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Saving a Historical Treasure: the Portland Zoo Railway

May 22, 2020

By: Dana Carstensen, President of Friends of Washington Park and Zoo Railway

There aren’t many opportunities where older generations can both relive and pass on a magical experience to a new generation.  In these times of great divide and unknown, being able to have a moment of bonding, nostalgia, and a sense of pride that you’ve created a positive lifelong childhood memory should not only be cherished but protected.  The Washington Park and Zoo Railway is one such treasure. 

As a “temp” worker at the Oregon Zoo, I’d come back every season as the conductor of the WP&ZRy because being the “Stationmaster” brought me joy.  Parents and grandparents were reliving their childhood as children all around burst with excitement to board the train that took them through a magical forest.  When the route was first shut down, I saw firsthand how much sadness and disappointment it brought our community.

I decided to get involved when I found out that there were funding issues between the governing entities and that plans were being made to turn it into a walking path. This regional treasure since 1958 was in danger, and I had to do something.

At first, I started an online petition, which caught the passion of tens of thousands. That led to passionate public testimonies given to the City of Portland Commissioners. Once impassioned, the Portland Commissioners put a stay on the plan until a transportation study relating to the WP&ZRy within the park was done. Next we started a 501c(3) nonprofit called the Friends of Washington Park and Zoo Railway. We successfully listed the Portland Zoo Railway Historic District in the National Register of Historic Places. We felt this regional treasure deserved recognition in a national program as a way to honor and commemorate the importance of the Zoo Railway. This way, future generations could learn about the history and significance of the WP&ZRy.

Additionally, we got the Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler to ask Oregon Metro to include repair costs, which they themselves estimated around $5 million in their $7 billion transportation bond measure. We found, helped copyright, and licensed the unpublished manuscript, “Miles of Smiles – Washington Park and Zoo Railroad – A Triumph of Soot, Noise and Laughter” by Edward M. Miller, otherwise known as the, “Father of the WP&ZRy.”    

If a temp can get this far, think of what you can do to save a historical treasure in your own community.

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