Oregon Design and Architecture Oregon History Portland History

Portland Zoo Railroad

I was at a conference a couple months back at the Portland Zoo and between sessions went out to the back area to get some fresh air and Wi-Fi.

Lo and behold the area butted up against the barn for the zoo train. I’d never seen it that up-close before. She still looks great.

I’m fairly certain that I was the only person at the conference more interested in the train than the “web usability” sessions. The train was originally built for the 1959 Oregon Centennial and was called The Oregon Centennial Zoo Railroad.

Here’s a postcard from 1959:

This 30-inch-gauge train takes passengers from its station at the Exposition, through Frontier Village [scans forthcoming] and back, lasting about 15 minutes. It cost about $275,000, financed mainly by the Portland railroads.

Here’s another glamor shot, same era but now branded as the Portland Zooliner:

7 replies on “Portland Zoo Railroad”

Glad to hear you enjoyed your visit to the zoo. Too bad none of us were around, we may have been able to show you around a little bit.

A bit of a correction: The Zooliner has always been called the Zooliner. It is the original zoo train at the Oregon Zoo, entering service in June of 1958, one year before the zoo officially opened at the current site. In July of 1959 the new Portland Zoo officially opened as part of an event celebrating Oregon’s centennial but the Zooliner wasn’t there! A “Circus Train” was built to operate at the zoo that summer because the Zooliner had been trucked to North Portland, the site of the Oregon Centennial Exposition and Inernational Trade Fair. It ran there for 100 days, still with the name Zooliner and lettered for the Portland Zoo Railway. It was joined by a brand-new train, the Oregon steam locomotive and five cars. That is the true Centennial Train and the cars were lettered “Oregon Centennial Railroad.” The locomotve tender was lettered “P.Z.Ry.” in gold leaf and the cars all featured the Portland Zoo Railway logo on them. Both trains went up the zoo in the fall of 1959 and are still there and in use today. (If you were not aware during your visit outside, the steam train lives behind the roll-up door right next to the tunnel. You were literally feet away from it!) The Circus Train still survives, too, partly. Some of it makes up the third train called “The Oregon Express.”

In case you are wondering, the railroad’s named changed in the late 1970’s to the Washington Park and Zoo Railway but other than that, not much has changed.

By the way, I know all of this because I am one of the employees on the zoo railroad and have been a life-long Portland zoo train fan.

I hope this is helpful. Nicely done on your web page.

Best regards,

Jeff Honeyman

My understanding is that, at one time, it was the most profitable railway per mile of track in the country. But that was before Bernie Madoff. He may have need a similar railway to move money to and from his vault.


Am I mistaken, or is the Washington Park and Zoo Railway the ONLY railway left in the U.S.A. that has its own postmark? I was told something like that when my kids were toddlers about ten years ago and we took them for a ride on the Zooliner.

The WP&ZRy is the only railroad that has had its own postmark since the demise of the RPO. And for a number of years, it was the only railroad with a postmark, period! I’m not sure what the status is now. I know several years ago the Oil Creek & Titusville RR in PA had a postmark on an actual RPO car! (The WP&ZRy has never had an RPO car, just letter drops.) I believe other railroads have also had special, one-day or single-event postmarks for special occassions. That has also happened on the WP&ZRy!

I was a seasonal Station Master on the Zoo Railway from 1980 until 1986 or 1987. We worked at the main station near what was then the entrance plaza to the zoo and during the summer months also at the Washington Park station. The photos and story above focus on the Zooliner, but in my experience there was much more public interest in the steam engine. I was hired by a guy that was Master Mechanic (name escapes me) who retired in 1981 or so. The steam engine was operated by Ken Curtis primarily (if not exclusively at first) and mostly on weekends. The other train drivers were Chet Greg, another guy (?? gah!) with a handlebar moustache and a propensity for philosophizing during idle moments, and later, Bob Hoffman, Jim McDermott and his brother George (the latter two ex-Union Pacific engineers). The Zooliner was first out of the barn and last put away (usually parked in the tunnel). There were various mishaps during my tenure, the periodic derailments (never serious), and the nearly disasterous runaway.

The nominally 30-minute roundtrip to Washington Park then included a 5-minute stop at Washington Park so that people could get out and look at the view of the Rose Gardens, Mt Hood and Mt St Helens. During the spring and fall, when crowds were lighter and weather dodgier, the trip was limited to “the Zoo Loop”, a 10-minute (or less) route limited to the zoo grounds.

I was working on the day Mt St Helens erupted on May 18, 1980 and again a week later when we got an ashfall in Portland. I still have a glass jar with the super-fine ash I collected off the railings and garbage can lids where it accumulated.

At full-capacity, we could operate three trains, leaving at approximate 10- or 12-minute intervals. The station masters and engineers communicated by two-way radio. At various check-in locations, the engineers would call to coordinate meetups at sidings or near the gate. Texas Gulch, the deeper of two canyons traversed, was one of the landmarks along the route to Washington Park.

At some point, an enthusiast brought along some photographs to share from the period when the railroad was being constructed. I was most struck to see that many of the douglas fir trees and heavy tree canopy I was accustomed to were not present in the photos in those earlier days.

The pay for a station master was (very) good compared to the Zoo’s food service workers, so I kept coming back, when I probably should have been doing engineering internships instead, but that’s all water under the bridge now. Things worked out okay. I met my wife at the zoo!

The Zooliner is actually a scaled-down representative version of a one-time experimental train built by General Motors. Known as the Aero-train, temporarily operated by Union Pacific and others, but just too little and too late.

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