By Karl Klooster • Staff Writer • 

The museum that could

Courtesy of Arlen SheldrakeThe new Oregon Rail Heritage Center opened in Portland on Sept. 22, 2012. It houses three vintage steam locomotives.
Courtesy of Arlen Sheldrake
The new Oregon Rail Heritage Center opened in Portland on Sept. 22, 2012. It houses three vintage steam locomotives.
Courtesy of Arlen SheldrakeThe 4449, foreground, and 700 steam locomotives dominant the interior of the center.
Courtesy of Arlen Sheldrake
The 4449, foreground, and 700 steam locomotives dominant the interior of the center.
Submitted photoGordon Zimmerman met former president Jimmy Carter during a train excursion that took him to Plains, Ga., in 1984.
Submitted photo
Gordon Zimmerman met former president Jimmy Carter during a train excursion that took him to Plains, Ga., in 1984.

In the years this column has covered people, places and events around the Yamhill Valley, few people profiled have proved as interesting as Gordon Zimmerman of Yamhill.

 At one time or another, Zimmerman and fellow family members owned half of the buildings on the Yamhill central strip and a substantial portion of the surrounding agricultural acreage.

 His father, George Zimmerman, was the patriarch of that enterprise. Gordon saw local history in the making simply by following the dynamic entrepreneur around and observing his activities.

He compiled a colorful chronicle of those firsthand recollections and titled it “A Song of Yamhill.” Noted Portland publishing house Binford & Mort released the book in 2006.

Those who know him are aware that Zimmerman’s singing talents surfaced as a teenager. He played lead roles in musical productions at both Yamhill Union High School and Oregon State College.

A 25-year-old senior owing to wartime service, he was the soloist at his Oregon State commencement in 1948. Zimmerman went on to San Francisco, where he sang with the San Francisco Opera as well as other Bay Area groups.

As much as having inherited a thriving small business and seeing success as an operatic tenor were achievements to be proud of, his greatest passion turned out to be neither of these areas.

From the time he first stepped aboard a train, the lure of the iron horse had him totally hooked. “In 1937, my parents sent my sister and me to visit our grandmother in Klamath Falls,” he said.

“They paid an extra dollar apiece so we could sit in the observation car at the back of the train. That did it for me. I begged for them to let us go again the next year and they did.”

As he thought back on it, Zimmerman recalled that when he was a little boy, maybe 4 or 5, the Red Electric passed right by their house adjacent to Highway 47 heading into Yamhill.

“I liked seeing it so much, the lady who looked after me got me a schedule. I was a regular watcher and waver for several years.”

 His train fascination fully blossomed in 1967, when he first booked a cross-country trip. From that time forward, rail excursions became a regular part of his life. So much so that he began planning rides on routes that were scheduled to be discontinued.

“When Amtrak began operating in 1971, passenger service to smaller towns and ones off the beaten track was severely cut back,” he said. “A lot of lines were abandoned altogether.”

Zimmerman has utilized a company called High Iron Travel, specializing in first class rail excursions around the country, often including little traveled-loops to and from remote areas.

“Their research is thorough and their itineraries are amazing,” he said. “I’ve gone to places you can’t imagine and taken routes that never existed. I guess the longest one was from L.A. to Halifax.”

Over the course of the years since, he has logged tens of thousands of miles riding the rails in all 50 states and 30 foreign countries.

He has also taken an interest in the history of rail travel in Yamhill County and built a sizable storehouse of knowledge on that subject, in addition to his North Yamhill expertise.

He worked for the MacArthur Company for 20 years, during which time he got to know F. Nelson Blount, the husband of Catherine T. MacArthur’s sister, and a millionaire seafood magnate who collected steam locomotives.

Blount founded what is now the nationally known Steamtown Museum in Scranton, Pa.

Zimmerman retired in 1981, returned to Yamhill and sold the family’s long-established grain company. With extra time on his hands, he became even more deeply involved in his favorite pastime.

He had already joined the National Railway Historical Society. Now he got involved with the Portland affiliate, which had its own organization and an ambitious agenda.

The Portland-based rail buffs were out to refurbish the mighty steam locomotive SP 4449 that had pulled the American Freedom Train across the country during the 1976 bi-centennial celebration.

Built in 1941, this art deco colossus is the only surviving example of the Southern Pacific Railroad’s Golden State (GS)-4 class of steam locomotives.

Through most of its career, 4449 served the SP on the Coast Daylight run to San Francisco and Los Angeles. When it was removed from service in 1958, it was donated to the city of Portland.

 The city put it on display in Oaks Park, where it was a dramatic presence until 1974, when it was restored for use as part of the American Freedom Train.

Though made obsolete by diesel, train buffs prized its size, power and grandeur. A poll of Trains magazine readers, taken in 1984, chose the 4449 as the most popular locomotive in the nation.

A dedicated volunteer group called Friends of 4449 was formed to maintain and repair the locomotive. Since the centennial, it has been used for highlighted excursions around the country.

Until September 2012, its home base was the Brooklyn Roundhouse in Southeast Portland. Then 4449 found a splendid new home next to OMSI on the Portland waterfront.

Owing to the efforts of a nonprofit group, the Oregon Rail Heritage Foundation, enough funds were raised by October 2011 to break ground on the Oregon Rail Heritage Center’s engine house and museum.

But how that reality came to pass centers around inveterate rail buff Gordon Zimmerman, who had paid for refurbishment of an old baggage car, turning it into a shop for 4449 souvenirs.

Whenever the proud old locomotive chugged out another junket, Zimmerman was there to hawk those souvenirs, attracting the attention of prospective customers with his booming, operatic voice.

As the Heritage Foundation began to gain momentum, forward progress was stymied by the lack of a large donation. More than $5 million would be needed to put the project in place.

Zimmerman came quietly and modestly forward with a personal donation of $1 million. His only requirement was that he be given the naming rights for the building.

That first million set the ball in motion for major foundations and charities to come on board with confidence that the goal could be reached.

As the foundation’s executive director Phil Selinger said, “Gordon was our significant lead donor in the foundation’s pursuit of a permanent home for Portland’s three magnificent steam locomotives. He was instrumental in making the project a reality.”

A year later, on Sept. 22, 2012, the center opened its doors, fulfilling a dream dating back to 1959 when SP 4449 first came to Portland.

Zimmerman chose to name the building for his friend and associate Doyle McCormack, the 4449’s engineer since the bicentennial years. As Gordon and others have said. “The cab of the 4449 seems incomplete when Doyle is not at the throttle.”

And that’s what I found out while OUT and ABOUT — gazing up at the majestically bulbous nose of one of the largest railroad locomotives ever built.

Karl Klooster can be reached by e-mail at or by phone at 503-687-1227.

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