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The atmospheric December steam-train rides through Oaks Bottom keep gaining in popularity

DAVID F. ASHTON - Another ride on the Holiday Express comes to an end, as the antique steam train approaches Oaks Park Station after dark, its Holiday lights reflected in Oaks Bottom Lagoon below it, and the lights of Downtown Portland shining from across the Willamette River beyond it. Since steam locomotive enthusiasts started offering excursions along the Willamette River in 2005, it's become a tradition for many families to take rides on the Christmas-decorated and well-heated "Holiday Express" train that clickety-clacks along the Oregon Pacific Railroad tracks near Oaks Park.

On some days and evenings, the nostalgic sound of the "Daylight Express" Southern Pacific 4449 locomotive's steam whistle can be heard for miles.

Their first year, when building the Oregon Rail Heritage Center (ORHC) was still a lofty ambition, volunteers set up the northern "station" for the train in an empty field near the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry. That's where the completed rail museum now stands, regularly open to visitors.

"The next year, we established 'Oaks Station' here at Oaks Amusement Park where there's plenty of free parking and utilities available," recalled Oregon Rail Heritage Foundation (ORHF) Vice President Ed Immel, as the new season began – immediately after Thanksgiving Day, on Friday, November 23.

Last year, he remarked, they first tried opening the season a day early, on "Black Friday", and found that all of the tickets quickly sold out – which was again the case this year.

Each 45-minute jaunt from Oaks Park north to the ORHC and back carries about 200 revelers, plus the volunteer train crew – and all that adds up to about 14,000 riders during the four-week "Holiday Express" season, Immel told THE BEE.

The daylight trips are ideal for families with smaller children, and give riders stunning views of the Oaks Bottom Wildlife Refuge from one side of the train, and the Willamette River on the other side, Immel pointed out.

"And, during our nighttime excursions, the cars feel more cozy, with Holiday lights strung up to illuminate the interiors – but not so much that you can't see out the windows clearly," Immel reflected.

"And, on many of the evenings – although we don't coordinate with them – you can see the 'Christmas Boats Parade' on the river, or the Willamette Shore Trolley decorated and running along the west side of the river – as well as the city's skyline."

The tickets sold for the 70 excursions over four weekends support the ORHF, and pay for expenses – which include fueling up the huge Southern Pacific 4449 steam locomotive with 6,800 gallons of used motor oil that they buy from Jiffy Lube. "Interestingly, it doesn't need to be refined; we just pump it into the tender!" mused Immel.

"It's so much fun to see the eyes of little kids open wide when Santa comes by," he said. "And, for adults, the 'Holiday Express' provides a unique experience, allowing one to step back in history."

Just then, the conductor called "All Aboard", and another group of revelers climbed on board for a ride on the "Holiday Express".

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