- Associated Press - Thursday, December 25, 2014

VANCOUVER, Wash. (AP) - Plumes of white steam puffed from the stack of the restored Spokane Portland & Seattle 700 locomotive as it idled on the tracks at Oaks Park.

On weekends between Thanksgiving and mid-December, the restored 1938 steam locomotive was adorned with Christmas lights and an enormous wreath as it was readied for its annual task: pulling the Holiday Express train.

Wearing a Santa hat and a red and green plaid bow tie, Joey Douglas, 9, was ready for his volunteer shift on the Holiday Express. The fourth-grader at Eisenhower Elementary School in Vancouver is the youngest docent at the Oregon Rail Heritage Center in Portland. Volunteers from the center staff the Holiday Express.

“It took some convincing,” Steve Douglas said.

By the time Joey was in third grade, he was accepted as a docent on the condition that his dad volunteered with him. The father-son docent team has been helping out ever since.

On Dec. 14, the last day for the 2014 Holiday Express, Joey was invited to ride in the locomotive’s cab with the engineer and two firemen. It was a first for him.

Clouds of steam puffed from the smokestack and drifted upward. The bell clanged. The horn blasted. An enormous whoosh of steam poured from beneath the locomotive.

Families from tiny tots to gray-haired grandparents climbed aboard the passenger cars to ride the train with Santa.

Gripping the handrail, Joey climbed the ladder into the locomotive’s cab.

Inside the noisy, open-air cab, the fireman and engineer were seated about six feet apart on tall, wooden seats. Open windows allowed the men to stick their heads outside to scan the track ahead.

Yellow flames dancing inside the firebox created the steam, which propelled the locomotive forward. Although it was a chilly morning, the fire heated the cab.

The engineer pulled the cord that blew the whistle. The fireman tugged on the rope that rang the bell.

The locomotive lurched forward. A white cloud of steam puffed from the smokestack, engulfing the locomotive.

It started slowly. Puff. Puff. Puff.

Blasts of steam chugged from the smokestack. Faster and faster the locomotive moved forward until the puffing sound was constant.

The deep-throated horn blasted, reverberating in the morning air.

Joey smiled.

He stood between the fireman, Matt Baccitich, and the engineer, Greg Kamholz, and watched their every move.

Like Joey, they are volunteers. Baccitich works for TriMet as a railroad coordinator. On the Holiday Express, Baccitich is not only a fireman, but also a director with the Pacific Railroad Preservation Association.

Kamholz is an engineer for BNSF Railway.

The fireman is charged with maintaining the fire so it burns smoothly and keeps the heat constant. Facing multiple control valves, he monitored the ones directly in front of him: “blower,” ”tomzer” and “oil superheat.”

Wearing thick gloves, he turned a red knob to feed water into the pump. Then he turned the blower knob.

After he pulled the wooden knob that blasted the whistle again, he gave a thumbs-up. Joey nodded.

The train passed cyclists on the Springwater Corridor Trail through Oaks Bottoms along the east bank of the Willamette River. On the other side of the tracks, two grazing deer looked up as the train chugged past.

The Holiday Express stopped underneath the Ross Island Bridge to return to the station at Oaks Park. In total, it’s an 8-mile round trip.

Baccitich stood up and offered Joey the fireman’s seat. He quickly sat down. With the fireman’s direction, Joey pulled the rope to ring the bell. A few moments later, the engineer instructed Joey to blow the whistle.

Renovated by volunteers

The Holiday Express departs from and returns to Oaks Park in Southeast Portland the three weekends after Thanksgiving. A sold-out train equates 210 tickets, but with babies and toddlers who don’t need tickets, sometimes there are 250 passengers.

Although the locomotive can exceed 80 miles per hour, the fastest it goes on the Holiday Express run is 10 miles per hour, fireman Steve Sedaker said.

“This is a nice leisurely ride for people to enjoy with their families,” he said.

Proceeds from the Holiday Express are used to pay the building loan and utilities for the Oregon Rail Heritage Center.

Almost every year, the locomotive pulls into the Vancouver train station with Santa aboard.

Sedaker is the vice president of the group that restored, maintains and runs the steam locomotive. Restoring the 700 has been ongoing for almost 30 years, he said. Some volunteers have machinist skills, but he said complicated parts are farmed out.

“Our nonprofit, all-volunteer organization works hard throughout the year so we can enjoy and share the engine for just a few precious weekends of operations in the public eye,” said Baccitich.

The restored locomotive resides at the heritage center, near OMSI, for most of the year.

Built in the latter years of the steam locomotive era, it pulled the famous Empire Builder until that train was converted to diesel in 1947.

After that, the locomotive provided passenger service from Portland through the Columbia River Gorge to Spokane until 1956. In 1958, it was put on permanent display in Oaks Park.

Volunteers restored the steam engine and returned to operation as the Holiday Express in 1990. It is operated and maintained by the all-volunteer Pacific Railroad Preservation Association.

As the train reached the station, the 700’s chugging slowed, then stopped.

Joey shook the hands of the engineer and firemen. Then he climbed down the ladder.

Even though Joey had a rare opportunity to ride in the locomotive’s cab, blow the whistle and pull the bell, he said he would tell kids at school about his ride “only if they ask me,” he said, grinning. “I don’t want to show off.”

After Joey’s feet were back on the ground, a family with young children deboarded the Holiday Express.

Wearing a Santa hat, a toddler grasped a cup of cocoa and looked back at the train. Perhaps this boy was another Joey.

“Trains and Santa!” his dad said. “It doesn’t get much better.”

___

Information from: The Columbian, http://www.columbian.com

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