Coming home

Posted on August 17th in Feature Story

Ashes of railroad worker are returned to the community he loved

Frank Tomoaki Eki runs a Caterpillar while helping build the Oregon and Northwestern Railroad lines. (Submitted photo)

By Debbie Raney
Burns Times-Herald

Ties can bind us to communities, towns and people for a lifetime — and sometimes beyond.

On Aug. 8, Frank Tomoaki Eki’s family brought his ashes back to Harney County, the place where they said, “his heart always was.” In honor of his years here, Eki’s remains will forever be a part of the railroad.

Eki was born in Portland in 1912. At the age of 3, his father died and he was moved to Japan to be raised by his grandmother. In 1926, at the age of 14, he returned to Portland, where he attended school to learn English. He then began working to support himself, his mother and his sister.

In 1937 he married his wife, Betty Nakashima. Eki and his wife owned and operated a grocery store.

Four years later, in 1941, the Eki’s lives would be forever changed when Japan bombed Pearl Harbor.

An Executive Order issued by the U.S. government required all persons of Japanese decent in the Portland area to report with only the possessions they could carry to an assembly center at the Portland Stockyards. Eki, his wife and son, Douglas, stayed at the assembly center until they were sent to an internment camp in Tule Lake, Calif.

Though prisoners in the camps were paid a small wage for work they performed, Eki’s family said that he was always concerned about providing a better living. When an opportunity arose to move to Harney County to work for the Oregon and Northwestern Railroad, he volunteered. This was in 1943.

His wife remembers that when the family first moved to the Trout Creek railroad maintenance camp for Edward Hines Lumber Company, they lived in a house with no running water or electricity. These conditions soon changed, thanks to the wife of Harry Dewey, the mill’s sales manager. Betty said, “When Mrs. Dewey got electricity, she said, ‘Betty needs electricity.’ And when she got a new cookstove, she said, ‘Betty needs a new cookstove.’” They were also provided with lumber to build a new home, which Eki did on his own time.

According to his family, in spite of still being considered “prisoners,” Eki was treated as an equal by everyone, except his foreman. A letter penned by Betty to Edward Hines detailing the behavior resulted in the firing of the foreman, which opened another door for Eki. He was promoted to the maintenance foreman position, and eventually became the roadmaster.

When the four Eki children were old enough to attend school, they traveled to Burns. Betty said that during the winter the kids left home each morning in the dark and came home each evening in the dark. She jokes, “I didn’t know whose kids I had until the weekend when I could see them in the daylight.”

Eki and his family spent 25 years at the Trout Creek camp, and another 25 years in Burns. During those 50 years, over 30 were spent working for the railroad. After moving to Gresham in 1993, he returned to Harney County, when he could, to visit with old friends.

When Eki died in October 2010, his family said they weren’t sure at first what to do with his ashes.

Then, this spring it was decided to bring him back to the community that he had loved.

On Aug. 8, his 96-year-old wife, his daughter and his son-in-law spread Eki’s ashes along portions of the old Oregon and Northwestern Railway. Sixty-eight years after first coming to Harney County to improve his family’s life, Eki’s family showed him the same love by bringing him home.

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