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Coronavirus first rules out the 'Holiday Express' fundraiser -- then, also, its festive substitute

DAVID F. ASHTON - With Holiday Express excursion train rides already cancelled this year, the Oregon Rail Heritage Center had hoped to open mid-December as Santas Enginehouse.  Here, you see the volunteers decorating for their festive event. But, Multnomah Countys Extreme Risk designation shut it down.  Even those Inner Southeast Portland neighbors who've never ridden on the "Holiday Express" excursion trains, traveling through Oaks Bottom each December between Oaks Amusement Park and OMSI for the past 15 years, have heard the nostalgic sound of the historic steam locomotive's whistle as it travels by the Willamette River.

But, due to COVID-19 coronavirus concerns and regulations, these merry holiday rides – usually starting on Thanksgiving Day weekend, and running through mid-December – had to be cancelled by organizers from the Oregon Rail Heritage Foundation (ORHF), across from OMSI, and a bit north of the Ross Island Bridge.

But they came up with another idea – a new Holiday attraction that they called "Santa's Enginehouse". They spent weeks preparing for it – until Multnomah County's "Extreme Risk" designation shut that down, as well.

"In April, although no one could clearly forecast whether COVID-19 would still be around seven months later, we decided we couldn't risk all the costs of preparing for the 'Holiday Express', if in the end the virus shut it all down," explained ORHF Board Member Jan Schaeffer to THE BEE. "And, we, ourselves, had trouble imagining our families feeling comfortable riding with hundreds of strangers inside the closed rail cars for an hour."

But, hosting an event in the spacious Oregon Rail Heritage Center's Enginehouse, with 20-foot-high ceilings, big fans, and big doors for good ventilation, seemed like a good possibility.

That's how the idea of creating "Santa's Enginehouse" instead was hatched.

DAVID F. ASHTON - While decorating this towering display, Train in a Tree, volunteer Phil Barney told us his vertical model train layout was decorated with 17 lighted buildings surrounding the tree, and featured a single model train running on a double helix of tracks, traveling upward outside, and then back down inside. "We had it all planned out: Routing guests along a one-way path, past Portland's three historic steam locomotives and our Holiday displays, maintaining separation between family groups, requiring masks, setting out lots of hand sanitizers, and selling timed-entrance admission – limited to 50 people (including volunteers) inside our 19,000-square-foot building at any one time," Schaeffer explained.

They were ready to begin welcoming visitors on Thanksgiving Day weekend, Schaeffer remarked – but Oregon Governor Kate Brown's "shut down" order, at that time, squashed hopes of a timely opening.

Nevertheless, ORHF volunteers went ahead and put the finishing touches on their Holiday project, in hopes of opening in mid-December. They dressed up the locomotives with wreaths, added dramatic lighting, and prepared a space where kids could talk with Santa Claus – who'd have been safely behind a no-glare Plexiglas screen, in the cab of the historic "bicentennial" Southern Pacific 4449 locomotive.

If they had been allowed to open before Christmas, kids could have written letters to St. Nick, dropped them into "Santa's Mailbox", and a few days later would have received a handwritten response from Santa or one of his elves.

DAVID F. ASHTON - Volunteer Mariah Arendt brought a Holiday gift-wrapped box to a display on the front of a locomotive; since it will now not be open to the public, youll only see it here.  Other planned attractions included Santa's Workshop; a converted railroad "speeder" shed; a huge Lionel-scale 4449 Daylight model passenger layout; and a unique nine-foot-high model train Christmas tree!

Then, on December 3, Oregon Governor Kate Brown issued Executive Order No. 20-66, that stated:

"Hosts of indoor gatherings are required to follow the indoor gathering limits for the level of risk designated for their specific county."

Multnomah County was listed in the category, "Extreme Risk: Limit the gathering to no more than six people, indoors." Alas, it would have required more than six staff members just to operate the planned activities!

So, with a heavy heart, late on December 4, Oregon Rail Heritage Center's spokesperson Renee Devereux told THE BEE that the organization wasn't confident that the new COVID-19 coronavirus case numbers would drop below the "Extreme Risk" level in time for them to hold this new attraction – the nonprofit organization's major fundraiser for the year.

"We decided today to cancel the Santa's Enginehouse event," Devereux sadly concluded. But THE BEE was there with a camera while they were setting up their displays and activities, and you can still enjoy seeing some of them in the photographs that accompany this story.

And, you can still contribute to the nonprofit Oregon Rail Heritage Foundation, and keep up to date on their activities, by going online – www.orhf.org


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