Celebrate Oregon’s railway history at Portland’s Oregon Rail Heritage Center (ORHC). Completed in 2012, the ORHC is both a railway museum and enginehouse, offering a fun and interactive experience for train enthusiasts, history buffs and families of all ages. Watch as the engineers work on the locomotives, tour a vintage 1950s caboose and enjoy a train-themed scavenger hunt with the kids all while exploring Oregon’s fascinating rail history.
Located in Portland’s Central Eastside neighborhood, a few blocks southeast of OMSI, the ORHC sits at a hub of rail activity, with easy access to the Oregon Pacific, Union Pacific Railroads and the Eastside streetcar. Operated by the non-profit organization Oregon Rail Heritage Foundation (ORHF), the center is staffed by friendly, knowledgeable volunteers and supported solely by membership fees and donations.
When I arrived at the center, I followed the ORHC signs along a short paved path to the Doyle L. McCormack Enginehouse, an attractive orange and grey building with rows of clear glass windows. Please be aware there is some construction along the path and obey any railroad crossing signs. (Both the Oregon Pacific and Union Pacific Railroads are still in use.)
Before going inside, I spent a few minutes to explore the rail cars and rail memorabilia in the center’s open-air front yard. On my left was a large slab of concrete, part of a dual gauge track that once served Portland’s original Eastside streetcar and interurban rail car. Next to the slab is a 77-inch metal driver tire, removed from the SP&S 700 steam locomotive during routine maintenance.
To my right was a vintage yellow caboose, which visitors can self-tour anytime during the center’s hours. Originally built in 1944, the caboose is on loan from the Oregon Pacific Railroad and is still in active use. If the caboose is out on the rails during your visit, ask one of the center’s staff to give you a quick tour of the Mount Hood rail car. Constructed in 1950, the Mount Hood car is a combination sleeping berth, kitchen and lounge area. It’s also one of the cars used in the ORHC’s popular Holiday Express.
Missed out on the Holiday Express? Not to worry. The family-owned Oregon Pacific Railroad frequently offers public rides between the ORHC and Oaks Station in the spring, summer and fall months.
After checking out the caboose and the Mt. Hood rail car, I headed inside the center’s attractive orange and grey building to see the mammoth locomotives. At 19,200 sq. ft., the structure is massive and has two sets of tracks that can hold up to four engines inside. There are also bays for equipment, offices, an interpretive area, a gift shop and a sitting area.
Currently, the ORHC is home to three steam locomotives, the SP 4449, the SP&S 700 and the OR&N 197. All are owned by the City of Portland. The center also houses two privately-owned diesel engines, the NP 190 and the NP 324, both built in the late 1940s and 1950s.
As a history buff, I was most fascinating by the black and silver OR&N 197, a steam locomotive manufactured in the early 1900s for the Oregon Railroad & Navigation Co. Used in Portland’s 1905 Lewis & Clark Exposition, the 197 then served northwest railways for over 50 years. Hollowed out over the decades, volunteer engineers are working to rebuild this historic locomotive.
Built in 1938 for the Spokane, Portland & Seattle Railway, the black SP&S 700 is an excellent example of steam locomotive technology. At 111 ft. long and almost 17 ft. tall, this impressive engine can exceed 80 mph. The 700 served passengers from Portland to Spokane until it was retired in 1956.
Visiting the center with little ones? If so, there’s a toy train set for them to play with at the front of the Enginehouse, near the exhibit area. For kids four years and older, you can pick up a Jr. Engineer Facts Sheet from one of the staff. (There are two sheets available, depending on age.) Kids will have fun finding the answers to a variety of questions about the ORHC’s locomotives.
I’ve visited the ORHC several times in the last couple of years and every time there’s something new to see or to do. The foundation is already planning several phases of growth for the ORHC and the Enginehouse, including a turntable and a second floor interpretive center, giving generations of rail enthusiasts a fun and dynamic destination for years to come.
When you go:
The ORHC is located at 2250 SE Water Ave. in Portland’s Central Eastside neighborhood, a mile north of the Ross Island Bridge and a few blocks southeast of Oregon Museum of Science and Industry (OMSI). Hours are Thursday through Sunday 1-5pm. Admission is free but donations are greatly appreciated. Find more information visit the Oregon Rail Heritage Foundation or call 503-680-8895.
Note: There is some construction around the center and be sure to obey any railroad crossing signs. Both the Oregon Pacific and Union Pacific Railroads are still in active use.