She’s a venerable old engine, all 90,000 pounds of her. A workhorse, a survivor and some might even say an adventuress. Forty-five years ago, she was destined for grand things, a gift from the Finnish people to the City of Portland in honor of the state’s Finnish pioneers.
A neglected Engine No. 418 arrived in Junction City in 1980, on the Scandinavian Festival’s Finnish Day. The community formally and warmly welcomed the unique, wood-burning steam locomotive to her new home.
Her acquisition, restoration and placement in Founder’s Park at Fifth Avenue and Fifth Street was a feat accomplished by a multitude of individuals, businesses, clubs and civic organizations who raised and donated money, time, knowledge, supplies and a whole lot of enthusiasm to the cause, said Bob Nelson, who was then the head of the city’s task force charged with bringing the engine to town.
“There were lots and lots of people, hundreds of people, involved in this thing, many here, many gone,” Nelson said. “Because I happened to be the (task force) chairman, I held the bottle of champagne (for the dedication). But I like to see it as demonstrating a small-town spirit and activity you don’t have in the big cities.”
More than a century old, built in Tampere, Finland, in 1904, she and her sister engine, that now sits in a Leningrad museum, encased in glass; a gift to Russia commemorating Lenin’s escape from the country during the Bolshevik Revolution, once linked the villages and towns of the Finnish countryside.
Carrying people, livestock and goods, No. 418 would pause in her lumbering trek every 10 kilometers or so to feed on the brush stacks stockpiled by the townspeople along her route. A veteran of WWI, the Finnish Civil War, the Winter War and WWII, she still bears the scars from a Russian plane’s bullets during WWII. Riveted patches cover the wounds located on the boiler’s left side.
Retired from service in 1958, the locomotive and tender car that carried the wood and water was a gift from the people of Finland, given for the Oregon Centennial Exposition of 1959 and solicited by John Virtanen, who was then Portland’s honorary Finnish consul. As a boy, Virtanen once cut wood to fuel the engine, and as a young man, he received his own scars, rendering one arm nearly useless, from those same Soviet bullets that gouged the locomotive.
Engine 418 was the first locomotive to be shipped across the sea. Although freight companies said it couldn’t be done and the U.S. Navy refused to carry her, a Finnish shipping company agreed to transport the massive machine to America at half charge. Cameras followed her departure from Helsinki, her arrival in New York and her piggyback ride across the nation by rail flat car, where she was welcomed to Portland with champagne and celebrants in national costumes.
After the Centennial, Portland’s plans to house the locomotive in a world-class museum featuring early land, air and sea transport vehicles failed to materialize, and after watching the old engine succumb to vandals and the elements as she sat outside for two decades in Oaks Pioneer Park, Virtanen approached the Portland City Council in frustration and spoke of his plans to find a caring community to give the engine new home.
In mid-January, 1980, he sent a letter to Junction City Mayor Jerry Brown outlining his intentions. By February 27, he had purchased the locomotive for $1 from the City of Portland. It took less than a week for Junction City officials to organize a committee to bring the engine to town, and on March 13, Brown responded to Virtanen that the City Council had designated a downtown corner as its future home.
“The long-term care of the locomotive will be uppermost in the minds of the Council and the city officials, as well as the citizen committee arranging for the locomotive’s arrival and placement in Junction City,” Brown assured him. But also pursuing the engine were Astoria, which had its own active Finnish community, Medford and a railroad museum in Duluth, Minn.
“The city that has told me not what the locomotive is today, but what is the future of the locomotive. This is very important to me. The city must prove it is worth having (the locomotive) permanently,” said Virtanen to the Junction City officials.
After learning that Astoria had little vision for the historical engine, Junction City officials were notified on April 14 that Engine 418 was theirs on a two-year trial basis to be re-evaluated by the new Finnish Consul. Plans were made to bring the engine to her new home on May 5.
Along with the media, two buses of jubilant Junction City residents, including costumed Scandinavian Dancers and the Community Chorus, joined the expedition to witness the ceremony and escort the engine into town, offering a champagne toast and the Finnish National Anthem for the occasion.
With the engine on a Sherman Bros. 10-axel trailer and the tender car on a Morse Bros. low-boy trailer, the convoy set off for Junction City at 11 a.m., briefly halting the entourage to creep through a Salem underpass, which cleared the structure by a mere three inches.
“We couldn’t go across the Harrisburg Bridge, so we had to go into Eugene,” Nelson remembers. “When we reached the airport, there was a convoy of fire trucks, police cars, and towns’ people, waiting to escort us into town.”
Organizers had only had three short months to prepare the park before the engine was to arrive. They drew up the plans for its shelter, got donations of gravel, equipment and labor to build its bed. They had railroad workers who “borrowed” and laid its track in a blink of an eye all to meet a fast encroaching deadline.
“We’d got the building painted and the floodlights in, but the night before the ceremony, there wasn’t anything but sawdust, dirt and gravel. A local landscaper brought in soil, plants and trees and we worked through the night and had the dedication ceremony the next day” said Nelson.
The massive effort by so many proved, as Nelson likes to say, that Junction City really was “the little town that knew it could.”
– By LaRae Ash