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It's 'Steam Up!' at new SE railroad history center

by: DAVID F. ASHTON - Guests gaze at the historic locomotives, now parked safely inside the brand new Portland Rail Heritage Center near OMSI. After being “homeless” for more than sixty years – Portland steam-power enthusiasts let out a cheer, as the new Oregon Rail Heritage Center officially opened at noon on September 22, near the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry.

Having worked to restore the historic “Southern Pacific 4449” steam locomotive starting in 1974, before taking it on a national 27-month tour pulling the “American Freedom Train” in 1976, Oregon Rail Heritage Foundation (ORHF) President Doyle McCormack was looking very pleased about the Center’s opening.

“When we came back from that tour,” McCormack told THE BEE, “The locomotive was stored at the Union Pacific Albina Yard for two years. In 1981, we moved it over to the Brooklyn Southern Pacific rail yard – so it’s been there for more than three decades.”

But now, he added, “It, and our other locomotives, all have their own place where they can ‘live’, forever.”

McCormack thanked Southern Pacific’s hospitality – and later the hospitality of the Union Pacific, which owns that rail yard now – but he observed that it was very difficult for visitors to see those mighty engines in the Brooklyn Yard, since it is a working rail complex.

“But now, we can invite people to come in and see the locomotives. These are treasures of the City of Portland. And now, the people of Portland, and all rail enthusiasts, will have access to them,” McCormack smiled.

The Center’s Volunteer Coordinator Gary Brandt commented that each locomotive has its own “crew” that maintains it, and many of these people also volunteer with ORHF, and will also be helping with the Center. “Starting off, we’ll have two or three docents here, to give guided tours.”

Visitors at the grand opening learned that the Center, sited on 2.75 acres about two blocks east of OMSI, beneath the recently-rebuilt Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and Grand Avenue viaduct, is 19,200 square feet in size, with two tracks providing access for three locomotives and one car.

The building houses a machine shop for each locomotive group, offices, a conference room, a public viewing area, and an interpretive area.

After sounding earthshaking blasts of whistle from the SP 4449 locomotive, ORHF Executive Director Phil Selinger welcomed attendees to the opening ceremony, held in front of the building – the exterior of which is reminiscent of the former Brooklyn Roundhouse – partly because it uses the huge sliding doors salvaged from the roundhouse, which is being demolished to make more room in the railyard for the containerized shipping now handled there.

“Over the last couple of days, as the Southern Pacific 4449 was being warmed up, the Union Pacific Railroad crews tooted their horn as they glided by,” Selinger told the creowd. “The 4449 would reply with a hearty whistle. What a wonderful meeting of historic and modern railroading! That’s what we’re all about here.”

He introduced former Portland City Commissioner Mike Lindberg, who recalled, “It all started 50 years ago with a gift to the City of these three steam locomotives. Since that time, hundreds of volunteers worked, unheralded, to maintain the locomotives.”

After researching the records, Lindberg added, ORHF believes that more than 110,000 volunteer hours have been dedicated to restoring and maintaining the locomotives.

Portland City Commissioner Nick Fish, Lindberg said, is now the “point man” for the city, and he introduced him.

“This morning, we cut the ribbon on the new streetcar loop,” Fish said. “Now, we open this new home for our locomotives. Today we celebrate both Portland’s past, and Portland’s future.”

After all of the major donors and participants were recognized, Selinger brought out children from the Hosford-Abernethy neighborhood, in which the building sits, to help with the dedication.

Instead of cutting a ribbon, the children unveiled a sign over the roundhouse door, proclaiming that portion of the building to be the “Doyle L. McCormack Enginehouse”, in honor of the ORHF President.

Throughout the day, would-be engineers – young and old – clambered up into the locomotive cabs and cars on display, and imagined what it must have been like…when steam moved America.