Railroad owner shares museum dreams with ‘Holiday Express’ riders

Read why SamTrak owner Dick Samuels persistently pursues building the transportation museum – a facility promised to citizens by the city fathers more than fifty years ago …

Jim Abney, engineer of the 440-ton Portland & Seattle #700 steam locomotive, walks near the drive wheels which spread the tracks apart, causing the “Holiday Express” excursions, after many successful trips, to be derailed for the season.

Story and photos by David F. Ashton
For neighbors along the ridge above Oaks Bottom, the holiday season had an old-time touch ‚Äì the sound of a giant steam engine chugging along, as it pulled the “Holiday Express” excursion train from Oaks Park to OMSI.

Brett Engel holds Madeleine as they travel through Oaks Bottom ‚Äì and “back in time” ‚Äì aboard the steam excursion train. “We wanted to ride on this train from Oregon’s history,” Brett said, “so we came here from Portland’s west side to enjoy the journey.”

All Aboard Portland’s Holiday Express
When we boarded the “Holiday Express” at Oaks Amusement Park on December 23, the journey was sold out, with only standing room available.

The conductor’s call, “All aboard!” cut through the stillness of the morning, enshrouded in soft, “Oregon rain” mist.

Steam hissed from the valves of the mighty 17-foot tall, nearly 1 million pound locomotive, which was festooned with a holiday wreath and decorative electrical lighting.

Releasing the brakes, pulling the “Johnson Bar”, and advancing the throttle, Jim Abney, engineer of Portland & Seattle’s #700 steam locomotive, caused its pistons to turn the massive steel drive wheels ‚Äì first slowly, then more rapidly. Soon, a platoon of passengers were whizzing northward through Oaks Bottom.

Dick Samuels, owner of the “SamTrak” railroad on which the Holiday Express runs, shares with riders his vision of creating a rail museum ‚Äì fulfilling a promise made to Portland citizens more than five decades ago.

Weighty engine spreads tracks
The holiday revelers, plied with sparkling cider, home-made chocolates, and apricot delights, didn’t know that this particular ride was about to come to an abrupt end.

A little more than two miles from the departure point; the train lurched and came to a sudden stop. The railroad ties, softened by heavy rains, had allowed the steel tracks to spread just enough to allow the mighty locomotive to drop between them.

Crew members check the track under the #700. They discover that the 440-ton weight of the locomotive, over the course of some fifty excursion trips, had weakened the rain-softened railroad ties, and the rails to spread. The behemoth engine simply sank down between the tracks.

“We made about fifty trips this year,” engineer Abney told us. “It looks like we’re done for the season.”

The man behind the track
Richard “Dick” Samuels owns the railroad along which the Holiday Express runs. His Oregon Pacific Railroad Company ‚Äì often referred to as “SamTrak” ‚Äì transports freight between Inner Southeast Portland and Milwaukie.

A few days after our abbreviated journey, Samuels told us about his business – and his passion: A Portland railroad museum.

“We allow Oregon Rail Heritage Association (ORHA) to use our tracks as a fundraiser,” began Samuels. “Once we brought in our heavy equipment, it took about a half-hour to re-rail the train.”

He said the rail line was originally built to handle lightweight trolley cars, not freight. “We put in 400 new hardwood ties last year. We maintain the lines for our freight business.”

Rail Transportation Museum derailed
Samuels told us he’s a native (Milwaukie High School, class of ’62), and has always loved trains.

“Did you know that, in the 1950’s, railroads serving our area donated steam locomotives to the City of Portland, to be placed in a transportation museum to be built in Oaks Park?” He asked.

“We have two of only six large, operating steam locomotives in the world today ‚Äì and, fifty years later, they still don’t have a home.”

Samuels explained that ORHA volunteers have lovingly restored and maintained these engines, but they have been left subject to the elements, vandals, and thieves. “The tweekers [methamphetamine addicts] break in and steal whatever brass and aluminum they can sell for scrap.”

Importance of rail history to Portland
Railroads, powered by steam locomotives, provided the transportation necessary to help the Pacific Northwest, and the greater Portland area, grow and mature.

“A rail transportation museum,” Samuels continued, “will allow future generations to see how people traveled. They’ll be able to touch the actual equipment that built our great country. It would be a terrible loss for Portland if we don’t fulfill our promise to build this museum.”

A Milwaukie native, Samuels says he’s doing everything he can to make sure the citizens of Portland get the railroad museum promised to them at Oaks Bottom over 50 years ago.

Samuels takes action
“We’ve offered METRO to swap some of our Sellwood right of way ‚Äì in exchange for land owned by the City of Portland. The Oaks Pioneer Transportation Museum will be built, through private donations, on this land.”

Samuels said he thought METRO was receptive to the idea, by which he would exchange land he owns at the south end of Sellwood, wanted by METRO to complete the “Sellwood Gap” of the Springwater Trail, for a lease on the unused, former dump site south of Oaks Bottom and across from Oaks Amusement Park.

“It is a ‘win-win’ kind of deal.”

Liberty weighs in
Although he said he couldn’t comment directly on the land-swap negotiations underway, District 6 Metro Counselor Robert Liberty told us, “This will make the Springwater Corridor trail a lot more usable and important.”

Liberty emphasized that every added transportation option takes some pressure off the crowded highways. “And, as we complete segments of the trails, we find trail use increases throughout all of the trail’s segments. The easier we make it for people to bike or walk, whether for transportation or pleasure, the better it is for our entire community.”

© 2007 David F. Ashton ~ East Portland News Service

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