Despite funding, Railtown chugging full-steam ahead

By Union Democrat staff April 09, 2010 09:25 am

For Railtown State Historic Park, the switches are open, the track is clear and it’s time to highball into the summer season.

More than 1,000 rail buffs — undeterred by cloudy, chilly weather — made the pilgrimage to Jamestown last weekend to take advantage of free steam excursion rides offered by the popular park.

   Even now you might hear harrumphs from bureaucrats in Sacramento, griping about lost revenues. But free rides went to Tuolumne, Calaveras and Mariposa county residents, those who live in Railtown’s backyard. They are the customers most likely to return when the weather is better — even if it means paying a few dollars for steam-driven rides down memory lane.
    Railtown and its superintendent, Kim Baker, know a thing or two about getting along with the community. In fact, local volunteers pretty much run the historic park.
    The enthusiastic, mostly senior-citizen, ever-growing corps of workers does everything from sweeping platforms and selling tickets to doing fine machine work on locomotives and taking the throttle of those more-than-century-old steam engines for Saturday and Sunday excursions.
    Last year, according to Baker, Railtown volunteers put in an astounding 24,000 hours of work. That translates into more than a half-million dollars worth of donated labor.
    Last year Railtown — along with Columbia State Historic Park and Big Trees State Park (who also have impressive volunteer crews) — escaped the state ax. But Sacramento’s deficit has only grown since then, and, as the 2010-11 budget takes shape, parks may well be on the chopping block again.
    That’s where Railtown’s growing volunteer force of more than 150 volunteers — a state asset that even bureaucrats might be loath to throw away — could play a park-saving role.
    Also boding well for Railtown and the coming season is what amounts to a statewide treasure: Engine No. 3.
    Known as “The Movie Star Locomotive,” it was built by the Rogers Locomotive Works in New Jersey in 1891. After a brief shift in Arizona, No. 3 came to the Sierra Railroad in 1897 and for more than a half-century hauled ore, lumber and other goods out of the foothills.
    But No. 3 toiled in near anonymity until the mid-20th Century. The locomotive, in fact, was 61 when it starred with Gary Cooper and Grace Kelly in “High Noon” — perhaps its most famous, but hardly its only, Hollywood role. “Unforgiven,” “Bonanza,” “Back to the Future III,” “Gunsmoke” were but a few of the 100 films and TV shows the locomotive has chugged through.
    Now, however, No. 3 is also Railtown’s Million Dollar Baby. Sidetracked since the mid-1990s by an ailing boiler, the locomotive two years ago became the subject of an intense, energetic campaign that succeeded in raising more than $1 million to complete the complex and time-consuming overhaul.
    Much of the cash, spurred by a $300,000 matching grant from the California Cultural and Historic Endowment Board and by smaller challenge grants from the Sonora Area Foundation, was generated locally.
    Months of work rebuilding No. 3’s boiler is now all but done, and the locomotive’s gala July 4 debut will be the highlight of Railtown’s 2010 season.
    For Railtown, having No. 3 is like the Louvre having the Mona Lisa.
    “In fact, it’s like having the Mona Lisa in a studio of DaVinci’s,” pointed out Baker. “Three of our locomotives are original Sierra equipment.”
    Indeed, it’s a huge deal and having No. 3 back on regular excursion duty again — once-a-month service is planned — will do nothing but help the state park weather the budget cutting storms yet to come.
    Kudos should go to Railtown’s volunteers, contributors, staff members and customers for putting this state park in a position to thrive.