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History's inside view

Maintenance of SP 4449 locomotive offers a rare view of local rail heritage


Photo Credit: TIMES PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - A view from the cab of the SP 4449 of Mike Warren watching Gary Oslund inspect further maintenance to the firebox of the historic steam locomotive at the Oregon Rail Heritage Center.Portland’s most famous steam locomotive is open for public inspection — literally.

The city-owned 1941 locomotive that helped celebrate American’s bicentennial is undergoing required maintenance at the Rail Heritage Center near OMSI. Most of the outer sheet metal, insulation and external piping has been removed, exposing the massive 23,000 gallon boiler, which is open at the front. The firebox has also been cut open for internal repairs.

Visitors to the center are able to view the work close up for free. The center, which also houses the city’s two other historic locomotives, does not charge admission, although donations are accepted to help cover costs. It is open 1 to 5 p.m. Thursday through Sunday at 2250 S.E. Water Ave.

Photo Credit: TIMES PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - The SP 4449 sits in the Oregon Rail Heritage Center for its mandatory boiler inspection, which happens every 15 years.“If you want to understand how a steam locomotive works, this is your chance. Everything is out in the open,” says Mark Kramer, president of the Friends of SP 4449, the nonprofit organization that maintains the locomotive, officially known as the Southern Pacific 4449.

The work is being performed as part of a federally mandated requirement to ensure that boilers in steam locomotives are safe. It must be done every 1,472 service days or 15 years, whichever comes first. Worn parts are also identified and replaced.

When the work is complete, the boiler will be repainted, the cab will be reattached, and the sheet metal that gives the locomotive its distinctive streamlined look will be reinstalled. Then the SP 4449 will be ready to roll again.

“The 15-year inspection is a lot of hard work being accomplished by great volunteers. When we are finished she will be good for another 15 years or 1,472 service days,” says Kramer.

Photo Credit: TIMES PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Mark Kramer, president of the nonprofit Friends of 4449 Inc., looks at the side rods and drive wheels of the locomotive

On display at park

The SP 4449 is the only remaining operable streamlined steam locomotive of the Art Deco era. It pulled Southern Pacific “Daylight” coaches from Los Angeles to San Francisco over the scenic Coast Route to Portland until 1955. The SP 4449 was donated by the railroad to the city in 1958. It sat on display in Oaks Park until 1974, when it was selected to be the second American Freedom Train to tour the country as part of the nation’s Bicentennial Celebration.

Restoration work began at Burlington Northern’s Hoyt Street roundhouse and the SP 4449 returned to operation on April 21, 1975, wearing a special red, white, and blue paint scheme. It toured the 48 contiguous states during the celebration pulling a historic display train to the enjoyment of more than 30 million people.

Photo Credit: TIMES PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Mike Warren cleans a button of mud ring off the SP 4449 with a sander.After returning to Portland, it was eventually moved to an aging roundhouse in the Union Pacific’s Brooklyn Yards along with the city’s two other historic steam locomotives, the Spokane, Portland & Seattle 700 and the Oregon Railway & Navigation 197. Both had also been on display in Oaks Park. The SP&S 700 was returned to service in 1990 and restoration work is still underway on the OR&N 197. Each is maintained by its own nonprofit organization.

The inspection requirement was established by the Federal Railroad Administration in 1998. As part of it, the thickness of the entire boiler must be measured by an ultrasound device to ensure the metal is strong enough to withstand the tremendous pressure generated by the steam that powers the locomotive.

All three locomotive were moved to the Oregon Rail Heritage Center in in 2012. It is owned and operated by the nonprofit Oregon Rail Heritage Foundation without any ongoing support from the city. Revenue is raised by donations, concessions, and admission on excursion runs, including the annual Holiday Express run from Sellwood Park to Portland and back every Christmas season.

Work on the SP 4449 is expected to be completed in time to pull the 2015 Holiday Express train. That is when the SP&S 700, which will pull this year’s train, will be down for its required inspection — offering visitors to the center another opportunity to learn about the inner workings of the city’s historic locomotives.

Photo Credit: TIMES PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Doyle McCormack, left, engineer of the SP 4449 and president of the Oregon Rail Heritage Center, talks with other volunteers about their next tasks.