Saturday is Railtown 1897’s unveiling of the rebuilt No. 28 steam locomotive. Rides on rail cars hauled by Sierra No. 28 will depart at 10:30 a.m., 12 p.m., 1:30 p.m. and 3 p.m. Saturday. Tickets include park admission and cost $15 for adults and $10 for youth ages 6-17. Children age 5 years and younger are free.

A 97-year-old oil-burning steam locomotive historians say helped build dams decades ago at Melones, Don Pedro and Hetch Hetchy is making a comeback in Tuolumne County.

Volunteers and a professional mechanic — including Dan Maher, 82, of Arnold, Marty Gerbasi, 82, of Sonora, Garrett Devlin, 69, of Sonora, Jerry Bellouomini, 73, of Lockeford in San Joaquin County, Eric Dowty, 64, Robert Williams, 67, and Scott Botfield, 41 — who represent generations of Central Sierra railroading have toiled thousands of hours over five-and-a-half years to bring Baldwin No. 28 back to life.

“This is history, you can touch it, feel it, hear it, smell it,” Maher said. “This is part of our mechanical heritage over the years, heritage you can’t find most places any more.”

No. 28 was built for the Sierra Railway by Baldwin Locomotive Works of Philadelphia in 1922. The engine was put out of service about 10 years ago because walls of its firebox became too thin, running the risk of a boiler explosion, volunteers at Railtown 1897 State Historic Park said Thursday during a lunch break. No. 28 was always an oil-burning steam locomotive. It never burned coal.

In the 1920s a railroad locomotive engine like Sierra No. 28 probably cost around $30,000, said Dowty, who helped lead the repair-and-restoration No. 28 project. Initial repair estimates to get No. 28 up and running again were around $250,000, and the final cost total is about $700,000, Botfield said.

“We had to do a lot of firebox work and put a whole new crown sheet on the firebox and boiler,” Botfield said. “New front bottom corners and new crown stays. New boiler jacket. New coat of paint.”

Williams said it took more than 400 stay bolts, new high-pressure steam tubes to run heat through the boiler, and hand-made custom-fit check valves, safety valves and whistle bell.

Railtown 1897 park staff and public relations people say No. 28 weighs 71 tons. That’s 142,000 pounds, about the same as the maximum landing weight of an Airbus A319 jet airliner carrying 150 to 160 passengers.

Historians say No. 28 was built for freight service, to carry general supplies to the Central Sierra foothills and higher, including rock, cement and supplies into the mountains for dam-building projects. Outbound and back down toward the Central Valley, No. 28 hauled lumber and other natural products from mountain mills, mines and quarries, plus livestock and agricultural products including apples.

Sierra No. 28 hauled freight on Sierra Railway lines between Jamestown and Oakdale, Tuolumne and Standard. Historians say it hauled building materials to dam projects at Melones, Don Pedro and Hetch Hetchy in the 1920s and 1930s. Cars of gravel and other materials went to Melones and Don Pedro, and boxcars full of concrete mix were hauled to build O’Shaughnessy Dam at Hetch Hetchy.

Dam builders and the water districts who paid them were among Tuolumne County’s largest employers in the 1920s, 1930s, 1940s and 1950s. The Tri-Dam Shop building at Railtown 1897 State Historic Park is evidence of the catalyst role Tri-Dam -- which owns and operates Donnells, Beardsley and Tulloch dams on the Stanislaus River and other dam-building outfits played in Jamestown railroad history, and in prolonging demand for railroads to move materials high into the Central Sierra.

Competition with motorized trucks and buses began to spell hard times for Central Sierra railroads in the 1930s, but Sierra Railway engines No. 28, No. 24, No. 34 and No. 36 remained as workhorses for hauling freight. More economical diesel locomotives replaced steam engines on the line in the mid-1950s.

Sierra Railway historians say locomotive maintenance was moved to a new shop facility in Oakdale, and the Jamestown shops and steam locomotives “became a time capsule of older technology.” For eight years, No. 28 sat mostly idle, except for excursions and movie work. Sierra Railway ended all excursions in October 1963, after No. 28 derailed while backing an excursion train out of the Jamestown depot.

No. 28 featured in TV shows like Death Valley Days, Overland Trails and Little House on the Prairie. Movie work for No. 28 included appearances in Bound for Glory, the 1976 film based on folk musician Woody Guthrie’s autobiography, starring David Carradine, and Chattanooga Choo Choo, the 1984 comedy starring Barbara Eden and former New York Jets quarterback and Super Bowl III MVP Joe Namath.

Contact Guy McCarthy at or 588-4585. Follow him on Twitter at @GuyMcCarthy.