'Holiday Express' along the river still delights riders
Over four weekends, starting in late November, thousands of people arrived at the parking lot of Oaks Amusement Park – not to enjoy the carnival, but instead, to catch the "Holiday Express" train and ride in historic railroad passenger cars, pulled by the Southern Pacific 4449. The engine is the only remaining operable "streamlined" steam locomotive of last century's Art Deco era.
On a clear evening, one can hear the 6,500 horsepower #4449 locomotive at quite a distance, as it sounds its mournful steam whistle and chugs from Oaks Amusement Park, along Oaks Bottom, up to Portland's Industrial Eastside and back.
As one of the hourly excursions returned to the Oaks Park Station, riding the rails owned and operated by Oregon Pacific Railroad Company – that firm's President, Richard A. Samuels, smiled as he watched the happy families disembark.
"It's fun to see all the kids coming – and it's really good to be able to share this with people who look like they really enjoy the experience," Samuels told THE BEE.
"For us, it's also a little nerve-wracking, because the 4449 locomotive weighs about three times more than one of our diesels; it's hard on the track! We spent about a month tamping, adjusting, and evaluating the track, to make sure that it holds up under that weight," Samuels confided.
The very first year of these Holiday Express runs, the train departed from the then-unimproved site of the Oregon Rail Heritage Center opposite OMSI. Nowadays that railroad museum is built and open, under the S.E. MLK Boulevard viaduct, recalled Oregon Rail Heritage Foundation (ORHF) Vice President Ed Immel – but the departure is now down at The Oaks.
"With parking being scarce at the Rail Heritage Center, and frequent delays when crossing the TriMet MAX Orange Light Rail Line, having the station at Oaks Park just made more sense," remarked Immel. "Here, the ramps are in place, there's plenty of parking, and the folks here at Oaks Park are good people. We really enjoy working with them."
Our interview was interrupted for a moment by the loud hiss of the locomotive's engineer "clearing the cylinders" and "blowing down the boiler" – opening valves to empty the drive pistons of built up water, and to expel residue from the bottom of the boiler.
This year, some 150 volunteers signed up for duties on the railroad excursions – ranging from hosting passengers on the train, to working in the station, and helping in the parking lot. "We love our volunteers, and there certainly wouldn't be a 'Holiday Express' without them," Immel mused.
These hour-long round trips comprise the only fundraiser of the year for the nonprofit Oregon Rail Heritage Foundation, Immel pointed out. "We don't charge admission to the Center [typically open Thursday through Sunday], though donations we receive there help us keep the lights on.
"Right now, our emphasis is on our big next capital campaign – to put in [a roundhouse] turntable, and a second floor in the building. The turntable, alone, is a $1 million project!"
At that point, another group of enthusiastic riders headed out of the station and up to the waiting train, ready for the unique Holiday train ride by the river – which included a visit with Santa.
For more information about Rail Center, ORHF, or the Holiday Express, go to their website – www.orhf.org/the-holiday-express