Fat Guy on Rails Part 3 – A Travelogue by Adam

This part of my travels wasn’t really on rails, but I saw no point in screwing up the theme 🙂 I arrived in Portland, OR safe and sound on Friday the 23rd of June, my birthday, and when I deboarded the train, it was just over 90 degrees outside. It wasn’t humid, and aside from feeling that it was hot outside, it wasn’t oppressive. The platforms at Portland are not as active as say Chicago, but there is still plenty of activity. Aside from the Empire Builder, the Coast Startlight, Cascades service, and light rail make calls at the station. In addition to the normal traffic, there were some notable additions on the platform. The next day would be the first day of the “Cascades Daylight” excursion, and the private coaches, dome cars, and Amtrak Horizon coaches were there being prepped for the next two days of travel from Portland to Bend, OR. This is the train that I planned to intercept at a few different locations along its route. More on that later.

I wheeled my luggage into the big open space that is the Grand Lobby (most old depots have something along the lines of a Grand Lobby), and the one here in Portland is still a busy crossroads for travelers from near and far. I found a suitable spot on one of the massive benches and just paused for a few minutes to take it all in. Many of the grand old depots weren’t built simply for the utility of transferring passengers from one mode of transport to another; they were built as an architectural landmark for the citizens of the town to enjoy for decades to come and to serve as the railroad’s stamp upon a city. Some of the grand old stations of the golden age (and older) still exist, and Portland Union Station is certainly one of them. It was built in 1896, and it is one of the oldest continuously used passenger rail stations in the US.

Portland Union Station – Interior
Portland Union Station

My primary reason for being in Portland was to fulfill a longtime dream, namely to see the Ex-Southern Pacific GS-4 steam locomotive No.# 4449, better known as “The Daylight”. Back in the 1930’s and ’40’s, the GS-2 and GS-4 class of locomotives (of which the 4449 is the only remaining GS-4 example) were a relatively common sight on the west coast. Southern Pacific Lines ran several named trains of importance, but the premiere passenger train on the SP at the time was the “Coast Daylight” (originally known as the “Daylight Limited”) which ran between LA and San Francisco. The “Daylight” name came from the fact that this run was made entirely during the daylight hours, and it came to be known as, “The Most Beautiful Train in The World”. The locomotive and the passenger cars were all painted in the Red, Orange and Black (along with some black and silver on the loco) color scheme of the “Daylight” trains that ran from 1935 through to 1974.  When Amtrak took over SP’s passenger operations, the Coast Daylight name was combined with that of the Coast Starlight, and there were a few changes made to the route. A combined Coast Daylight-Starlight ran for a few years before the Daylight name was dropped entirely. The Daylight named trains were also some of the last trains to run behind steam. It wasn’t until 1955 that the SP finally started to dieselize the “Daylights”, and once that happened, the locomotives that pulled them were reassigned to other lines, and eventually wound up in freight service. The now famous 4449 was stripped of her streamliner-style skirting and repainted in black and silver (typical scheme for freight locomotives at the time) and in October of 1957 she was retired and placed into storage. According to my research, the choice of the 4449 as a donation for static display was made due to the fact that the locomotive happened to be at the head of the “dead line”. In April of 1958 she was donated to the City of Portland and placed on display on Oaks Park where she remained until 1974. Over the intervening years, the locomotive was vandalized repeatedly, but regardless of this fact, she was chosen for full restoration to operation when the planning process was underway to run the Bi-Centennial train that became known as the American Freedom Train. Ever since the 1975 to 1976/77 run of the AFT, the Daylight has been in excursion service. Her current home is the relatively new Oregon Rail Heritage Center, and her long-time caretaker/engineer remains the legendary Doyle McCormack. Railroad preservation in the Portland area owes much to Mr. McCormack, and the Daylight is one of a few locomotives that he looks after or owns. If you see the Daylight out and about, it’s almost always going to be McCormack at the throttle. It’s thought that it would take a Divine act of Providence to hinder Mr. McCormack from running the Daylight, but nobody or no-thing could ask for a more stalwart protector than Doyle McCormack.

Ex-Southern Pacific GS-4 No.# 4449 “The Daylight”

Since I arrived in Portland too early to check into my Hotel, I first made my way to the Enterprise Rent-A-Car office not far from PDX, and once I secured my rental (a Dodge Durango instead of the Ford Fusion I had hoped for), I made my way to the Oregon Railroad Heritage Center. The site isn’t that large, but it does house three functional Steam Locomotives, a restored PA-1 ALCO/GE Diesel Locomotive from the streamliner era, and a couple of Switchers. There is also some passenger rolling stock on the site as well, and most of it is in the classic Daylight livery. The ORHC is located between a couple different rail lines. The Union Pacific and the Oregon Pacific, and it often utilizes the Oregon Pacific’s rails and nearby yard facility. The ORHC is a nice place to railfan as well in light of the aforementioned rail corridors, and the light rail system passes by the front of the building. As you might imagine, the whole facility is designed around its most famous resident, but the SP&S 700 is another locomotive of the same type (a “Northern” 4-8-4), and is similar in size to the 4449. It was a freight locomotive, so it isn’t as glamorous or storied as its more colorful stablemate. Additionally, when I was there, the SP&S 700 was in the process of going through its 1,472 Day/15-year FRA mandated inspection and rebuild, so most of its internal parts were pulled out and set off to the side while the work is being performed. I’ve never seen this process outside of social media before, and it looks to be quite the undertaking. I should mention that each of the locomotives at the ORHC has its own dedicated all-volunteer groups that perform almost all of the work no matter how big or small. They work through the FRA inspections or they change a tire, it doesn’t matter, they do it all. Quite the group of dedicated folks.

To return to the topic at hand…. I spent a few hours at the ORHC staring at the 4449 in much the same fashion as someone who, according to the movies anyway, stares dumbfounded at the woman who is scripted to become the love of his life. I can only imagine of course, but I think that there is a parallel to be drawn there. Steam locomotives are a wonder to behold even when they’re just sitting on static display at a museum or a park, but when one is operational, it’s hard not to think about the history that this piece of machinery has seen and made. I know I’m romanticizing here a bit, but it’s hard not to… The locomotives from the streamliner period of railroad history were a marvelous combination of fashion and function, and the “Daylight” is just one such example.

Eventually, as more of the afternoon slipped away, I decided to break away and check into my hotel. It was unseasonably warm in Portland when I arrived on Friday (mid 80’s to low 90’s), and the young lady that checked me into my room at the Red Roof Inn Portland even commented that they weren’t cut out for this kind of weather. As I stood at the counter, I could hear the servers in the closet with their fans cranked up to what had to be almost their maximum levels. I got settled into my room, which was a recently remodeled, large space that featured a very large King Size bed, fridge, big flat screen TV, microwave, etc. All the comforts of home, as it were, but it should be mentioned that the room remodel job was poorly done to say the least. I have gotten into the habit of examining a room such as this for defects, and when I get back home I usually amuse my family (my Dad in particular) with tales of these shortcomings that would NEVER pass muster if he had been the GC. But I digress… Regardless, it was a nice enough space in which I spent very little time. I was there to see the sights, to chase trains and not spend too much time in a hotel room.

The next morning, I got up pretty early (between 5 and 6am PST which was only 8-9AM EST), and I gathered my gear for the day and headed out. I had been given a map by a very nice older gentleman from the ORHC with suggestions to check out the Daylight as it was out and about on the High Iron. The first place I headed out to was the Deschutes River Gorge within White River Falls State Park. There was a railroad trestle just up the river from where I took the next couple of pictures, but it wasn’t long before I forgot about the train entirely. I was surrounded by such profound beauty! The river below where I was standing was a rushing torrent as you can see, but it was breathtaking at the same time. Funny how something that could easily kill you is still picturesque when you’re standing there right in front of it.

Deschutes River Gorge – White River Falls State Park

I hiked around the area a bit, constantly watching for snakes per my Sister’s repeated warnings, and I just couldn’t believe what I was seeing. There isn’t something quite like this back home, and then and there I decided to just go sight-seeing. I still planned on seeing the “Daylight”, but it was no longer a priority… much to my surprise.  Once I got back to my car, I decided to make my way towards Wishram, WA. We had a stop there on the way into Portland the day before, and it looked like a nice rail-fanning location. The “Depot” is one half of what looks like a trailer/manufactured building, and the other half is a BNSF dispatch office. In addition to the main line immediately next to the platform, the area is also home to a small run-through yard where trains can park, change crews, etc. It’s a busy little place, and it also commands a very broad view of the Columbia River and the Columbia River Bridge.

Deschutes River Gorge – White River Falls State Park

I started the long drive out of the gorge, and everywhere I looked there was a beautiful picture. It was a bit overwhelming, but at the same time it was wonderful to see the beauty of nature everywhere I looked.

The road less traveled…



I checked the map later in the day to see if this area in which I found myself had a name since I had noticed earlier in the trip that some of these wide open spaces had names, and I found out that the it did indeed have a name, “Devil’s Half Acre”. Since I wasn’t a hiker traveling the area by foot, the name didn’t seem to fit, but wow, just wow was it a gorgeous part of the country!

One of several peaks in The Cascades range


Having lived in the Eastern US all of my life, I haven’t been exposed to such glorious sites (aside from sunsets on Lake Erie of course), but seeing such mountainous and picturesque countryside was a relatively new experience. It was overwhelming. I mentioned earlier that I almost forgot why I was there, and even still, it was difficult to leave such sights behind.

It took a little while to get there, but I finally arrived in Wishram, WA. The town of Wishram sits on a mountainside, and you have to drive a ways up a hillside to then descend back into the town itself. I didn’t take any pictures of the town, but needless to say, it was very small. It could have been a community of crew quarters for the men and women working for BNSF for all I knew, but the most surprising thing came when I was on my way down to the Amtrak station. I had entered my destination into Google Maps, and as I was nearing my destination, I was instructed to go straight for so many yards and then bear right. I made the turn I thought I was supposed to make, but then it redirected me. I turned around and went back, and I was again instructed to continue straight for so many yards and then to bear right. I was sitting at an intersection facing a field mind you, and then upon closer inspection (I had to get out of the vehicle) I discovered barely visible tire ruts covered by overgrowth. There was no actual pavement that had been overgrown, this was the remains of a dirt road that had been completely overtaken by the field grasses. I proceeded forward and then I ran into what I thought was another problem; where the GPS told me to turn right, there was a sharp drop-off that then led to the ballast stone that borders all railroads. I proceeded with caution, and much to my surprise, there was enough ground clearance to make it to the gravel path that it viewed as the continuation of Railroad Street. After about a half mile, the gravel changed to pavement, and I found myself in a park just behind the BNSF office/Amtrak Station. I found a parking spot, grabbed my gear and proceeded to the platform. The yard was fairly busy with a few trains queued up to stop here for replacement crews.

BNSF Coal train waiting for a new crew to board.


As I watched the goings on at the station, I was able to chat with a few Railroad employees. At first we were just passing the time of day, and then one asked if I was looking for the “steamer”. I mentioned that I was, and I was informed that I was WAAAYY ahead of it as it had been delayed by some sort of dispatching screw-up by Amtrak that caused the excursion to leave almost two hours late. They also told me that I was on the wrong side of the river. The train would be crossing over from the Wishram side over the Columbia River Bridge before it would turn south towards its final destination of Bend, OR. I thanked the kind folks there and then made my way to a park on the other side of the river that I had seen on the map earlier while I was looking for good spots. More on that in the next part.

Looking towards the Columbia River Bridge from the Amtrak Station at Wishram, WA

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