The Southern Pacific Brooklyn Roundhouse in its last days in May 2012. Jim Wrinn photo
PORTLAND, Ore. – Few historic locomotive shops in American railway preservation have earned icon status. The Brooklyn Roundhouse in Portland, Ore., is one of them, and it is getting ready to close soon. Its most famous residents, Southern Pacific Daylight 4-8-4 No. 4449 and Spokane, Seattle & Portland 4-8-4 No. 700, will be moving to a new home, and the walls at Brooklyn will come own.
Some will shed a tear when the last engine moves out, and the last door is shut for the final time: While the Daylight was rebuilt in the mid-1970s for American Freedom Train service at Burlington Northern’s Hoyt Street Roundhouse in Portland, Brooklyn has been her home since 1981 when she was rebuilt and repainted into the orange, red, and black Daylight colors, thus returning to her rightful place as the queen of “world’s most beautiful train.” That alone should make this a sacred place, but the fact that she’s been joined by the 700, Oregon Railway & Navigation 4-6-2 No. No. 197, and Daylight keeper Doyle McCormack’s personal pet project, an Alco PA (under restoration; only one of two left in the U.S.) elevate it yet further. Yes, this is holy ground for anyone who loves steam.
My good friend, Alan Siegwarth, and I visited Brooklyn with our hosts Arlen Sheldrake and McCormack, president of the Oregon Rail Heritage Foundation. It was as if we were visiting a temple to big steam. We entered reverently.
I can’t begin to imagine how the keepers of these three engines feel about this move. So much work has taken place here to keep these locomotives operable for their rare trips out on the main line. So many people have labored here, and put in time and effort to keep steam alive. And now it ends, only to begin again in a new place.
The Southern Pacific and, since 1997, Union Pacific, have been good landlords, I’m told. The two companies leased the roundhouse for preservation work and kept renewing it as long as they could. Today, the roundhouse and the equipment inside it and outside around the 100-foot turntable are an oasis of the old days in the middle of a busy intermodal yard. Lost in a sea of truck trailers and containers, the roundhouse is in a place where the public can’t reach it, and volunteers dodge tugs in the trailer yard. The building, constructed in May 1941, is old and in need of repair: When volunteers open one roundhouse door, they do so by using a rope, for safety’s sake, in case the door collapses from the effort. The roof leaks. And it is also cramped and a difficult place in which to repair steam locomotives. But it is historic, and its now part of the Daylight and the 700’s story.
Not more than a mile away in a triangular piece of land snuggled in between the UP main line and the Oregon Pacific short line, a new 20,000-square-foot, $5.8 million shop is under construction. Eighty feet wide, and more than 250 feet long, it will house the 4449, 700, and 197, with space for another piece of rolling stock. The drop pit is huge, and the building will house offices and an upstairs interpretive gallery, something vitally needed. The turntable from Brooklyn will come along, so it will keep turning its charges for years to come.
The location of the new shop is excellent. It’s adjacent to the popular Oregon Museum of Science and Industry. Bicyclists and runners flood the neighborhood, and it’s on both a light rail line and a new streetcar route. A nearby bridge provides an ample sidewalk and should provide spectacular views of the turntable. Portland’s own locomotives will no longer be hidden from public view. They need an audience, and they need people to come to wonder about them and come to know and love them as we do so that they keep going in steam.
It’s been a long road to a new home. Fund raising has brought in $4.9 million of the $5.8 million project. The Oregon Rail Heritage Foundation, formed as the umbrella group for the projects, is leading the way. Outside of Jerry Joe Jacobsen’s roundhouse construction in Ohio, this must be the largest railway preservation project taking place in the nation.
Some are worried that the new building will lack the character of Brooklyn — that it may be too sterile. It may be at the start, but it will grow and age and gather a flavor of its own soon enough. Best of all, it is a good roof, sound enough to house what are truly national treasures. Everyone, and every locomotive, needs a safe place to call home.
That’s evident when you stand with Sheldrake (of the Pacific Northwest Chapter of the National Railway Historical Society) on a bridge overlooking the site. By June 30, the Daylight, 700, 197, and everything else at Brooklyn has to be gone. The contractor poured the slab for the new building and is set to start putting up the building this week; it will be finished later this summer, and the engines and the containers full of parts and tools can move in. Brooklyn has been a marvelous home for mainline steam preservation in the Pacific Northwest. Its spirit will live on at the new home of Daylight & Co.
Mention the Daylight and you immediately think of Doyle McCormack, the Norfolk & Western engineer who left his job to go to work at the American Freedom Train in 1975 and tied himself to the SP steam locomotive that is famous worldwide. Long-time Trains readers have known Doyle, and they will be glad to know that he recently had a pacemaker installed to regulate an electrical problem with his heart. The surgery, which had to be done twice to correct an initial problem, has done little to slow him down. He can’t lift his left arm over his shoulders right away, so he won’t be running Santa Fe 4-8-4 No. 3751 on an excursion in California and Arizona later this month. But otherwise, he’s fine. Last Sunday, he was at Brooklyn roundhouse working on a door for his Alco PA restoration, leading a tour of the Daylight’s new home, and dining on a club sandwich with chips and salsa at nearby Beez’s Restaurant. McCormack says he’d love to do another long trip like the one that took him, his engine, and crew to Michigan in 2009. Coming from a Nickel Plate Road family, he’s pleased with Norfolk Southern’s NKP heritage unit (“those strips fit just right on that carbody”). And, he’s eager to see the new home for Portland’s steam engines completed soon. So for Big Mack, it’s full steam ahead!
See more photos of the Brooklyn Roundhouse.