Santa's Enginehouse chugs ahead
The caretakers of Portland's three historic steam locomotives are among those hoping that Oregon Gov. Kate Brown does not extend the most severe restrictions of her "freeze" in Multnomah County, or at least exempts indoor museum fundraisers.
Otherwise, their upcoming holiday fundraiser — Santa's Enginehouse — will have to be canceled after already being postponed once.
The Oregon Rail Heritage Foundation previously canceled the 2020 version of the Holiday Express, its largest annual fundraiser, because of COVID-19 concerns. To make any money, the locomotive-pulled round trips between its center near OMSI and Oaks Amusement Park would have been too crowded to be safe.
In its place, the nonprofit organization decided instead to decorate the center — where the locomotives are maintained — as Santa's Enginehouse and sell tickets to scheduled, masked and socially distance tours. That way, participants could still see the three massive locomotives up close, visit Santa seated safely behind plexiglass in one of the cabs and enjoy special exhibits, including a 9-foot hand-made Christmas tree with a built-in model railroad.
The 19,000-square-foot building is ideally suited for virus-safe gatherings. It has 20-foot-high ceilings, big fans and big doors for good ventilation and both front and back doors for one-way tours.
"For Portlanders who love the annual Holiday Express, the coronavirus has forced a change from a 15-year tradition. This year, Portland's historic steam locomotives will stay parked in their airy shelter near OMSI, while Santa and his elves transform the Rail Heritage Center inside and out into Santa's Enginehouse, full of holiday magic for children of all ages," the foundation announced in late October, adding the tours would be limited in size and monitored for safety.
Tickets soon went on sale online for the tours that would start on Nov. 27, 28 and 29, the weekend after Thanksgiving, and continue for three successive weekends. But then Brown announced new four-week restrictions in Multnomah County to slow the spike of COVID-19 cases beginning on Nov. 18 and ending on Dec. 18, wiping out the entire schedule. After much thought, the board of directors rescheduled the tours for Dec. 18-23 and Jan. 1-3.
Now, Brown has said the restrictions — which include a ban on indoor museum activities in the highest risk counties — will be reevaluated in each county every two weeks. If Brown classifies Multnomah County as high risk in mid-December, the event will be cancelled after weeks of preparations.
If that happens, railroad and history buffs of all ages could be denied a final chance to see the historic locomotives this year, and probably for many months to come. They are the Southern Pacific 4449, which was built in 1941; the Spokane, Portland & Seattle 700, which was built in 1938; and the Oregon Railroad & Navigation Co. 197, which was built in 1905.
All are owned by the city but maintained and operated by volunteers. The center, which has been free to visit since it opened in 2012, closed its doors to the public in the early stages of the pandemic. It slowly reopened at limited capacity over the summer but shut down again when Brown ordered her first freeze to take effect on Nov. 23.
The dilemma facing the foundation is similar to what is happening to many other nonprofits in the region that have traditionally depended on both donations and paid events to survive. Virtually all in-person activities have been extremely limited if not completely eliminated, all but wiping out those revenue sources. Many longtime donors have also cut back because of the economic uncertainty caused by the responses to the pandemic. Some similar institutions have already permanently closed, including the World of Speed motorsports museum in Wilsonville. Although the Oregon Legislature and local governments have approved over $75 million in targeted assistance, mostly federal CARES funds, many of the remaining organizations are still struggling to survive.
The Oregon Rail Heritage Center was created in 2002 to provide for the preservation, operation and public enjoyment of Portland's historic locomotives, railroad equipment and artifacts, and to educate the public about the state's rich and diverse railroad history.
The center is ideally located for visitors to learn about rail history. It can be found at 2250 S.E. Water Ave., adjacent to TriMet's OMSI/SE Water Avenue transit center, where MAX trains, Portland Streetcars and buses converge at the east end of the Tilikum Crossing. Heavy rail lines cross the area from north to south, including those connecting to the center.
Information about the Oregon Rail Heritage Foundation and buying tickets to Santa's Enginehouse can be found at orhf.org.
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