My trip to Portland was really a pilgrimage. My holy path, my El Camino de Vapor, was Highway 5 and the final destination was the Cathedral of Stream, the Oregon Heritage Rail Center in southeast Portland. This living rail museum contains a holy relic from 1941. As much as anyone could have love for an inanimate machine, then this 433 ton lady was well loved.
This relic was a Southern Pacific GS-4 steam engine No. 4449.
There are a few things that separate 4449 from other steam engines in existence:
- She still runs, and unlike most preserved steam engines, she runs on the main line.
- She is beautiful and was designed in a streamlined Art Deco style. She is recognized by many rail fans as the most beautiful steam engine ever made.
- She is popular. Trains magazine readers voted her the most popular steam engine in the United States.
- She’s a California native. Well she was born in Lima, Ohio but spent much of her working life in California, dividing time between San Francisco and Los Angeles. When she retired, like many Californians, she moved to Oregon.
- She’s large and powerful, a Northern type, 4-8-4. One of the largest steam engines still in operation, capable of producing 5,500 horsepower and reaching speeds of 110 mph.
My relationship with 4449 goes back to the late 1970’s when she was first restored and was pulling the Freedom Train to celebrate the Bicentennial of the USA. She was dressed in a red, white and blue livery and my father took me to see her when she passed through town.
The story of 4449 in my life, is forever coupled with the relationship with my father and the love he handed down to me for trains and more particularly, for active steam engines. The bigger the better. And you didn’t get much bigger and better than SP 4449.
4449 was given to the City of Portland when she was retired from service in 1957 and the following year she was put on static display in Oaks Park in southeast Portland. In 1974 she was refurbished to working order, given a red,white, and blue livery and pulled the Freedom Train across the country.
Standing in front of the imposing beauty to sketch her portrait. Everything about this engine reflects class, beauty, and power. The air horn on the top right was used on those foggy days on the coast line.
In 1981 4449 was returned to her original orange, red, and black Daylight livery, the paint job she had when she hauled passenger trains between San Francisco and Los Angeles to attend the opening of the California Railway Museum in Sacramento. My father and I were there.
The iconic hood of the GS-4 with it’s two headlights. The headline on top is the roving mars light.
Anytime the engine was back on her home track, my father and I were there. I took super 8 film footage and dad took stills. Then we would run to the car an speed ahead to find the next photogenic place to photograph the train.
The highlight was being passengers on a rail excursion from San Francisco to Los Angles with 4449 on point with an all Coast Daylight train during the mid-1980’s.
I know my father would have been happy to know that the iconic lady is still in great shape after her 15 year boiler retrofit. She is ready to roll and is itching for the mainline and a consist of cars to pull.