Last revised: June 22, 2023
By: Adam Burns
Oregon's first railroad can be traced back to the Oregon Portage Railway of 1858 although the state did not contain more than 500 miles of railroads until 1880.
As the iron horse made its way west and linked both sides of the nation by 1869, Oregon's quickly grew. By 1920 it contained more than 3,000 route miles, much of which was provided historically by Union Pacific and Southern Pacific.
The state has always been a generator of forest products while also offering through service to Puget Sound from California and easterly via Idaho and Wyoming.
Today, there are a number of organizations which tell Oregon's history with trains and a few even provide heritage rides. Some also offer special events for the holiday, including during Christmas, which are highlighted here.
The listings below include organizations which offer their own Christmas-themed train rides. There are also others which host official The Polar Express events.
(Hood River): The Mount Hood Railroad, located in Hood River, will host The Train To Christmas Town during select weekends from mid November through late December.
They offer three classes of service; Diamond, First, and Standard. The production is somewhat similar to The Polar Express; elves dance down the isles singing Christmas songs, kids enjoy hot chocolate and cookies, meet Santa, and experience a reading of "The Train To Christmas Town."
The entire ride lasts about an hour and a half. The historic Mount Hood Railroad originally opened between Hood River (along the Columbia River) and Parkdale (22.2 miles) in 1909.
It connected with Union Pacific at the former town and primarily served agriculture along the Hood River. Operationally, it featured a unique switchback (still in service) just south of Hood River and offers fabulous views of Oregon's breathtaking Mt. Hood volcano.
In 1968, Union Pacific acquired the line which was sold to private investors in 1987. Today, it largely handles passengers but also continues to provide some freight service. This railroad is a must-see for the fabulous scenery!
(Garibaldi): This tourist railroad is based in the beautiful Tillamook Bay area; it is one of the best locations in the Pacific Northwest to witness operating steam locomotives in action.
They currently have six in their fleet, four of which pull trains. These include:
The Oregon Coast Scenic currently maintains 46 miles but typically operates 5.1 miles of the old Southern Pacific between Garibaldi and Rockaway Beach.
The entire trip hugs the coastline; beginning in Tillamook Bay it crosses Smith Lake and then finds its way beside the Pacific Ocean. The tracks are also next to the Oregon Coast Highway.
Each Christmas they host the Candy Cane Express in which the train is decorated for the holidays. During the trip the kids get to meet Santa, enjoy hot chocolate and cookies, and is one of the few such events which is steam-powered.
(Portland): The ORHF, which maintains two operating and historic steam locomotives (Southern Pacific 4-8-4 #4449 and Spokane Portland & Seattle 4-8-4 #700) hosts The Holiday Express during select weekend dates from late November through mid-December.
They also maintain other historic locomotives, like Nickel Plate Road PA #190, the only of its kind still running in America. The Holiday Express has been held since 2005 and grows each year.
During the trip the locomotive and cars are all decorated in Christmas lights. While traveling along the Willamette River kids can meet Santa and enjoy the rare experience of riding a steam-powered train. Prices for this event are very reasonable.
(Sumpter): For whatever reason, Oregon has become a mecca for operating steam engines. There are currently three locations to see them in action; the Oregon Rail Heritage Foundation, Oregon Coast Scenic Railroad, and Sumpter Valley Railway.
In all, they total nine locomotives! The Sumpter Valley currently operates two narrow-gauge examples; White Pass & Yukon 2-8-2 #19 (built American Locomotive in 1920) and W.H. Eccles Lumber Company 2-Truck Heisler (40-ton) #3 (built by Heisler in 1915).
The Sumpter Valley Railway is named after a logging railroad of the same name which used the very same tracks that now host passenger trains.
The 3-foot gauge was incorporated in 1890 by David Eccles to move logs out of the Sumpter Valley to the Oregon Lumber Company's sawmill in South Baker City (this point also established a connection with the Oregon Railroad & Navigation Company, a Union Pacific subsidiary).
By 1891, 22 miles was opened to McEwen and eventually reached Bates, boasting an impressive network of 60.2 miles!
This was very large for a logging railroad. With improvements in automobiles and trucks, service ceased in 1947 except for a very short segment in Baker City. In 1971, train enthusiasts began to rebuild part of the line for public excursions.
Today, about 5.1 miles from Sumpter to McEwen has been restored. The current Sumpter Valley Railway offers their steam-powered Christmas Trains during December.
Its an event geared towards the whole family where you will take a trip to Sumpter, enjoy cocoa, coffee, or tea along the way, meet Santa, and go shopping at the Sumpter Christmas Bazaar.