It’s ‘Steam up!’ at new railroad history center

See why the 300 volunteers at the Oregon Rail Heritage Center celebrated when this new facility opened in East Portland …

Blasts from the Southern Pacific 4449 whistle signals the beginning of the official opening ceremony of East Portland’s Oregon Rail Heritage Center.

Story and photos by David F. Ashton
After being “homeless” for more than sixty years – Portland steam-power enthusiasts let out a cheer as the new Oregon Rail Heritage Center officially opened not long ago near the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry.

> See our article, “Construction starts for Rail Heritage Center” about the groundbreaking last year: CLICK HERE.

Having worked on the historic “Southern Pacific 4449” steam locomotive starting in 1974, before taking it on a national 27-month tour pulling the “American Freedom Train” in 1976, Oregon Rail Heritage Foundation (ORHF) President Doyle McCormack looked very pleased with the Center’s opening.

ORHF President Doyle McCormack sits at the controls of Southern Pacific 4449 locomotive.

“When we came back from that tour,” McCormack told East Portland News, “the locomotive was stored at the Union Pacific Albina Yard for two years. In 1981, we moved it over to the Brooklyn Southern Pacific rail yard – so it’s been there for more than three decades.”

But now, he added, “It, and our other locomotives, all have their own place where they can ‘live’, forever.”

McCormack thanked Southern Pacific’s hospitality – and later the hospitality of the Union Pacific, who owns that rail yard now – but he observed that it was very difficult for visitors to see those mighty engines in the Brooklyn Yard – since it is a working rail complex.

“But now, we can invite people to come in and see the locomotives. These are treasures of the City of Portland. And now, the people of Portland, and all rail enthusiasts, will have access to them,” McCormack smiled.

Father Dustin Harris, and a budding engineer – 3-year old Asher Harris – peek out of the Spokane Portland & Seattle 700 locomotive’s cab.

The Center’s Volunteer Coordinator Gary Brandt commented that each locomotive has its own “crew” that maintains it, and many of these people also volunteer with ORHF, and will also volunteer with the Center. “Starting off, we’ll have two or three docents here, to give guided tours.”

Visitors at the grand opening learned that the Center, sited on 2.75 acres about two blocks east of OMSI, under the Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and Grand Avenue viaduct, is 19,200 SF in size, with two  tracks for three locomotives and one car.

Guests gaze in amazement at these historic locomotives, now parked safely inside the brand new Portland Rail Heritage Center near OMSI.

The building houses a machine shop for each locomotive group, offices, a conference room, a public viewing area, and an interpretive area.

After earthshaking blasts of whistle of the SP 4449 locomotive, ORHF Executive Director Phil Selinger welcomed attendees to the opening ceremony, held in front of the building – the exterior of which is reminiscent of the Brooklyn Roundhouse – partly because it uses the huge sliding doors salvaged from the roundhouse, which is being demolished to make more room in the rail yard for the containerized shipping done there.

ORHF Executive Director Phil Selinger welcomes guests to their new Center.

“Over the last couple of days, as the Southern Pacific 4449 was being warmed up, the Union Pacific Railroad crews tooted the horn as they glided by,” Selinger told the crowd. “The 4449 would reply with a hearty whistle. What a wonderful meeting of historic and modern railroading! That’s what we’re all about here.”

He introduced former Portland City Commissioner Mike Lindberg, who proclaimed, “It all started 50 years ago with a gift to the City of these three steam locomotives. Since that time, hundreds of volunteers worked, unheralded, to maintain the locomotives.”

After researching the records, Lindberg added, ORHF believes that more than 110,000 volunteer hours have been dedicated to maintaining the locomotives.

oining Portland City Commissioner Nick Fish at the podium are his son’s friend Ben and his son Chapin.

Portland City Commissioner Nick Fish, Lindberg said, was the “point man” for the City, as he introduced him.

“This morning, we cut the ribbon on the new streetcar loop,” Fish said. “Now, we open this new home for our locomotives. Today we celebrate both Portland’s past, and Portland’s future.”

After all of the major donors and participants were recognized, Selinger brought out children he said were from the Hosford-Abernethy neighborhood, in which the building sits, to help with the dedication.

Instead of cutting a ribbon, the children unveiled a sign over the roundhouse door, proclaiming that portion of the building to be the “Doyle L. McCormack Enginehouse”, in honor of the ORHF President.

Throughout the day, would-be engineers, young and old, clambered up into the locomotive cabs and cars on display – and imagined what it must have been like, when steam moved America.

Portland Rail Heritage Center

  • 2250 SE Water Avenue
  • Parking under 99E viaduct at SE Caruthers Street. and SE Grand Avenue.
  • 1:00 until 5:00 p.m., Thursdays through Sundays.
  • Free  admission – but “donations are gladly accepted”
  • Learn more: CLICK HERE to see their website

© 2012 David F. Ashton ~ East Portland News

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