Efforts to save Mother Lode relics will pay off

January 30, 2007 11:00 pm

In a region blessed to have such rich history, three unique Mother Lode projects are under way and deserve support — both public and private.

One, we're happy to note, has already beat what initially seemed like long odds to gain essential funding.

The California State Railroad Museum Foundation, backed by the Sonora Area Foundation and its affiliated Irving J. Symons Foundation, announced in mid-December that it had less than two months to raise at least $137,000. The money, as matching grants called for, would allow a famous century-old locomotive now in pieces at Railtown 1897 State Historic Park in Jamestown to be fully restored. In turn, Engine No. 3 — a showpiece in many memorable movies of the past — would draw new visitors and, perhaps, more lucrative film business to the foothills.

But to suggest a $137,000 fundraiser just before Christmas and with a Jan. 26 deadline? The challenge never fazed leaders of the three foundations, whose media blitz resulted in articles and broadcasts locally and around the country about the locomotive that was among the Sierra Railway's original fleet and around 1898 pulled the first passenger cars into the Mother Lode.

The foundation efforts paid off: By Thursday the fundraisers were just $15,000 short of their goal. By Friday Sonora Area Foundation's telephones were ringing nonstop thanks to donors wanting to pledge money. And e-mails promising more contributions came in by the dozens, foundation Executive Director Mick Grimes reported.

Monday's mail, Grimes then discovered, contained checks totaling more than $6,250 — most of it from foothills residents.

A still-unofficial tally of the donations shows $160,000-plus has come in, all in support of a railroad icon featured in classics ranging from "The Virginian" movie in 1929 to western TV's "Gunsmoke" and "Bonanza."

The restoration work, an appreciative Grimes says, may start as soon as February — a mere two months after fundraising started.

How fortunate this area is to have three foundations prove skeptics wrong.

The response to two other smaller but equally important efforts to save irreplaceable community relics, we hope, will be just as overwhelming.

Sitting at a now-defunct theme park off Highway 99 near Lodi are two buildings that rightfully should be back where they were first built —in Jamestown and in Mountain Ranch.

A brick jail at the Pollardville park dates to the 1800s Gold Rush era and was originally the Jamestown branch of the Tuolumne County Jail. A group of Jamestown citizens and merchants are working to raise the estimated $70,000 to $90,000 needed to haul the old building back to Main Street.

But the group has already been snubbed by Tuolumne County supervisors who earlier this month voted against contributing $5,000 to the effort.

Among the board detractors was Supervisor Liz Bass, who labeled jails as "repositories of human misery" and therefore unworthy of restoration.

Not only is her comment eye-roll worthy, it's absurd. Such logic, taken to its extreme, would suggest that the county do away with its stately centerpiece, the Tuolumne County Superior Courthouse in the heart of Sonora. Surely plenty of human misery has been wrought through the thousands of criminal sentences issued within its walls.

We can only hope that private contributors overlook such silliness and agree, as Supervisor Dick Pland maintains, that the jail project is important to both preserving Jamestown's history and to providing new tourism opportunities in Jamestown's future.

Also on Pollardville's razing list, if not saved, is "the world's smallest post office," an outhouse-sized shack that from 1927 to 1956 provided mail service for residents of remote Mountain Ranch east of San Andreas.

Phil Albert, a real estate broker and longtime Mountain Ranch resident, said he hopes he can convince theme park owner Neil Pollard to give the little building back.

But time is short. Bulldozers are set to move in on Pollardville April 1.

Yes, the chances of saving the historic jail and post office seem slim. But considering the outcome of the far more ambitious Engine No. 3 fundraiser, the Jamestown and Mountain Ranch efforts may also surprise and, as they should, succeed.

Union Democrat editorial positions are formed through regular meetings of the newspaper's editorial board — Publisher Geoff White, Managing Editor Patty Fuller and senior reporter-columnist Chris Bateman.