a diary. That really would have been something."

Writer Bill Miller lives in Shady Cove. Reach him at

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