Riding the rails on East Portland’s Holiday Express

Here’s one of our favorite Holiday activities. Take a look, and learn why steam engine enthusiasts are now working on this, and other projects, with renewed vigor …

The Spokane, Portland & Seattle #700 locomotive steams up, ready to make its first nigh time excursion of the December 2009 season.

Story and photos by David F. Ashton
For two weekends every December – on a cold, still night – one can still hear a mournful sound from a past era, when the mighty steam-powered locomotives roamed the nation’s rails.

“For two weeks in December, we run the Holiday Express,” said Ed Immel, Vice President, Oregon Rail Heritage Foundation (ORHF), as we spoke at the Oaks Park Station. “This marks our fifth year. It goes from Oaks Park up to OMSI and back – about a 45-minute round trip. It’s a great family event; Santa Claus comes through the coaches to great the passengers, and gives out candy canes.”

Holiday Express coordinator Keith Fleschner takes a moment from his duties for this photo with OHRF Vice President Ed Immel as well as Al Hall, who is their “chief receptionist”, telling folks about the locomotives and about ORTF, while they wait to board the Holiday Express.

Folks come for a ride, year after year, Immel explained, because of the view. “The ride, especially at night, is very dramatic with all the lights on the train – and the sight of the lights of the City.”

When we visited on December 4, ORHF volunteers were pulling the heated, holiday-decorated coaches with the massive and powerful Spokane, Portland & Seattle #700. The following weekend, they stoked up one of the world’s most famous steam locomotives, the Southern Pacific #4449.

Here’s the plan for the building OHRF hopes to build in Inner Southeast Portland, near OMSI, to house the historic locomotives.

Fundraising for a new roundhouse
These train rides are the organization’s only fundraiser, Immel pointed out. “We’re raising money to build a new home for our locomotives. Unlike many contributions, our guests get a great experience for them and their family – as well as helping our cause.”

About 50 years ago, Immel said, the City of Portland promised to build a Transportation Museum to house the steam engines and street cars. Instead, the historic rolling stock was parked, for decades on a siding next to Oaks Park – until Southern Pacific allowed the group to use their Brooklyn Yard Roundhouse.

“We’ve now acquired property down by OMSI,” Immel smiled. “It’s just west of where the new MLK Jr. viaduct is going in, on a 2½ acre site. It will be at the intersection where the new streetcar and the new Southeast MAX Light Rail line will come together. People will finally be able to go see the locomotives, year around. We plan to have open houses, classes – the new roundhouse will be designed so people can stop by at any time.”

However, ORHF needs to raise a total of about $3.2 million to complete the new roundhouse project, Immel added.

If all tickets for all rides were sold, an estimated 10,000 passengers would take the short-line journey in December. As of the first day of the 2009 run, Immel said that ticket sales had been brisk. “So far, advance sales have exceeded last year’s entire sales.”

As seen from high above Oaks Bottom, the Holiday Express returns from another excursion.

And, as another train full of excited sightseers pulled out of the station, ORHF was another trip closer to finally having a permanent home for the City of Portland’s beloved locomotives.

To learn more about the Oregon Rail Heritage Foundation – and perhaps get involved with their mission of establishing a permanent home for these great locomotives, visit their website: CLICK HERE.

© 2009 David F. Ashton ~ East Portland News

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