Topic: Portland, OR Union Station Tower (Read 81 times)
Light rail gives tower second life
Former Union Station control center will be rehabbed for new use
By Jennifer Anderson
The Portland Tribune, Aug 7, 2007
For the past 10 years, the old control tower at Portland Union Station has sat gutted and neglected, a dinosaur in the age of modern technology.
But now the tower’s about to get a second life as TriMet prepares to take it over, restore it, and use it as a signal and communications booth for the new bus mall light-rail line.
That’s pretty cool to Rick Sanders, who spent 22 years at the controls of the tower before it closed in 1997. Much of the work is still ingrained in his mind.
“To depart the depot from Track 13 toward the bridge with the current of traffic,” he said, “you needed to pull the 22, 8, 34 and 19 switches, and I believe the signal was No. 49. To leave the depot against the current of traffic you did not use the 19/20 crossover switches.”
At first, he said, work at the tower was nonstop action — and full of railroad culture. After all, he worked alongside the hobos, drunks and railroad buffs — “foamers,” he calls them — who frequented the tracks.
“Literally, some of them foam at the mouth,” joked Sanders, now 50. “I used to hate it when the steam trains came in. Some of them bring their kids, have nine cameras hanging on their neck and as they take pictures, their kids are wandering away.”
From 1975 to 1997, it was Sanders’ job to man the tower, a two-story, red-brick building decorated with white crosses on top that stands at the corner of Northwest Fourth Avenue and Hoyt Street.
He and the tower’s four other operators, who worked shifts around the clock, had control of most of the 23 tracks that lay in the rail yard, part of which now is occupied by condos.
Sanders and his cohorts would spend hours in the tower focused on a control board, switching tracks as needed and relaying train orders to other operators along the Interstate 5 corridor.
In the mid-1980s, however, as the number of trains decreased and rail traffic control moved toward centralization, the pace of Sanders’ work slowed way down.
Soon, fax machines came into fashion and track bulletins were issued electronically, rather than by phone. Decades earlier, the phone had taken place of the Morse code telegraph, just as the telegraph had taken the place of “hoop sticks,” curved metal sticks with train orders attached by string, which a telegrapher held and offered to a conductor as he sped by.
Job lost its luster
In 1997, Sanders finally got notice that his job would be automated. The tower ceased its operations Nov. 5.
“The guy that runs the switches now sits in a bunker in Omaha,” he said.
But it wasn’t a surprise.
“This was a very, very boring job in the last few years,” Sanders said. “I think in the end they had taken away everything, and we were just waiting for Union Pacific to take over.”
Negotiations between TriMet and the Portland Development Commission, which owns the building, are under way. TriMet hopes the building will be donated, but should it have to be purchased, the agency will find funds from the bus mall revitalization project’s fund. TriMet is leasing the building until the sale becomes final.
Using the old building was a natural fit for the project, said Bob Hastings, a TriMet architect.
“When we were laying out the project and it looked like the line would be going right next to it, everyone said that cute little building has just been sitting down there empty for years and getting into a serious state of disrepair,” he said.
“We studied it very carefully with architects adept in historic and adaptive reuse … did a cost-benefit analysis, how it compares with doing a stand-alone building. While it’s substantially more than a pre-engineered building, we really felt it was the right thing to do for the project.”
Everything old is new again
No one will staff the building; its operations will be automated, just as TriMet’s other control booths are. There’s a building at the Rose Quarter to operate the Yellow light-rail line, and one near the Lloyd Center for the Red and Blue lines.
Before the light-rail controls can go in, the building will get a makeover, including a new terra-cotta roof, new windows and a seismic upgrade, at the same time historic elements will be preserved.
It also will be evaluated for any lead paint, asbestos or contaminated soil, which would be removed before it opens, ready for operations by early 2009.
Hastings said the old equipment from inside the tower has been donated to a local railroad preservation group. That’s something the “foamers” certainly will appreciate, Sanders said.
Although he doesn’t put himself in that category, he’s also glad to see the old tower used once again for near its original purpose.
“I think it’s great how it’s something affiliated with the railroad,” he said. “History repeats itself. Here they are putting light rail in when they tore out all the trolley cars we had all over Portland. Here they’re going back to basically what it was.”