After being closed for most of the pandemic, things are finally firing up at the Oregon Rail Heritage Center, the home of the three city-owned historic steam locomotives near the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry on Southeast Water Avenue.
The volunteers who maintain and operate the locomotives are getting vaccinated and returning. The enginehouse where the locomotives reside is now open to the public from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. on Thursdays, Saturdays and Sundays. The Oregon Pacific Railroad is once again offering excursions to Oaks Amusement Park and back on Saturdays.
And, the ambitious project to install a turntable in front of the center is on track to be completed this year.
In train terminology, a turntable is a large, in-ground device for turning locomotives and railcars around in one spot so they can go back the way they came, or go on to adjoining rail lines. The center already has obtained the vintage turntable it needs — a massive 102-foot diameter piece of machinery from the Union Pacific Brooklyn Rail Yard in Southeast Portland. Most of the $3 million needed to restore and install it has already been raised. A drive is now underway to raise the final $800,000 or so needed to complete the project.
As part of that drive, volunteers moved the huge bridge that holds the locomotive and railcars while they are rotated to the front of the center on Wednesday, June 9. Signs are installed explaining the project and how to donate.
The bridge is impossible to miss. Built out of solid Carnegie steel, it is 100 feet long and weighs 240,000 pounds. Most of the internal bracings and both ends were replaced during the restoration. Now painted shiny black, it contrasts with the silver railcar carriages it sits on. Oversized ties and conventional rail tracks will be mounted on top after it is installed in a circular pit yet to be dug in front of the center. When the project is finished, it will be rotated on a central pivot by two electric motors.
The bridge was moved into place by a switcher locomotive that pulled it along a rail line on the east side of the center and then pushed it through the bay where the Oregon Railroad & Navigation Co. 197 normally sits while it is being restored. That locomotive had been pulled out of the enginehouse and parked on another adjacent track the morning of the move.
Volunteer Pat Tracy, who coordinated the move, was glad the project is picking up steam.
"Progress can be slow in the volunteer world, and 2020 was a sinkhole," said Tracy, president of the nonprofit that maintains and operates one of the other locomotives, the Southern Pacific 4449, which is operational. The third locomotive, the Spokane, Portland & Seattle 700, is also operational.
Turntables once were a common feature in all rail yards with maintenance facilities. They were needed because steam locomotives cannot back up efficiently and need help getting pointed in the right direction after leaving the so-called roundhouses where repairs were made.
Almost all of the turntables in the country were dug up and discarded when newer diesel electric locomotives came into use in the 1940s, replacing virtually all steam locomotives by the mid-1950s. When it is installed, the turntable at the center will be one of the few working ones open to the public in the country. It was originally built in 1924 by the American Bridge Co., probably in Astoria, and installed the next year at the former Brooklyn Roundhouse. That was where the center's locomotives were stored and maintained after it closed and before the enginehouse opened in 2012.
"The railroad said we could have it, if we dug it up and hauled it away. Otherwise, they were going to scrap it when the roundhouse was torn down after we moved. So we took it all," said Doyle McCormack, center president.
In addition to installing the turntable and its supporting equipment, the project will require reconfiguring security fencing, relocating the center's main entrance gate and walkway, and new landscaping and hardscape. Additional radial tracks will be laid once construction is complete, to serve as spur lines for storing even more pieces of rail-related equipment at the center.
Funding for the project has come from a variety of sources, including the charitable M.J. Murdock Charitable Trust, which awarded the center a $500,000 matching grant to support it.
The Oregon Rail Heritage Foundation, which owns and operates the center, was founded in 2002. The three steam locomotives were donated to the city in 1958 and were on static display at Oaks Amusement Park until the mid-1970s or later. A diesel electric locomotive and several vintage railcars are also on display there.
The center is located at an ideal location to learn about rail history — 2250 S.E. Water Ave., adjacent to TriMet's OMSI/S.E. 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.
Find out more
To learn more about the Oregon Rail Heritage Foundation and donate to the turntable project, go to its website at https://orhf.org.
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