Steam Locomotives: Riding the Rails Once Again

Last night (as I write this), I stumbled upon a broadcast on our local PBS television channel. As so often happens with PBS offerings, I became hooked in the first minute and watched the entire hour-long program titled “Ultimate Restorations.” Have you ever given much thought to the “iron horses” of yesterday – the steam locomotives which rode the rails and built the America we know today?


A beautifully restored Pacific class (4-6-2) locomotive which Linda and I rode on the Niles (California) RR several years ago. As a young boy, I watched  with fascination as these engines of the Southern Pacific barreled through the downtown San Mateo RR station or stopped to take-on passengers!

Because I have always loved toy trains and been fascinated by the “real ones,” I have learned a thing or two about them through the years. The more I learn, the more incredulous steam locomotives appear to me. Just think: As recently as sixty years ago, these steam-belching relics born of the world’s industrial revolutions were still hauling freight and passengers on America’s railways. The first image that comes to my mind is a steam-belching, boiler-bellied, heavy-metal, mechanical monstrosity of a brute with no semblance of subtlety and elegance whatsoever – a dinosaur. And yet, one cannot help but be captivated by their mystique. Their brutish power and practicality as a motive force served well to move our nation forward while continuing to link its disparate regions together.

The restoration portrayed in the program was that of Sierra Locomotive #3, one of the most famous and the most photographed steam engine extant.

DSCN2706 Sierra Locomotive #3 in the roundhouse/shops at Jamestown, California

One can easily visualize the hard and difficult work that goes into restoring a classic automobile to like-new condition. We can appreciate what it takes, especially if we have ever worked on our own cars! The complete restoration to operating condition of a tired, battered, old steam engine is at least one-hundred times more complex and difficult than restoring an automobile.

For starters, you can forget your Sears Craftsman mechanic’s tool set! Working on locomotives takes BIG tools and requires BIG men – both in the physical and mental sense.

 DSCN2707Another view inside the roundhouse

The personalities of the men who restored Sierra #3 back to life came through loudly and clearly in the film: These are guys with a passion for these iron beasts and likely for anything that is an endangered part of the past – especially if that past stirs boyhood memories. Then again, some might not even have been alive in that past, but, with the keen sense of the dedicated historian, they know how important it is to comprehend man’s best efforts throughout history. One fellow, the most colorful of the dedicated crew which saved Sierra #3 from the scrap heap, was a burly, engaging character from the South who played folk-harmonica during interludes in the day’s activities; I suspect that, despite his burly exterior, he was also the one most sentimental about and dedicated to what he was doing for the benefit of Sierra #3 and for the rest of us.

And it IS important work – saving these old engines. There are only a few of #3’s engine type (Consolidation Class 4-8-0) left in America which can still steam underway. This particular engine was built in 1891 by the Rogers Locomotive Works in Patterson, New Jersey for the Prescott and Arizona Central Railway which went bankrupt in 1893. When one of the co-owners relocated to California, he brought #3 with him and it became part of his new venture in Jamestown, California – the Sierra Railway Company of California. That was in 1897, and the railroad and Sierra #3 have been there ever since in essentially continuous operation.

 The Most Photographed Locomotive in the World – Sierra #3

One might wonder how that particular locomotive survived the scrap heap for so long and is running like a “colt” once again after so many decades – so few have. Good question! When #3 finished its duties hauling timber between Oakdale, California and the timber-producing regions near Jamestown, in the Sierra, it turned to Hollywood! Sierra #3 was written into many early film scripts, especially western films, as an operating depiction of locomotives in the twenties and thirties. In fact, the locomotive has appeared in dozens of Hollywood films over the decades; among its more famous co-stars: Gary Cooper and Clint Eastwood. After earning her keep for many years as a burly hauler of timber, Sierra #3 re-invented herself as a movie star, and, with a new, glamorous profession and heady income, she remained a valuable property for many decades.

My wife and I toured the roundhouse at Jamestown back in 2011 where we took the indoor photos of #3. Like the engine, the railroad and its roundhouse have been in continual operation at that location since 1897. There is only one other continuously operating roundhouse like it remaining in the entire country.

 Sierra #3 Under SteamSierra #3 in all her restored glory!

The restoration of Sierra #3 cost $1.6 million dollars – dollars which apparently were very difficult to acquire through donations and grants. The bill for a new boiler, the heart of any steam engine, alone totaled $600,000. The story told in the film is not limited to the struggle of man against machine; it is clear that the entire project was continually under pressure in terms of available money and time (another word for money). Many of the workers volunteered their time and energy. In these times of so much government waste and gaudy personal affluence, it grieves me to realize how much resolve it took on the part of numerous dedicated folks to save this important piece of history. Thanks to all those who helped!

We SHOULD preserve these precious artifacts from bygone days, days which inevitably congealed into times the likes of which we will never see again. This is history and history is ignored only at one’s peril.

One final note: The men with the dedication, the manual skills, and the knowledge to restore beautiful machinery like Sierra #3 are few in number. The old-timers who actually worked in the Cheyenne yards of Union Pacific or at the Southern Pacific Sacramento shops are now mostly gone. It is the responsibility of the younger men who learned from them to pass along the knowledge they have gained; an understanding of the knowledge involved in these activities is truly valuable and important!

My final impression was formed from comments made by the talented, practical-minded workers on Sierra #3 who, when they had the engine in pieces, marveled at the engineering skill and know-how of the original designers who conceived these burly beasts of burden and the men who built them at Rogers, at Baldwin, at American Locomotive, etc.

To my way of thinking, the restorer’s revelations serve as a cautionary tale: Beware, lest you convince yourself that the modern age has all the answers. Ignore the past at your own peril!




See my other blog post on (toy) trains, “Never Too Old  For Toy Trains,” April 21, 2013 in the blog archives.

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