Holiday fun comes by rail and steam engine

Yes, people from all over outer East Portland are coming to hop on a train and take a “ride into Christmas past”. Find out why …

As the Spokane, Portland & Seattle 700 locomotive pulls into the Oaks Bottom Station, one Holiday Express excursion ends – and another train ride is about to begin.

Story and photos by David F. Ashton

On a cold, clear evening, the sound of the Spokane, Portland & Seattle (SP&S) 700 locomotive’s steam whistle can be heard for miles as it takes revelers aboard the “Holiday Express” for an excursion along Oaks Bottom.

“It’s hard to believe it, but this is already our 10th year of running the Holiday Express excursion trains,” reflected Oregon Rail Heritage Foundation Vice President Ed Immel, during the first weekend of operations this year.

In the train station, volunteers Gary Brandt, Trent Stetz, Ed Immel, and “Junior Elf” Hillary Mead are ready to check people in for their ride on the 2014 Holiday Express.

Passengers check in at a large heated tent at Oaks Bottom Station, in the parking lot of historic Oaks Amusement Park. While awaiting their departure, many visitors browse tables laden with railroad souvenirs, purchase a snack or cup of hot coffee or cocoa.

Then the conductor calls “All aboard”, and riders are taken on a round trip through Oaks Bottom Wildlife Refuge northward to the Springwater Trail gateway and the Oregon Rail Heritage Center near OMSI.

As the sun sets, the SP&S 700 locomotive idles while passengers disembark.

Passengers head toward the boarding stairs, soon to begin their ride on the Holiday Express.

The SP&S 700 steam locomotive originally went into service in 1938, and spent most of its time running between Portland and Spokane on the Empire Builder line, Immel told East Portland News. Today, it’s one of three historic locomotives owned by the City of Portland and maintained by Immel’s ORHF.

“Depending on how you look at it, the 700 is the third or fourth largest steam engine in the world that is still operating,” Immel added. “Not many cities have the opportunity to showcase a massive piece of historic engineering like this.”

About 150 volunteers help out during the 72 December “Holiday Express” runs, over its three-week schedule. “Again this year, we have people who come from as far as the [San Francisco] Bay area and Seattle to help out,” Immel said.

In anticipation of their upcoming Holiday Express excursion are Isaac Slusarenko, holding Emil, and wife Malia.

Even though each excursion could accommodate more riders, Immel said they limit each train load to about 200 guests, giving families plenty of room for their journey in the heated, Christmas-light illuminated historic railroad passenger cars.

This year, organizers established “demand pricing”, providing lower-cost tickets for runs at traditionally less-popular times and days. “So far, it looks as if our ridership will exceed our best year, 2012, based on tickets sold and reservations,” Immel smiled.

Many volunteers say the best part of the trip is watching kids faces light up, when Santa Claus comes strolling through the railcar.

“It is true that the Holiday Express is a fundraiser for our non-profit organization,” Immel disclosed. “Our volunteers don’t mind the cold weather and hard work because they say it’s so much fun watching people have a good time, take a train ride, and get close up to massive steam locomotives like these.”

The mighty Spokane, Portland & Seattle 700 locomotive steams up, as it chugs out of the Oaks Bottom Station taking hundreds of folks on a Holiday Express excursion.

As another excursion pulled out of the station, Immel mused, “How many people, in their daily lives, get to have others joyfully waving at them and expressing gratitude for what they’ve done?”

For more information, including uo-to-the-minute ticket availability, see their official website: CLICK HERE.

© 2014 David F. Ashton ~ East Portland News

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