Zoo train route supporters look to history for help
People who want the Oregon Zoo train to continue chug-chug-chugging along its full route are hoping history will lend a hand.
Members of Save the Washington Park and Zoo Railway are pushing to nominate the small railroad's full two-mile route to the National Register of Historic Places. A hefty 73-page nomination report for the railway, its trains and the route through Washington Park outside the zoo, was prepared in late March by Portland researcher Melissa Darby.
Nomination of the zoo railway isn't on the State Advisory Commission on Historic Preservation's agenda for its June meeting in Cottage Grove. It could be added to the commission's October meeting.
Former Oregon Zoo employee Dana Carstensen of Hillsboro is working to get Metro and the city of Portland to reopen the full zoo railway route after changes six years ago cut the ride from nearly 40 minutes through the entire Washington Park area, to about six minutes, winding through only zoo property. His Change.org petition to restore the full route has gathered nearly 35,000 signatures in the past few months.
Carstensen unsuccessfully ran for Metro Council in November 2018, losing to Juan Carlos Gonzalez of Cornelius. Metro oversees the Oregon Zoo, and Carstensen hoped to influence the regional government's decision to cut the railway route.
"The full route of the Washington Park and Zoo Railway is a magical experience that's been a regional treasure for over 60 years now," Carstensen said. "Parents and grandparents bring their children and grandchildren to ride the full route so they can not only relive their own childhood, but also share the magic they remember as children while riding the full route. It's an incredibly rare thing to be able to share such memories and emotions between generations, but it's possible with the full route of the railway. Such a treasure should be cherished and preserved."
Portland Parks and Recreation's January 2018 Washington Park master plan update outlined the city's intention to convert most of the old zoo railway route into trails. According to the plan, since September 2013, the railway corridor was closed because of "unstable conditions and cost to repair the tracks outside the Oregon Zoo." The plan includes a pedestrian and bicycle trail on part of the rail route that could improve safety in the area. Washington Park already has about 15 miles of trails that wind past Hoyt Arboretum and the Rose Test Garden.
Nominating the full railway route to the National Register of Historic Places won't stop the city and Metro from converting part of the route to trails, but it could throw extra steps in the way. Carstensen said if the route is named a historic site, changes might have to be approved by Portland Historical Landmarks Commission and the State Advisory Committee on Historic Preservation.
Both groups can make recommendations about the route, and citizens can bring pressure on Metro and the city to follow the proposals, he said. A similar situation happened about 10 years ago when there was talk of demolishing Memorial Coliseum and replacing it with other sports facilities. Local architects nominated the coliseum to the national register, which eventually helped preserve the arena.
"The nomination process is just one method to help preserve the railway but it's by no mean a silver bullet," Carstensen said.
Historically, Carstensen and Darby say the full route has a deep connection to both local history and "the physical manifestation of a one-of-a-kind cooperative statewide community effort to build a recreational civic project that has made a lasting and significant contribution to our history." A 1959 speech on the U.S. Senate floor by Oregon Sen. Richard Neuberger highlighted the fundraising efforts that included local civic leaders, school children and thousands of Oregonians who donated small amounts to pay for the new zoo railway, Darby wrote.
It also could find a place in history as the "most outstanding example of a small-scale recreational railroad that was built in the United States during the post-war period for the baby boomer generation," Darby wrote.
According to the historical nomination report, the railway was only about a half-mile long when it was constructed in 1958. It was expanded to two miles in 1959 as it clickity-clacked through Washington Park. The entire route took more than 30 minutes and wound through forested areas and over wooden trestles built for the 30-inch gauge rails.
In 2013, the southern half-mile of track on zoo property was removed to make way for reconstruction of exhibits funded by a bond measure. A year later, a new alignment on the north side of the zoo site was built, which includes a new steel and wood trestle, Darby wrote.
There are more than two dozen pieces of equipment in the railway's rolling stock, she wrote. Those include the diesel-powered Zooliner locomotive and its five cars built in 1958 to resemble a streamlined Aerotrain; the steam-powered Oregon Locomotive No. 1 and its four passenger cars built in 1959; the diesel-powered Oregon Express (1959) and three cars; and two locomotives donated by Weyerhaeuser and refitted in 1959.
Carstensen said the railway route couldn't be relocated outside the zoo because of its deep connection to the park and the region. "It's not the train by itself that people are so up in arms to protect," he said. "It's the route through the forest, to the International Rose Test Garden and back to the Oregon Zoo.
"It's not just the physical train that people care about, but the entire experience of both riding the train and being on that route. You can't recreate that by relocating the train."
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