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The project at the Oregon Rail Heritage Center in Southeast Portland is on track for September dedication.

The groundbeaking ceremony for the turnable progject at the Oregon Rail Heritage Center included (from left) board vice president Rick Franklin, former City Commisioner Mike Lindberg, founder Doyle McCormack, developer and historic preservationist John Russell, and exective director Renee Devereux.The ambitious turntable project at the Oregon Rail Heritage Center in Southeast Portland took a major step forward with a groundbreaking ceremony on Monday, May 16.

In train terminology, a turntable is a large, in-ground device for turning steam locomotives around in one spot so they can go back the way they came or go on to adjoining rail lines. The center — home to three city-owned historic steam locomotives — is restoring and installing a massive 102-foot diameter piece of machinery from the Union Pacific Brooklyn Rail Yard in Southeast Portland.

Dozens of center volunteers and supporters attended the ceremony at the center, which is located near the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry on Southeast Water Avenue. Speakers include board president Rick Franklin, developer and historic preservationist John Russell, and former City Commissioner Mike Lindberg, who championed the center when he was parks commissioner.

COURTESY DOYLE MCCORMACK - The Southern Pacific 4449 sitting on the turntable at Union Pacific Brooklyn Yards before it was disassembled. The fully-restored, city-owned steam locomotive is now housed at the  Oregon Rail Heritage Center, where the turntable will be reinstalled.

"The center educates people about the important role railroads played in the development of Portland," Lindberg said.

The project is scheduled to be completed in September. It involves digging and reinforcing a large circular pit in front of the center that will support a rotating rail bridge that supports a locomotive. The turntable being installed is nearly 100 years old. The cost of the project is approximately $3 million.

"People are fascinated with steam locomotives because they can see how they work," said Russell.

The bridge has already been restored and is sitting on a rail car in front of the center. 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.

PMG PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - A view from under the 100-foot long bridge to be installed as part of the turntable project at the Oregon Rail Heritage Center groundbreaking.

Oversized ties and conventional rail tracks will be mounted on top of the bridge after it is installed in the pit. When the project is finished, it will be rotated on a central pivot by two electric motors.

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.

"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.

PORTLAND TRIBUNE: JAIME VALDEZ - The main part of the turntable currently sits on a railcar near where it will be installed.

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 centerpieces of the center's collection are the three historic steam locomotives: the Southern Pacific 4449, the Spokane, Portland & Seattle 700, and the Oregon Railroad & Navigation Co. 197, which are owned by the city but maintained and operated by volunteers.

All three were donated to the city in 1958 and were on static display at Oaks Amusement Park until the mid-1970s or later. The SP 4449 and SP&S 700 have been restored and are currently operational. The OR&N 197 is still being restored.

PORTLAND TRIBUNE: JAIME VALDEZ - Oregon Rail Heritage Center President Doyle McCormack stands where orange paint marks the location that a 95-year-old turntable from the Union Pacific Brooklyn Rail Yard will be installed next to the museum.

According to the Pacific Railroad Preservation Association, the Oregon and California Railroad first established a presence in the Brooklyn neighborhood in the 1870s. Southern Pacific built a roundhouse with 12 stalls in 1912. An adjacent four-stall annex was built in 1948, and the original roundhouse was taken out of service in 1956 and demolished three years later. The annex, then known as the Brooklyn Roundhouse, eventually housed the city-owned locomotives until the heritage center was completed.

The Oregon Rail Heritage Foundation, which owns and operates the center, was founded in 2002. 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.

COURTESY TERRY THOMPSON - Another pictures of the SP 4449 on the turntable in front of the former Roundhouse in the Southern Pacific Brooklyn Yard. The Roundhouse has been demolished and the turntable will be installed at the Oregon Rail Heritage center.

Find out more

To learn more and donate to the project, go to the Oregon Rail Heritage Foundation website at and click on the link that says, "Support the Installation of the Historic Brooklyn Turntable."

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