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Railroad toots horn with $5 train rides

Oregon Pacific offers 'rail nuts' short Saturday trips


by: TRIBUNE PHOTO BY JAIME VALDEZ - Richard Samuels who is the owner of Oregon Pacific Railroad Co., stands in front of his 1959 General Motors Diesel at the Oregon Rail Heritage Center. Samuels gives rides to passengers on the locomotive as well as a Pullman business rail coach car.Around the turn of the last century, the height of luxury cross-country travel was a well-equipped private Pullman business rail coach. Now you can experience how top business and government leaders saw America for a mere $5. And for just $5 more, you can ride in the cab of the locomotive that powers it on 40-minute journeys from Portland to Sellwood and back.

Several round trips are scheduled every Saturday by the Oregon Pacific Railroad, a working short-line railroad based in the Milwaukie Industrial Park. It is offering excursion rides from the Oregon Rail Heritage Center near the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry to Oaks Amusement Park. The locomotive is a 1959 General Motors Diesel that weighs 143 tons. It is one of five locomotives that regularly moves freight on the railroad’s two operating lines in the region.

“We don’t make any money on the rides, but we make a lot of smiles,” says Richard Samuels, an area businessman and self-confessed “rail nut” who owns the railroad.

The rides started last summer after the opening of the ORHC, where the three historic steam locomotives owned by the city of Portland and maintained by volunteers are based. Originally, customers could ride in an open-air coach made from an old flatcar and a covered logging caboose. Samuels says the open-air rides will return in May, but until then, passengers can ride in the Santa Rosa, the Pullman coach that was built in 1917 and used by a former president of the Southern Pacific Railroad.

Samuels saw the coach advertised for sale in California several years ago and went to look at it. The interior is unrestored and features an observation lounge, a dining room, a kitchen and two adjoining sleeping rooms with sinks, showers and toilets. A steel underframe was installed in 1930.

“It’s a beautiful car. When I saw it, I had to have it,” Samuels says.

Passengers can board the train at the OHRC, 2250 S.E. Water Ave. Admission to the museum is free. The rides take place along the east bank of the Willamette River, offering views of Ross Island and Oaks Bottom.

Volunteers at the OHRC are thrilled by the Saturday rides. They say it brings new visitors to the working museum, which is open free to the public most days.

“It’s a godsend for us,” says volunteer Gary Brandt, who was at the OHRC for the first ride of the year on Jan. 10.

‘Luxury jet of its day’

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO BY JAIME VALDEZ - Passengers aboard Pullman business rail coach car at the Oregon Rail Heritage Center.Samuels is more modest about his undertaking. “It’s just a chance for me to play with my toys,” Samuels says.

Samuels, who owns a scrap steel business, has always liked trains. In the late 1980s, he purchased a five-mile line from Milwaukie to Portland from the Southern Pacific and Union Pacific railroads and started the East Portland Traction Co. It runs from the OPR headquarters near the intersection of Southeast McLoughlin Boulevard and Highway 224 to a rail yard just north of the ORHC.

Samuels expanded his operation in 1993 by leasing the Southern Pacific’s branch line connecting Molalla and Canby. It originally was known as the Molalla Western Railroad, but Samuels later combined both lines under the name Oregon Pacific Railroad.

Both lines still move freight five days a week, with the Molalla-to-Canby route being the busier of the two. But to hear Samuels tell it, the business is more of an excuse to buy, refurbish and run aging locomotives. Three operate on the Molalla-to-Canby line, while two service customers in Milwaukie and Portland. One of them, the 1959 GMD-1, does double-duty on Saturdays on the excursion rides.

Though not as picturesque as the steam locomotives on display at the ORHC, the GMD-1 is still impressive. A total of 101 of them were produced by General Motors Diesel, the Canadian subsidiary of General Motors Electro-Motive Division, between August 1958 and April 1960. They are powered by a supercharged 12-cylinder EMD 567C diesel engine capable of producing 1,200 horsepower. It spins a generator that provides electricity to four traction motors that drives the wheels. The massive engine and generator sit under the boxy hood that makes up most of the locomotive.

Riders can check it out before boarding the Santa Rosa for the Saturday trips. Brian McCamish with the OPR describes it as the “private luxury jet of its day.”

The rides fill up quickly, so plan on getting there early and taking some time to see the historic steam locomotives, too.