Portland is a train town. From its history as a 19th Century railroad outpost up to the present with its light rail and streetcars, steel wheels on tracks seem to have forever resonated in the The City of Roses.
One place where old meets new in Portland is the Oregon Rail Heritage Center, located on Portland’s eastside. To get there from downtown, take Portland’s sleek Eastside Streetcar over the Willamette River and get off at the stop at S.E. Caruthers, near the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry. The train museum is a short walk away.
The center is housed in a cavernous roadhouse in the historic Brooklyn Yard. Inside is a rare working turntable, along with historic steam and diesel locomotives.
The star of the show is the Southern Pacific Daylight No. 4449, a bright orange and black locomotive built in 1941. It was retired in 1957 and donated to the museum. It is the only one of the Daylight locomotives still in working shape. It was completely restored in 1974 in time to bask in the glory again when the Daylight pulled the American Freedom Train around the U.S. to celebrate the nation’s Bicentennial.
We made a weekend trek recently from Seattle to Portland to see the Daylight up close. My 12-year-old son has many passions, none greater than steam engines. He dreams of steam engines and loud, mournful steam whistles. He wants me to buy a train whistle and install it on our Subaru so he can blast it. (So far, I have managed to put him off.)
At the train museum, at least, my son was not disappointed. The volunteers were eager to indulge a boy who shared their passion for trains. He marveled at the Daylight and also got to go inside the engine rooms of other old iron workhorses on display. That included the Spokane, Portland & Seattle 700, a steam locomotive built to pull the famed Empire Builder until 1947, when the diesel engines took over.
An even older train, the Oregon, Railroad & Navigation No. 197, also sits in the roadhouse. The engine was built in 1905 and arrived in Portland just in time for the 1905 Lewis & Clark Exhibition. The old engine is undergoing a massive renovation by the volunteers who repair and restore the old relics. The roadhouse also houses their workshop, where they have to fabricate many of the replacement parts.
Then there is the shiny blue Nickel Plate Road No. 190, an old diesel locomotive that was discovered broken down and abandoned in Mexico decades after it outlived its usefulness in the U.S. and was sold to the Ferrocarriles Nacionales de México. The engine is now at the Oregon Rail Heritage Center undergoing a restoration with plans to have it operational.
As I stood next to the beast of engine, the song “Texas Eagle” by Steve Earle started playing in my head.
Nowadays they don’t make no trains
Just the piggyback freighters and them Amtrak things
They shut the Eagle down awhile ago
Sold it to the railroad down in Mexico
But every now and then that whistle’s on my mind
I ride that Texas Eagle cross the borderline
It is nice to see an old locomotive being brought back to life. The museum’s goal is to have the Nickel Plate Road in working order, blowing its steam and sounding its whistle.
I know one boy who is banking on them doing it.