I was riding this train this summer when I first seriously considered writing this blog. For years I’d smiled when people asked me if I knew movie stars when I said I was from California. I did, but not the kind most people think. Not all movie stars are blonde, tan and live on the beach! Some are big, greasy, steamy, and live in the foothills of the Sierra Nevadas. For those that do not recognize her, #3 has been in many many movies and TV shows. With all the Back to the Future marathons in honor of BTTF Day recently, you may recognize her from the third movie. Fortunately she survives the crash at the end! Other movies and shows include Little House on the Prairie, High Noon, Unforgiven, Gunsmoke, Bonanza, The A-Team, Rawhide, Lone Ranger and many many more. The tour of Railtown’s Roundhouse includes a display of some of the movie props – from different smokestack covers, faceplates, and other props to dress up the outside. To me the Roundhouse tour (as well as the train ride) is what makes Railtown so special. It’s NOT a museum. It’s alive. The Roundhouse is still used, the engines still run, or in the process of being repaired. You can walk through some of the old cars, see engines in various stages of restoration. And all the work is done right there. Most of the spare parts need to be made not purchased. Even some of the repair tools are made in the shop.
Then when the park docent mentioned the engineer and fireman were a husband and wife team I was even more delighted. I knew I wanted to tell stories about people and places that don’t fit the expected. Here I was getting a two for one deal. Not only are steam engineers a rare breed, but women engineers are even harder to find. A few months passed as I worked on setting the blog set up and finally I was ready to contact them about an interview. I emailed Railtown1897 in Jamestown and within a few days I received a message back that not only would Stephanie and Dave be able to talk with me, but that I could ride in the cab with them! I think I stared at the screen for several minutes, and still emailed back to make sure I understood correctly!
Fast Forward to Saturday afternoon. I waited as close to the tracks as the law would let me to get some shots of the train coming back to the station. As soon as they were at a stop I was warmly greeted by Dave who sent me on up into the cab to meet Stephanie. As other visitors asked about various parts of the engine and the train in general, it was obvious how much they loved their “job” (Most of the Park is run by volunteers). Despite Dave’s joke about it being run by GPS and a hidden computer, it is a complicated machine. The area between the fireman and engineer is full of gauges, dials, levers and various knobs to keep everything at the right pressure, speed, and so forth. Watching them was like watching a dance, Dave making subtle adjustments here and there while Stephanie made the larger ones.
Most charming of all is how modest the two of them are. While they love talking about the other’s accomplishments, they quickly dismissed their own. Dave started volunteering after his retirement, and Stephanie soon started coming up on weekends so she could see him once in a while.
After about 5 years of on the job training in all of the positions on the train crew Stephanie worked her way up to Engineer. All while still working full time during the week. Because of both her skill, and scarcity of female engineers Stephanie is a bit of a celebrity in her own right. Dave truly seems to be proud of being referred to as “Stephanie’s husband” when they meet other steam enthusiasts – he beamed like a Cheshire cat when telling me the story. Another story he told (grinning the whole time) is when there was a problem with the compressor on the front, outside of the engine. Remember when Clara had to crawl along to get in the cab in Back to the Future III? Well Stephanie had to do something similar – crawl out the tiny window, down the catwalk, make the repairs, and get back inside all while the train was going and the visitors in the cars were watching with jaws to the floor. The repairs had to be done on the fly, as the compressor is needed for braking! But most runs are not that melodramatic. There’s the peaceful sound of the whistle, the sound of the steam, the engine and the gentle rocking as the train rolls down the tracks. There are horses and cows munching in the fields, and sometimes deer and turkeys. It’s easy to see why they love coming up each Saturday.
I cannot thank Railtown and especially Stephanie and Dave enough for such a wonderful afternoon. The love they have of the railroad and for each other shone like a beacon. I also spent some time in the parking lot after everything else shut down chatting with Paul and Laura, the Crew for a Day. They also sounded like they had an amazing experience. For a reasonable fee you basically get a hands on private guided tour of the entire facility – from before dawn until they kick you out of the park in the evening. You get to fire up the oil burner, learn how to switch tracks, work in the all the positions of the train crew. And you get dirty, greasy and have a great time! Or if you’d rather relax, just take a ride in one of the cars and go on the Roundhouse tour. If you do the last tour you’ll be able to see the engine put away for the night, one of my favorite parts. In December they do a special Polar Express train, with special treats for young and old.
Columbia State Park
Yosemite National Park
Calaveras Big Trees
If you are coming from out of town the Mother Lode is a wonderful area to spend a weekend or more. Just a few miles away is Columbia State Park, another living history town showing how life was during the Gold Rush. About 90 minutes south is Yosemite National Park, while an hour north is Calaveras Big Trees State Park. In between are a number of Gold Rush towns all with fantastic places to eat, sleep, shop and just meander around. In addition to the State and National Parks, there is the Stanislaus National Forest with many places to hike, camp, fish and picnic.