Featured Stories


All aboard!

Mighty steam locomotives rule the roost at the Oregon Rail Heritage Center in Portland


by: PHOTOS: JIM CLARK/PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP - Karl Thompson checks out the Oregon Railroad & Navigation 197, a 1905 steam locomotive housed at the Oregon Rail Heritage Center.It's said that Superman is more powerful than a locomotive, but just how powerful is that? To get an idea, stand next to the Spokane, Portland & Seattle 700, one of the star attractions at the Oregon Rail Heritage Center. At nearly 111 feet long, 17 feet tall, 10 feet wide and 440 tons, this 1938 steam locomotive is on the National Register of Historic Places — yes, it's big enough to qualify as a place.

Then sidle up to the Southern Pacific 4449. Built in 1941, she weighs 433 tons and stretches 110 feet long, 10 feet wide and 16 feet tall. In her day she could exceed 100 mph, and in the 1970s underwent a restoration and pulled the 1976 Bicentennial Freedom Train across the United States.

The oldest of the three steam locomotives that call the rail center home is the 79-foot-long Oregon Railroad & Navigation 197. She's 107 years old, having arrived in Portland just in time for the 1905 Lewis & Clark Centennial Exposition.

Ask rail center volunteer Rick McDorman what he likes about these massive marvels of machinery, and he laughs. It would be way quicker to list what he doesn't like about them, McDorman says, but then he can't come up with any minuses.

“It's kind of an inbred thing,” says McDorman, 70, whose father worked on the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad. “I was allowed to go with my dad a couple of times and ride in the cab of a diesel locomotive.”

McDorman was just 14 when his dad died, but the youngster had railroad blood in his veins by then. “I'm more partial to steam locomotives versus diesel because of my heritage, when I grew up,” he says. “Being up close and personal to them is just something I'm very fond of.”

A retired Blue Heron Paper Company machine operator who lives in Oregon City, McDorman has volunteered for three years with the Oregon Rail Heritage Foundation, which opened the new rail center in September in Southeast Portland near OMSI. He started as a volunteer with the foundation's Holiday Express train, a Christmastime tradition now in its eighth year and featuring Santa Claus to greet and entertain passengers (see information at end of story).

“There was an ad looking for volunteers to help with the Holiday Express, and my wife graciously volunteered me,” says McDorman, whom Santa coincidentally resembles on some of the Holiday Express runs.

McDorman also is helping to restore the oldest locomotive, the OR&N 197. Unlike the other two steam locomotives, which pull the Holiday Express, the 197 isn't running at this time but should be ready to roll again in 18 to 24 months, McDorman estimates.

The foundation and center are run entirely by volunteers, who include craftsmen, plumbers, electricians and others with skills that go a long way in restoring the locomotives. Not every volunteer has a specialty trade: “I'm more of a go-fer,” McDorman says. As a general laborer, he has pulled up rails and ties, and helped lay train track.

“This is a working repair facility as well as a museum site,” he says. There are places to find parts for the locomotives, “but if we can't find them, we have the capability here to make parts.”

McDorman also enjoys showing visitors around the Oregon Rail Heritage Center and sharing what he's learned. “Do you know what a wicket is?” he asks as he opens a human-size panel built within the train-size doors at the center. This door within a door, he explains, is a wicket. “We keep the hinges oiled so we don't have a sticky wicket,” he quips.

Other tidbits he shares:

• All three steam locomotives are oil burners now, and it's “green” energy. “We can burn just about any kind of oil, from cooking oil to waste oil,” he says. And the fuel efficiency? “Forty gallons to the mile,” McDorman says. That's how much oil it takes to produce the steam.

• Locomotives have tires — steel tires, not rubber. A locomotive won't get a flat, but it can get a big nick in a tire that requires repair or replacement.

• The side rods that link the locomotive's wheels together weigh about 550 pounds. How many people does it take to lift one side rod? “One — and he's on a forklift,” McDorman says, chuckling.

McDorman rides trains when he goes to Seattle, but newer trains are a different breed, he says. “The sensation of leaving the station you almost don't even notice, and the seats are more comfortable,” he says. Still, “It's not as exciting as this.”

The Oregon Rail Heritage Foundation

The roots of this nonprofit, all-volunteer organization date back to 1958, when three steam locomotives were donated to the city of Portland. They were stored at Oaks Park in Southeast Portland, and volunteers began taking care of them. The foundation was formed in 1998 with a primary purpose: to secure a permanent home for the locomotives. The foundation also is an umbrella organization that serves the interests of locomotive groups and other local rail organizations.

Info: 503-680-8895 or www.orhf.org

The Oregon Rail Heritage Center

The center, which opened in September, houses three historic steam locomotives donated by the city of Portland along with a 1948 diesel locomotive owned by Doyle McCormack, president of the Oregon Rail Heritage Foundation. Also at the center: a shop locomotive used to pull the other engines, an auxiliary tender that hauls water and six vintage passenger rail cars.

Where: 2250 S.E. Water Ave., Portland, east of OMSI. Entrance is at Southeast Caruthers Street and Grand Avenue; parking is available under the 99E viaduct.

Open to the public: 1-5 p.m. Thursday through Sunday.

Admission: Free.

Info: 503-680-8895 or www.orhf.org

The Holiday Express

Meet Santa and his elves during a nearly one-hour trip along the historic Oregon Pacific Railroad line. The Holiday Express is pulled by one of the Oregon Rail Heritage Center's two powerful steam locomotives — the SP 4449 or the SP&S 700.

When: Friday-Sunday, Nov. 30 to Dec. 2, Dec. 7-9 and Dec. 14-16.

Where: Board at The Oaks Station, 7806 S.E. Oaks Park Way (across from Oaks Park in Sellwood, on the east end of the Sellwood Bridge).

Schedule: The train runs hourly; see the schedule online at www.orhf.org

Tickets: $8.50 to $17. All proceeds go to the Oregon Rail Heritage Center. Visit TicketsWest.com or charge by phone at 503-224-8499.