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The new Portland Railroad Museum, located near OMSI, pays off its loan in record time

COURTESY CITY OF PORTLAND - City Commissioner Amanda Fritz came to the Rail Heritage Museum near OMSI to burn the now-paid-off mortgage provided by the city, as Commissioner Nick Fish applauds in the background. Portland is only city in the nation to own steam locomotives, and now those railroad engines have a debt-free permanent home.

Not so long ago, the fate of Portland's three historic steam locomotives was unclear. Although two were used in the popular Holiday Express excursions, they were housed in a crumbling roundhouse in Union Pacific's busy Brooklyn Yard that was slated for demolition.

But on September 27, the board of the Oregon Rail Heritage Foundation burned the city mortgage that helped build the Rail Heritage Museum to celebrate the fifth anniversary of the center, located near OMSI and adjacent to the transit center at the east end of the Tilikum Transit Bridge, at 2250 S.E. Water Avenue.

To build the center, the foundation raised $5 million, and borrowed another $1 million from the city. It now houses the locomotives, which are restored, maintained, and operated by volunteers.

"ORHF at after five years is debt-free, with money in the bank, and 300 employees who work for nothing!" ORHF Executive Director Greg Fitzgerald exclaimed, at the beginning of the evening ceremony.

Joining the ORHF Board, and other rail enthusiasts, were Commissioner Nick Fish – who was in charge of Portland Parks & Recreation when the loan was approved – and Commissioner Amanda Fritz, who is in charge of the Bureau now.

The foundation presented Fish with a plaque as thanks for his help. The Commissioner then spoke briefly about the foundation's strong partnership with the city, and praised the many volunteers who open the center to the public, and provide tours to local school groups.

The ceremony is another milestone in a unique and unlikely story. Portland is the only city in the country to own steam locomotives – two of them operational, and the third being restored. Donated to the city in 1958, they had been stored outdoors near Oaks Park for decades, and were deteriorating. Nonprofit organizations were formed to help volunteers restore the locomotives, and Union Pacific allowed them to be stored in its aging wooden roundhouse in Southeast Portland. But with renovations scheduled to begin at the rail yard in 2012, a new home for the locomotives urgently had to be found. Everything fell into place when plans took shape for TriMet's Orange MAX Line from Milwaukie to cross into downtown Portland over a new transit bridge near the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry (OMSI). Land with a rail access was purchased, and a building large enough to house all three locomotives – and more – was designed. With the deadline rapidly approaching, the foundation still needed $1 million to pull it all together. The City Council approved the loan on July 27, 2011, and the Oregon Rail Heritage Center opened on Sept. 22, 2012. It has been a popular attraction ever since.

For more information, or to plan a visit to the center, go online: www.orhf.org

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