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Ground broken for Rail Heritage Center near OMSI

by: David F. Ashton Former City Commissioner Mike Lindberg and Portland City Commissioner Nick Fish served as co-masters of ceremonies.

As officials clanged an historic locomotive bell from the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry's (OMSI) collection, they signaled the start of construction of a permanent home for three historic steam locomotives owned by Portland Parks and Recreation. The date was October 21, and the location was along S.E. Caruthers Street, beneath the newly-rebuilt Martin Luther King Boulevard/Grand Avenue Viaduct, just north of the Ross Island Bridge.

While City officials expressed great pride in owning those three historic locomotives - SP 4449, SP and S 700, and OR and N 197 - during an hour-long ceremony filled with speeches, long time Portland historic railroad buffs silently recalled how they locomotives had languished outdoors for many years.

As he stood at the groundbreaking ceremony, for what will be called the Enginehouse and Oregon Rail Heritage Center - Oregon Rail Heritage Foundation (ORHF) Vice President Ed Immel summed up his thoughts in two words: 'I'm speechless!'

Immel reminisced, 'This has been a long time coming. I remember when I was a young kid, going down to Oaks Park and playing on those engines - to me they were just something in the park.'

Little did he know at the time that one day he'd be part of 'bringing them all back to life again'.

'I wrote the check to take the SP 4449 [locomotive] out across the country to pull the 1976 'Freedom Train',' Immel recalled. 'In fact, going further back, I started working on the locomotives with Doyle [McCormick, ORHF's president and representative of Friends of SP 4449] in 1974.'

About breaking ground for the Enginehouse and Rail Heritage Center, Immel commented, 'It's a huge accomplishment, especially for all of the volunteers who have supported restoring these locomotives. A great number of people have made a contribution to this, for a number of years. And the fact that we have the City's interest now is really important.'

The location for the center is 'just outstanding', Immel added 'It's the central point for street cars, buses, and light rail. We're told more than a million people come to visit OMSI; if we could get only 10% of those [to visit the Rail Heritage Center nearby], I'd be happy.'

A former Portland City Commissioner of 17 years, Mike Lindberg, served as the Master of Ceremonies, along with Portland City Commissioner Nick Fish.

Before the ceremony, Commissioner Fish told THE BEE, 'This is an exciting day. No other city in the country owns three historical locomotives like these. We [the City of Portland] have never been able to maintain them ourselves. So, a great deal of thanks is due to our nonprofit partner, ORHF, who've been such good custodians of these trains. And, thanks to their effort, these will have a permanent home.'

About the location, Fish commented, 'Having it here, in the OMSI district, is great. It doesn't get any better than this.'

During his remarks, Lindberg recognized those who make up the ORHF: 'A couple hundred unheralded, intrepid volunteers who've invested more than 115,000 volunteer hours and roughly $2.5 million to restore these engines to their earlier grandeur.'

Guests learned that the museum's cost will be $5.4 million, and foundations and individual donors have contributed over $4.5 million toward that, leaving $1 million still to raise. The City of Portland has supported the project with a $1 million loan.

Lending words of support to the project were TriMet General Manager Neil McFarlane, Rick Gustafson of Portland Streetcar, Inc., and Amtrak's Rob Eaton.

OMSI president Nancy Stueber told the assembly of more than 150 people, 'I am delighted to officially welcome the Enginehouse and Rail Heritage Center to the neighborhood. OMSI's vision is to 'inspire wonder' by engaging people in science-learning experiences. I tell you, steam engines are pretty inspiring.'

Fish also thanked the Union Pacific Railroad for their past donation of the use of their Brooklyn Roundhouse, where the locomotives have been housed and maintained for the past three decades. 'I don't know that everyone understands this, but they provided the space, free of charge, for all of these years.'

Finally, Lindberg gave recognition to Dick Samuels, owner and operator of the local short-line Oregon Pacific Railway. 'He and Union Pacific Railway have allowed them to use the tracks that permit the historic trains to come and go from the roundhouse. Samuels also facilitates the ORHF's primary source of income, by allowing them to use his tracks for the Holiday Express runs.'

With the speeches concluded, officials gathered to ring the locomotive bell brought over by OMSI. Then, Commissioner Fish 'turned the soil' to start construction, with the help of an excavator.

It was clear that Dick Samuels had mixed feelings about the event. 'Things ended up differently than we'd envisioned - that this Rail Heritage Center would be built at Oaks Park. We acquired a piece of property in Sellwood from Metro in conjunction with the land swap deal. I still plan to make a small interpretive center on our property, to display my collection of railroad equipment.'

Nevertheless, Samuels said he was happy to have the Holiday Express steam excursion trains again run on his rail lines through Oaks Bottom this December.

ORHF's Holiday Express

Meet Santa in the fully decorated and steam-heated trains that run from Oaks Park Station through Oaks Bottom Wildlife Refuge to the Springwater Trail gateway.

December 2-4 and 9-11

Adult: $17, Child: $11 (ages 3 thru 12)

Excursions on weekends at 10a, 11a, 12p, 2p, 3p, 4p, 6p, 7p, 8p

More information: www.orhf.org/holidayexpress.html, or call 503/224-8499.

Tickets available at: www.TicketsWest.com