‘Holiday Express’ railroad excursions again roll through Oaks Bottom

 INCLUDES VIDEO VIGNETTE | It’s back! Again, outer East Portland families are taking a ‘trip back through time’ on this steam locomotive powered excursion. Tickets are going fast …

The famous, historic SP 4449 steam locomotive approaches its stop at the “Oaks Park Station” as another Holiday Express excursion comes to an end.

Story and photos by David F. Ashton

The haunting, nostalgic sound of a lonesome steam locomotive whistle is again rising from Oaks Bottom, along the east bank of the Willamette River, as the Holiday Express excursions continue to roll during the first two weekends of December.

About 60 volunteers from the Oregon Rail Heritage Foundation (ORHF) again worked diligently to bring about what should have been the 17th season for the train rides – but because of the pandemic preventing the event last year, it’s actually their 16th season.

Ready to welcome riders coming onboard for another Holiday Express excursion are volunteers Midori Suzuki and Bruce Strange.

State restrictions also cancelled a substitute event they’d created at the Oregon Rail Heritage Center (ORHC), Santa’s Enginehouse, just hours before it was scheduled to open last Holiday Season. CLICK HERE to read about that.

“Our volunteers were disappointed last year, but accepted the need to give top priority to public safety,” said ORHF volunteer and Board Member Jan Schaeffer. “It was especially a letdown when Santa’s Enginehouse – our ‘plan B’ – also had to be cancelled.”

Another group of riders are coming up the path from “Oaks Park Station” to board the Holiday Express.

It’s the Poole family, from Washington State, stopping for a photo before taking their seat aboard the Holiday Express.

About half of the volunteers were openly enthusiastic about returning to provide railroad rides this season; but the other half of their volunteer pool was wary of exposure to the COVID-19 coronavirus; so, as a result, this year they were running “thinly staffed”, as Schaeffer put it.

Returning from an excursion that stops at the ORHC, near OMSI, the mighty Southern Pacific 4449 streamliner-style steam locomotive whistle blew, signaling its return to “Oaks Park Station”, in the parking lot of nonprofit Oaks Amusement Park.

Get a feeling for what it’s like to ride the Holiday Express,
by watching our Video Vignette!

The SP 4449 was originally put into service in 1941 – and after its retirement was donated to the City of Portland in 1958, and was parked in Oaks Park.

There, this mighty, historic steam locomotive languished until it was restored by volunteers. Most famously, it was the SP 4449 locomotive that pulled the “America’s Bicentennial Freedom Train” as it toured around our nation in 1976. It is one of several locomotives either being maintained, or restored, at the ORHC.

Those returning from an excursion walk along the Springwater Corridor Trail, and pause to watch the mighty SP 4449 pass by up close.

The engineer at the controls of the SP 4449 does a “steam blow-down” in preparation for another run up the tracks.

After checking in at the Oaks Park station, excursion riders walk up stairs that lead to an open baggage car in the center of a string of heated and decorated passenger cars. With a blast of the whistle, the train chugs south along the river.

Then, it reverses and travels north, providing riders with a great view of both Oaks Bottom on one side, and the Willamette River on the other. After it passes under the Ross Island Bridge, it continues on to the Oregon Rail Heritage Center, and then completes the trip by returning south to Oaks Park.

After the sun sets, Holiday lights decorating the Holiday Express are visible, as the train again pulls into the station.

With some COVID-19 restrictions still in place, a maximum of 250 passengers is allowed on each excursion. “Wearing face masks is absolutely required, both in the station and on the train, for all riders, age 2 and older,” Schaeffer told East Portland News. “Because of our very strong compliance with the mask mandate, we’re foregoing selling coffee, hot chocolate, and cookies, this year.”

However, the ORHC Gift Shop is well stocked in the station, loaded with clothing, hats, and rail-oriented gifts for the Holidays.

One of the activities inside “Oaks Park Station” is sending a letter to Santa Claus; that’s Tyson Gardner who’s thoughtfully composing his note to St. Nick.

“Our foundation’s mission is to preserve, operate, and encourage the public to learn about and enjoy Portland’s historic steam locomotives,” Schaeffer explained. “Revenues from the Holiday Express go to operate and improve the Rail Center year around; and also help fund major projects, such as restoring and installing the Brooklyn Turntable,” she continued.

“So, what could be more educational, and enjoyable, than a Holiday excursion in a colorfully-decorated vintage railcar, pulled by the steaming giant of an historic rail locomotive?” Schaeffer asked with a smile.

After each run, trained volunteer technicians check the SP 4449 locomotive’s running gear.

Off goes this Holiday Express on an evening excursion.

Get your tickets, now!
This year, the Holiday Express excursions began on November 26, and the last trains out of the station will be on Sunday, December 19 – providing a total of 82 rides, over nine weekend afternoons and evenings.

Tickets are selling briskly this year, but there are still some still available for excursions on December 4-5, 11-12, and 18-19. For tickets, departure schedule, and more information, see their official website: CLICK HERE.

© 2021 David F. Ashton ~ East Portland News™



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