Of Wood and Rail Oregon/Washington BLM



Of Wood and Rail

The historic Oregon & California Railroad receives new life in the artistic creations of BLM facilities manager Hugh Watters.

story and photos by Bob Hall

Where do Oregon's old railroad tracks go when they're no longer needed? BLM artist Hugh Watters knows...

Hugh Watters, Facilities Manager for the BLM's Roseburg District, is a metal and steel worker by trade. Yet he's always had a thing for wood. Hugh - Hughie to his friends - says wood has a special quality that makes it different from metal or any other material. Hugh finds it to be very forgiving and quick to work with. Hugh says, "There are things in wood that no man can put in. You have to believe in a higher authority to see and appreciate those things".

About six years ago, Hugh started using his artisan skills in wood and metal work to make one-of-a-kind wooden plaques to commemorate the careers of retiring district employees and other folks who had a special connection to the Roseburg District.

"When it comes to showing our appreciation for a job well done, I want to give these special people something that is unique and beautiful, something that they will be proud to display that will bring back memories of their career or their contributions to the Roseburg District."

These pieces certainly aren't something just off the shelf or from a catalog.

All the wood Hugh uses is salvaged. Myrtlewood comes from the BLM's Eagleview Campground, and the Doug fir is recycled from replaced shelves and walls in the Roseburg District office. Some of this recovered wood is more than 25 years old.

In addition to reclaiming his special wood, Hugh also uses these plaques to bring back to life a "piece of the rail" - the historic Oregon & California Rail, that is.

Of Wood and Rail

Portions of the Oregon and California (O&C) Railroad line were replaced or realigned but not removed. Then several years ago, Hugh Watters began to miraculously breathe new life into these unused O&C rails by incorporating them into his art.

Through trial and error, Hugh has learned many valuable lessons in the art of commemorative plaque-making. Mainly...don't finish the backs! For instance, words, initials, or even names have occasionally been misspelled, which, not surprisingly, can make a big difference for the recipient. And by not finishing the back, Hugh, who prefers a month or two to conceive, design and create these plaques, was able to correct one such misspelled plaque only five hours before its presentation by simply recreating the entire design on the misspelled plaque's own backside!

Given that the process includes cutting, smoothing and sanding the wood, laser cutting the images and letters, final sanding, applying two finish coats and attaching the piece of the rail, Hugh's five-hour turnaround was quite an achievement indeed.

Hugh feels these plaques show a true appreciation for the contributions of past employees to the Roseburg District. And Hugh's work has been presented to such notable Roseburg alumni as former BLM Director Jim Caswell who worked in the District during the late 1970s.

But you know how people talk. And once other folks start to hear about Hugh's historic artistry coming out of Roseburg, it won't be a surprise if our new BLM Director would like to hang an original Hugh Watters piece in his office as well.