Zoo train restoration

Ridgefield company doing interior, exterior repair work on Oregon Zoo's iconic engines

By Tom Vogt, Columbian science, military & history reporter



Did you know?

■ The Washington Park and Zoo Railway has three trains — the Centennial steam locomotive, the Zooliner and the Oregon Express — that have operated simultaneously on busy days.

RIDGEFIELD — Two heavyweight attractions from the Oregon Zoo are spending the summer in Ridgefield.

It's not a wildlife-refuge vacation for a couple of elephants or a pair of giraffes … although that would be pretty interesting. Two engines from the zoo's railroad are being refurbished at a business along Interstate 5.

Pacific Power Group is restoring two iconic pieces of zoo history — the Old West-inspired Centennial steam locomotive and the retro-futuristic Zooliner.

The four-month restoration project is part of the Oregon Zoo's railroad shutdown, as crews lay track and build a 20-foot-high trestle for a new train route.

The sleek Zooliner is being outfitted with a new 174-horsepower diesel engine featuring improved emission control and better fuel economy. It's also undergoing extensive body work to repair decades of corrosion and general wear and tear.

"It's a total restoration," said Mark Loigman, the Oregon Zoo's facilities manager. "It was kind of used and abused.

"In a lot of ways, the Zooliner will be more like the original," Loigman said, than it's been since someone painted the date of manufacture on it, on June 19, 1958.

Technicians in the body shop have worked their way through seven layers of paint while refurbishing the Zooliner.

The oil-fueled steam engine's summer to-do list included pressure testing and installation of a new smoke box. Workers also are replacing the steel-frame carriage on the locomotive's tender car, which accompanied the locomotive to Ridgefield aboard a 52-foot-long flatbed trailer in June.

Both engines were built to help celebrate Oregon's centennial in 1959, although their designs represent divergent eras. The Centennial steam locomotive is a reproduction — about five-eighths-scale — of the 1872 Virginia & Truckee "Reno" locomotive featured in "How the West Was Won" and dozens of other films and TV shows.

The Zooliner echoed the futuristic design (by standards of the 1950s) of the Aerotrain, on a smaller scale; General Motors produced two Aerotrain locomotives that pulled trains from 1956 to 1966.

True to its GM roots, the Zooliner features a cab that was created from the upper bodywork and roof of a 1956 Buick, according to zoo officials.

The $280,000 contract represents a variety of work. Pacific Power Group, which sells and services engines and does a full range of servicing for commercial vehicles and trucks, was able to handle the whole job.

"One thing we appreciated was that they can do things that are completely different," Loigman said. "They don't have to send things out to other shops."

Even though, as body shop manager Ken Weese noted, "this is our first steam locomotive."

All three pieces of rolling stock will get custom paint jobs. That will mean some serious exercises in color-matching. On a recent afternoon, project participants had 10 color samples of black paint to evaluate for a section of the steam engine's exterior. And those 10 samples were the finalists; they'd started with a lot more versions of black than that.

"There is a lot of historical tradition with the locomotive, and we want to keep it looking and operating that way," Loigman, the zoo facilities manager, said.

The zoo train is an attraction that spans generations, Loigman said.

"People who rode it 50 years ago will show us pictures of themselves on the train," Loigman said. "Now they're bringing their grandkids."

With completion of the train restoration projects set for October, zoo officials plan to have the Centennial steamer and the Zooliner ready for the Nov. 28 opener of the ZooLights display.

The Washington Park and Zoo Railway also has another train, the Oregon Express, but it won't be part of ZooLights.