Working SE Portland railroad pauses its operations to entertain visiting train buffs

Read why the owner of this SE Portland railroad sees bright days ahead for rail transport – but a gloomy future for a transportation museum the City of Portland had promised to build 50 years ago …

Railroad historian and rail line owner, Dick Samuels, talks with his friend, retired engineer Jim Abney, before our “ride into history”.

Story and photos by David F. Ashton
A few weeks ago, many people took note of the historic locomotives and rail cars running along the Oaks Bottom tracks.

According to railroad history buff Dick Samuels, these excursions were run for Lionel model train convention held in Portland, and a visiting group of “speeder” [a small, railroad four-person work car] enthusiasts.

Because it was built in 1952, rail buffs consider the Oregon Pacific Railroad Company’s 1202 “diesel electric” locomotive to be a relic. Bu, this fully-restored and rebuilt machine is its main engine to pull freight cars in and out of SE Portland every day.

“We also offered rides to the public to benefit the Pacific Railroad Preservation Assn., to publicize Portland’s trains, and remind people that we are here,” Samuels tells us at the association’s annual picnic held at Oaks Park. “To thank the volunteers, get to run the trains for themselves, today.”

Rail resurgence benefits inner SE Portland
The rails used in the demonstration rides between Oaks Park and East Portland Junction belongs to the Oregon Pacific Railroad Company – a real, working railroad company owned by Samuels. The “1202”, a diesel electric locomotive built in 1952, which powered some of the excursion rides, is the railroad’s “workday” engine.

“Inbound, we haul frozen food,” explains Samuels. “We handle about 90% of the frozen poultry that comes into Portland. We also carry coiled steel to a factory here. We ship out three to five carloads of frozen soup for institutions in the Midwest.”

Railroads are seeing a real resurgence, Samuels comments. “With fuel costs going up, and people more concerned about the environment, it makes sense. It isn’t the fastest form of freight transportation, but it is the most efficient.”

Samuels says his rail line, run with the help of his family members, keeps hundreds semi-trucks off SE Portland streets every month.

“As long as people keep eating, and needing goods, we’ll keep moving it by rail,” says Samuels with a smile.

Portland Transportation Museum 50 years overdue
While the future of his Milwaukie-based railroad looks bright, Samuels says he’s glum about the prospects for preserving the history of rail transportation in the Pacific Northwest.

“We’ve been looking at a home for Portland’s historic trolleys, railroad cars, and rail memorabilia south of Oaks Bottom. 50 years ago, Portland’s city leaders promised to build a transportation museum there. They haven’t kept their promise,”

Samuels points to the three cabooses and other older rail units on the tracks. “They need a place to live. We’ve been giving [Portland] the chance to fulfill this promise, at no cost to the public. We’re willing to do a straight trade – the right-of-way they need to complete the Springwater Trail, in exchange for access to site of the one-time Sellwood dump. We don’t even need to own the property; just the right to use it for its intended purpose.”

Changing the subject, Samuels asks if we’d like to ride in the 1202’s cab, while volunteer engineer Jim Abney (retired after 40 years of being full-time engineer) takes guests for a ride.

Jim Abney, a retired engineer, says he loves his volunteer engineer duties. “Go fishing? I’d rather drive a train any day.”

We readily agree, climb into the cab and step into living history. “You’re in good hands,” says Samuels with a smile, and hops off the train. The locomotive roars to life, and off, riding through history along Oaks Bottom, toward Portland.

© 2007 David F. Ashton ~ East Portland News Service

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