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.

Never Too Old for Toy Trains!

Alan, Judy, & Train - Dec., 1946

My American Flyer electric train was one of the great joys of my young life. My parents bought it for me in 1942, just before wartime priorities channeled the A.C. Gilbert Company and its production facilities away from Erector sets and toy trains and into wartime activities. Being only two years of age at the time, I got an early introduction to the magic of toy trains. While not the most expensive set offered by the A.C. Gilbert Company, it was one of the nicer ones – definitely not one of the cheapie sets. It featured a detailed Pennsy Railroad K4 “Pacific” type locomotive and five cars, one of which was a very clever and fun “unloading car” which, at the press of a button, unloaded a tootsie-toy armored car trackside. Oh, the marvels of electrical technology!


Every Christmas morning, the train appeared as if by magic under our Christmas tree – obviously due to the heroic overnight efforts of Santa Claus! In the early years, I only saw my train for the few weeks of the Christmas season – probably because of our limited floor space and my dad’s limited available time. I loved my train so much that I thought about it frequently during the year, eagerly anticipating the next Christmas. The above photo shows me with my little Chicago friend, Judy Maitzen, at Christmas-time, 1946 as I demonstrate to her the fine points of engineering – in the railroading sense.

That train set was my prized possession in those early years. Along came life, and the train set languished for many years in our garage, still packed in its original boxes. After I retired from engineering (the Silicon Valley variety) in 2001, I became interested in the modern generation of toy trains. The technology had progressed by leaps and bounds from the old days of pressing a button to close a circuit and, gee-whiz, something happens! Today’s “toy” trains can be completely operated from a wireless remote hand-controller; they come equipped with accurate railroad sounds, recorded from trackside and stored digitally within the on-board electronics. Push a button on the remote controller, and a cascade of very realistic whistles, steam emissions, diesel sounds, and synchronized choo-choo sounds emanate directly from the engines. And the physical detail is fantastic.

I became hooked once again by the magic of toy trains (and real ones, too) and began assembling a small collection of modern Lionel trains and accessories along with books and DVDs. The latter added much to my understanding and appreciation of the impact of toy trains on kids (mostly boys) throughout the decades. The Lionel Corporation was founded by Joshua Lionel Cowen in 1900 and has produced toy trains for over 112 years. Can you conjure up any corporation – let alone a toy producer – that has been in business for that long? The list is very, very short! That in itself constitutes a significant testimonial to the enduring popularity of toy trains. In recent years, the audience has shifted significantly from boys to those, like myself, who once were little boys and who have discovered that they are still susceptible to the charm of toy trains. The question that coalesced in my mind: “Are today’s kids still interested in toy trains given all the distractions that exist around them?”

 I bravely ventured at that time, “If we have grandsons some day, perhaps they, too, will enjoy toy trains like I did.” Several years passed, and Matthew and Luke were born, following our two beautiful granddaughters, Megan and Amanda. Like their mother and grandma, the girls loved their dolls and everything associated.


The boys fell for my new trains, hook, line, and sinker. By the time Matthew was four, I trusted him to operate these sophisticated trains – remote control, dual trains, multiple track-switches and all – without supervision. He was that good at learning how to operate them, and he always obeyed my “operational principles.” Luke would arrive at our house every day-care Wednesday and immediately go over to where the trains had been to see if they had magically re-appeared since I put them away. This continued for weeks after they had been packed up. Hope springs eternal!

I first knew for certain that they had fallen under the same spell that afflicted me as a kid when I observed them both laying on the floor with their eyes at track level for long periods of time, reveling in the inexplicable “beauty” of a locomotive bearing down the track toward them. Funny, I did that same thing repeatedly back then, oblivious to everything else around me.

 Matthew loves playing with his dad’s Android tablet these days as do most kids who can get their hands on electronics. Electronics and the internet will be a strong contender for his and Luke’s attention in the coming years as has been the case with Megan and Amanda. I am gratified and relieved, however, that the same simple pleasures of playing with toy trains are not completely lost on today’s generation. Their play-imaginations are still intact and operational. I know that Linda feels the same way when we accompany our granddaughters to the American Girl doll store! Life goes on.