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 building in Union Pacific's busy Brooklyn Yard that was slated for demolition.
But last Wednesday, the board of the Oregon Rail Heritage Foundation burned their city mortgage to celebrate the fifth anniversary of their permanent center, located adjacent to the transit center at the east end of the Tilikum Crossing at 2250 S.E. Water Ave.
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 5 is debt-free, with money in the bank, and 300 employees who work for nothing," ORHF Executive Director Greg Fitzgerald said at the beginning of the evening event.
Joining the foundation 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 running and the third being restored. Donated to the city in 1958, they had been stored outside 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 had to be found.
Everything fell into place when plans took shape for TriMet's Orange Line from Milwaukie to cross into downtown Portland over a new bridge near the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry. 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.
For more information, visit: www.orhf.org.