Forty years ago, Portland's city-owned steam locomotive toured the country during the United States' bicentennial celebration. Millions of people saw the Southern Pacific #4449 – as part of the "American Freedom Train" that pulled commemorative exhibits through all 48 contiguous states back in 1976.
But, a little less than six months before that tour began, the SP 4449 had been rusting away, parked near Sellwood's Oaks Amusement Park, where it had been sitting out in the elements since being donated to the city in 1958.
Last fall, some 150 of the people who'd rebuilt the 75-year-old locomotive in those six months, and who helped arrange its tour, gathered in town for a reunion with that refurbished symbol of our national heritage.
Among other things, they participated in a re-enactment of the day the SP 4449 was towed out of the park to be fixed, and heard from the man who made it all possible – Ross Rowland, founder of the "American Freedom Train Foundation" – a former Wall Street commodities broker and steam locomotive fan, who came up with the idea for the tour, and raised much of the money that made it happen.
Rowland, 76, also used the occasion to discuss his plans for another "American Freedom Train 2.0" tour coming up in 2018, this time to thank American soldiers for their overseas service, and to raise money for those who came home wounded.
And, he wants the SP 4449 locomotive to be part of it.
The original American Freedom Train tour cost $50 million, with half the money coming from a handful of corporate sponsors, including Pepsi-Cola – and half from ticket sales.
Rowland estimates the 2018 version will cost $100 million. He hopes to raise all the money from sponsors, with all of the ticket sales benefiting veterans. "I think it's a proper way to thank those in uniform, and help the wounded warriors and their families," Rowland says.
Anchoring rail museum
That weekend's events kicked off a new exhibit on the "American Freedom Train" at the Oregon Rail Heritage Center, situated across from OMSI and near the transit center at the east end of the Tilikum Crossing bridge, where the SP 4449 now resides. This locomotive is the only remaining operable "streamlined" steam engine of the Art Deco era.
"The American Freedom Train of 1975-1976 was a heroic effort by private citizens to put together a suitable celebration of the bicentennial of the signing of the Declaration of Independence in 1776," says the interpretive material at the exhibit. "To lead the American Freedom Train, a locomotive suitable to the dignity of the Bicentennial Celebration, and with the power to handle a 26-car train weighing over 2,200 tons, had to be found. Locomotive No. 4449, awaiting restoration in Portland at Oaks Park, was the first choice."
Two other city-owned steam locomotives are now on display there, too: The Spokane, Portland & Seattle 700, and the Oregon Railroad & Navigation Co. 197. Maintained by volunteer railroad enthusiasts, the SP 4449 and the SP&S 700 make occasional excursions – including the popular "Holiday Express" runs with Santa aboard, through Oaks Bottom, in early December each year.
The Oregon Rail Heritage Center might not even exist without Rowland's vision. His idea of using historic locomotives to celebrate the bicentennial prompted Wes Camp, another fan and employee of his at the time, to track down the SP 4449 in Oaks Park, and determine that it could be restored.
That success eventually led to the restoration of those other two locomotives, which also had been sitting in the park – and then to the fundraising for the new building where all three, and more train memorabilia, are housed today.
"I really think that without Rowland's vision for the American Freedom Train, none of this would exist today," remarks Arlen Sheldrake, a longtime locomotive and center volunteer.
Herculean restoration task
The story would be dramatic enough if it only included the SP 4449, the last surviving example of Southern Pacific's "GS-4" (General Service/Golden State) class of steam locomotives. Built in 1941, these pulled passenger cars throughout the West Coast, until being switched to freight service in 1956.
In early 1958, Portland officials asked Southern Pacific (today, it's the Union Pacific) for an engine to place on permanent display in Oaks Park. The president of Southern Pacific asked his men to choose the best one remaining, and Locomotive No. 4449 arrived on April 24 of that year.
The Pacific Northwest Chapter of the National Railway Historical Society was tasked with the locomotive's general upkeep. Although longtime official Jack Holst, a Multnomah County employee, is known to have cared for it over the years, the lack of use and vandalism had taken their toll. By the time the foundation located and chose the SP 4449 as one its three locomotives, the restoration cost was estimated at around $250,000 – which was $75,000 more than the engine's original construction cost!Restoration work was a race against time. As the money was being raised and the work crew was being finalized, the SP 4449 was towed out of Oaks Park by a newer diesel electric locomotive to Burlington Northern's Roundhouse on N.W. 9th Avenue, in what is now the Pearl District. The goal was to restore the locomotive to factory specifications in just 90 days – a plan that would require the core crew to work 18 hours a day, seven days a week. Over 125 volunteers also donated more than 10,000 hours to the rebuilding effort. The final cost for the restoration came in under $100,000.
The restored SP 4449 was fired up for the first time on April 21, 1975. Remarkably, everything worked perfectly. Numerous tests and exploratory runs followed, each one successful. On May 16, just four days shy of its 34th birthday, SP 4449 was dedicated anew. It departed Portland on June 20.
As part of an American Freedom Train, it hauled ten display cars across much of the country. In converted New York Central and Penn Central baggage cars, the train carried more than 500 historic American artifacts – including George Washington's copy of the Constitution, the original "Louisiana Purchase" document, Judy Garland's dress from "The Wizard of Oz", Joe Frazier's boxing trunks, Martin Luther King Jr.'s pulpit and robes, replicas of Jesse Owens' four Olympic gold medals from 1936, and even a rock from the moon.
The tour lasted from April 1, 1975, until December 31, 1976. During that time, more than seven million Americans visited the train at stops in all 48 contiguous states, while millions more watched it steam by, with its mournful steam whistle blowing.
"Part of my plan was to be able to operate a steam locomotive 'at speed' on main rail lines," says Rowland, who served as the engineer on roughly half the tour. "The other part was letting children see historic artifacts from their country's past, so they would appreciate everything we'd accomplished in 200 years."
Storage and service
After returning to Portland, the SP 4449 spent much of the following years with the other two city-owned historic locomotives inside a large and decaying wooden roundhouse in Union Pacific's Brooklyn Yard, which was demolished only recently to expand the yard for container service.
Volunteers continued to maintain the huge locomotive for the "Holiday Express" runs and other outings, while private funds were raised for a new and permanent home. The Rail Heritage Center finally opened just east of OMSI on September 22, 2012.
Those who worked on the "American Freedom Train" project hold regular reunions around the country. They had not come together in Portland for many years, however; and gathered in mid-September for the first time at the Oregon Rail Heritage Center, where many saw the SP 4449 again for the first time in forty years.To commemorate the occasion, the SP 4449 was ceremonially pulled backwards from Oaks Park to the center by the original diesel electric locomotive that did the job back then, the former Portland Traction Company 100. That locomotive was built in 1952, and is now part of the local Oregon Pacific Railroad short line that hauls freight and occasional excursion trains between Portland and the City of Milwaukie. It is owned by local businessman and self-confessed "rail nut" Richard Samuels.
Speaking to participants at the Rail Heritage Center, Rowland, who had never seen the center before, praised it as a proper home for the three steam locomotives. "As someone who will soon be called by the Lord to the great roundhouse in the sky, it's reassuring to know these machines we all know will be well-cared for into perpetuity."
To learn more about the Oregon Rail Heritage Center at 2250 S.E. Water Avenue, as well as Portland's historic steam locomotives, go online – www.orhf.org