Portland rail museum hosts free birthday party on Sept. 24
The Oregon Rail Heritage Center got a present just before its 10th birthday: a historic industrial steam locomotive.
The Oregon Historical Society gave the center the Mount Emily Shay, a logging locomotive built in the 1920s that has been operating out of Prineville for the last 30 years. It will join the three larger, historic steam passenger locomotives housed at the nonprofit working museum near OMSI in Southeast Portland.
The center was chosen over two other railroad museums, which also had applied for the locomotive. The decision was announced on Sept. 1, just weeks before the 10-year anniversary of the opening of the center, which will be celebrated with a free public event on Saturday, Sept. 24.
"The Mount Emily Shay will allow the Oregon Rail Heritage Center to show the public the important role logging railroads played in the development of the timber industry in Oregon," said Roy Hemmingway, president of Oregon Rail Heritage Foundation, which owns and operates the center. "Specialty locomotives like the Shay, which could operate on steep and rough track, were able to access timber not available by other means. Shays were key to bringing logs to the mills and developing Oregon's timber economy."
"The Oregon Historical Society sincerely appreciates the support of the city of Prineville in stewarding and operating the Mount Emily Shay for decades," OHS Deputy Museum Director Nicole Yasuhara said. "We are thrilled that the Mount Emily Shay will have a new, permanent home at the Oregon Rail Heritage Center, where it will be on view and used for excursions, balancing preservation and access to this important piece of Oregon history."
Prineville asked the Historical Society to transfer the Mount Emily Shay because the city no longer could afford to operate it.
"The steam engine, in the last four or five years, has been mothballed and nobody really gets to see it," said Prineville Railway Operations Manager Matt Wiederholt. "It's just been parked in a shed. It just doesn't do it justice just having it parked. It's a wonderful item, an historical artifact just not being utilized."
The transfer coincides with progress on another project, the installation of a historic "turntable" at the center. 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 102-foot-diameter piece of machinery came from the Union Pacific Brooklyn Rail Yard in Southeast Portland. It is being restored by center volunteers.
A large circular pit has been evacuated in front of the center. Around 6,000 tons of dirt and 494 tons of concrete were excavated, and practically all of it was recycled. Seventy-three steel beam pilings are being driven into the ground to support the turntable. They are going up to 110 feet deep before reaching bedrock, then being trimmed just above the ground before being covered with concrete. Oversized ties and conventional rail tracks will be mounted on top of the massive steel bridge after it is installed in the pit. When the $3 million 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. 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 finished, the turntable at the center will be one of the few working ones in the country open to the public.
The nonprofit working museum currently maintains three city of Portland-owned steam locomotives. They are the Southern Pacific 4449 (1941), the Spokane Portland and Seattle 700 (1938), and the Oregon Rail and Navigation 197 (1905).
The rail center at the east end of the Tilikum Crossing Bridge is an ideal new home for the Mount Emily Shay. Located at the intersection of both public and private rail lines, it is a large facility with a dedicated crew of volunteers to maintain the existing locomotives.
The anniversary event will be help from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 24. The SP 4449, the largest of the three locomotives, will be steamed up in the yard. Other attractions include a display by the Great Northern Lego Railway Club, food carts, a face painter and rides to and from Oak Parks on passenger cars pulled by the Union Pacific 96, the center's diesel-electric switch engine.
"It will be a family-friendly event to honor to honor our volunteers, donors and supporters. We've accomplished a lot over the past 10 years, and will accomplish even more in the future," said Renee Devereux, public affairs director.
According to Devereux, when it arrives, the Mount Emily Shay will become the centerpiece of a new exhibit on the history of forestry in Portland and Oregon. The center sits on the site of the former Poulsen Lumber Mill. The locomotive and its tender will be trucked to the center on two large semi-trucks after the transfer is officially completed.
Long service of Mount Emily Shay
The locomotive originally was purchased by the Hofus Steel & Equipment Co. of Seattle, then sold to the Independence Logging Co. of Independence, Washington. It was eventually sold to, and named after, the Mount Emily Lumber Co., in La Grande. It was donated to the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry in 1957 and transferred to the Oregon Historical Society the next year.
The Mount Emily Shay was on long-term loan to the state of West Virginia beginning in the 1970s. The borrower restored the engine to working order — twice after fire damage — and the locomotive was operated on the Cass Scenic Railroad.
When the Prineville railway took over operation of the Shay in the 1990s, it was used to pull the Crooked River Dinner Train and for a variety of special excursions for school classes. The steam engine got significant public exposure each Fourth of July, when hundreds of people lined up to take train rides with the locomotive pulling a passenger car.
But, one by one, its uses diminished. Amid a recession, city officials discontinued the Crooked River Dinner Train and in the years that followed, the railway offered fewer and fewer excursions. And finally, converging circumstances put an end to the Fourth of July train rides. The COVID-19 pandemic initially prompted cancelation of the train rides and business growth left the railway without a viable place to park and board the train.
Wiederholt of the Prineville Railway stressed that the decision has caused no animosity between the railway and the historical society — they share a similar goal of getting the shay the exposure they feel it deserves.
More information on the Oregon Rail Heritage Center can be found at https://orhf.org.
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