‘Santa’s Enginehouse’ halted as a substitute for ‘Holiday Express’ rides

The volunteers who produce this great East Portland attraction were ready to open its doors to visitors to their Holiday wonderland. The new pandemic “Extreme Risk” designation here scuttled the event …

With Holiday Express excursion train rides already cancelled this year, the Oregon Rail Heritage Center hoped to open mid-December as “Santa’s Enginehouse”.  Here, you see the volunteers decorating for their festive event. But, the Multnomah County “Extreme Risk” designation shut it down.

Story and photos by David F. Ashton

Even those Portland neighbors who’ve never ridden on the Holiday Express excursion trains, running in December between Oaks Amusement Park and the Ross Island Bridge for the past 15 years, have heard the nostalgic sound of the historic steam locomotive’s whistle as it runs through Oaks Bottom.

But, due to COVID-19 coronavirus concerns and regulations, these merry holiday rides – usually starting on Thanksgiving Day weekend and running through mid-December – had to be cancelled by organizers from the Oregon Rail Heritage Foundation (ORHF) across from OMSI.

But they came up with another idea – a new Holiday attraction that they called “Santa’s Enginehouse”. They spent weeks preparing for it – until Multnomah County’s “Extreme Risk” designation shut that down, as well.

Volunteer Mariah Arendt brought a Holiday gift-wrapped box to a display on the front of a locomotive; now you’ll only see it here.

“In April, though no one could clearly forecast whether COVID-19 would still be around seven months later, we decided we couldn’t risk all the costs of preparing for the ‘Holiday Express’, if in the end the virus shut it all down,” explained ORHF Board Member Jan Schaeffer.

“And, we, ourselves, had trouble imagining our families feeling comfortable riding with hundreds of strangers inside the closed rail cars for an hour,” Schaeffer told East Portland News.

But, hosting an event in the spacious Oregon Rail Heritage Center’s Enginehouse, with 20-foot-high ceilings, big fans and big doors for good ventilation seemed like a good possibility.

That’s how the idea of creating “Santa’s Enginehouse” instead was hatched.

If families had been allowed to attend, kids would have visited Santa Claus, with the door to the SP 4449 locomotive cab closed, and the jolly old man to greet youngsters through a Plexiglas window.

“We had it all planned out: Routing guests along a one-way path, past Portland’s three historic steam locomotives and our Holiday displays, maintaining separation between family groups, requiring masks, setting out lots of hand sanitizers, and selling timed-entrance admission – limited to 50 people (including volunteers) inside our 19,000-square-foot building at any one time,” Schaeffer explained.

They were ready to begin welcoming visitors on Thanksgiving Day weekend, Schaeffer remarked – but the Oregon Governor Kate Brown “shut down order”, at that time, squashed hopes of a timely opening.

Testing out “Santa’s Mailbox” was Stella Pitt. Due to coronavirus concerns and country restrictions, that mailbox will remain empty this year.

Memphis Ingram and Caitlyn Arendt had fun playing with a model train layout in “Santa’s Enginehouse” as the volunteers planned a festive event that now cannot take place.

Nevertheless, ORHF volunteers went ahead and put the finishing touches on their Holiday project, in hopes of opening in mid-December. They dressed up the locomotives with wreaths, added dramatic lighting, and prepared a space where kids could talk with Santa Claus – who’d have been safely behind a no-glare Plexiglas screen, in the cab of the historic “bicentennial” Southern Pacific 4449 locomotive.

If they had been allowed to open before Christmas, kids could have written letters to St. Nick, dropped them into “Santa’s Mailbox”, and a few days later would have received a handwritten response from Santa or one of his elves.

While decorating this towering display, “Train in a Tree”, volunteer Phil Barney told us his vertical model train layout was decorated with 17 lighted buildings surrounding the tree, and featured a single model train running on a double helix of tracks, traveling upward outside, and then back down inside.

Other planned attractions included Santa’s Workshop; a converted railroad “speeder” shed; a huge Lionel-scale 4449 Daylight model passenger layout; and a unique nine-foot-high model train Christmas tree!

Then, on December 3, Oregon Governor Kate Brown issued Executive Order No. 20-66, that stated:

“Hosts of indoor gatherings are required to follow the indoor gathering limits for the level of risk designated for their specific county.”

Multnomah County was listed in the category, “Extreme Risk: Limit the gathering to no more than six people, indoors.” Alas, it would have required more than six staff members to operate the planned activities!

So, with a heavy heart, on December 4, Oregon Rail Heritage Center’s spokesperson Renee Devereux told East Portland News that the organization wasn’t confident that the new COVID-19 coronavirus case numbers would reduce below the “Extreme Risk” level in time for them to hold the new attraction, the nonprofit organization’s major fundraiser for the year.

“We decided to cancel the Santa’s Enginehouse event,” Devereux concluded.
But we were there with a camera while they were setting up their displays and activities, and you can still enjoy seeing some of them in the photographs that accompany this story.

And, you can still contribute to the nonprofit Oregon Rail Heritage Foundation, and keep up to date on their activities, by visiting their website: CLICK HERE.

© 2020 David F. Ashton ~ East Portland News™


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