Most of the week, Wayne Penn of Fountain Valley is a desk-bound senior editor for an Orange County publishing company.
But at least one weekend a month, Penn, 26, can be found at the throttle of a 44-ton diesel locomotive or, better yet, a hissing and rumbling 70-ton steam locomotive that hauled timber in the Pacific Northwest during the 1920s.
The lonesome sound of a train whistle is a siren's song to Penn. It doesn't matter that this railroad's mainline is only a mile-and-a-half long and the passengers are visitors at the Orange Empire Railway Museum in Perris. The thrill is the same.
"It's sort of a head rush," Penn said, his sleeves rolled up and a pair of greasy leather engineer's gloves stuck in his hip pocket. "When I tug on the throttle, I realize I've got 900 horsepower in my hands. And, if there's one thrill of the rails, it's knowing I'm in command of a piece of machinery as it chugs down the railroad."
Penn, who underwent extensive training at the museum to operate the mechanical behemoth, said the challenge for him is to make the train run smoothly, "so when the passengers detrain, if they think to themselves: 'That was an enjoyable, smooth trip,' it's sort of a meaningful step back in the past for them."
The Orange Empire Railway Museum, 17 miles south of Riverside on Highway 215, is indeed a step back in time.
Spread over 53 acres on the outskirts of town, the museum is the final resting place for more than 140 historic trolley cars, interurban streetcars, locomotives and assorted other rolling stock in various stages of decay and repair: everything from boxcars and passenger coaches to a wine tank car and an Army kitchen car.
Trains and trolleys of bygone days can also be found on display at Griffith Park in Los Angeles, at the Los Angeles County fairgrounds in Pomona and in Lomita. And there is a fairly new rail museum in the San Diego County town of Campo. But there is none comparable to the museum in Perris.
It was founded in 1956 by a group of 14 Los Angeles electric rail enthusiasts concerned with Southern California's rapidly vanishing streetcar era.
Today, the nonprofit museum boasts 1,200 dues-paying members, about 250 of them active in the organization. That includes Penn and a contingent of more than 75 Orange County residents who volunteer their weekends to refurbish and operate the vintage rail vehicles--some donated and some purchased--for visitors.
On a typical weekend, visitors can ride two different interurban streetcars and, when a volunteer crew is available, a three-car train on the museum's mainline. For their $3.50 all-day rail pass, they also can ride narrow gauge Los Angeles Railway streetcars on a three-quarter-mile loop line. And railway souvenirs are available for purchase in the depot gift shop.
The museum is not an amusement park, however.
The emphasis is on preservation, with ongoing restoration projects under way in four cavernous car barns. The museum has a wood shop capable of making everything from window frames to entire car bodies and a machine shop where obsolete parts are custom-fabricated.
For Bob Greeley, a college student from Huntington Beach who is helping restore a 1930 Los Angeles Railway Yellow Car, the real thrill of being a museum member is watching a once-decaying relic from the past roll out of a car barn in mint condition.
"I guess it's really kind of a labor of love," said Greeley, 22. "It doesn't pay; it's tedious, and it's dirty, but it's a great feeling. There's really nothing like seeing something just like it was in service."
"Your tickets please," announced the conductor on a recent weekend as two dozen passengers, mostly couples with children, settled into the soft upholstered seats of a 110-foot-long interurban streetcar painted yellow on the outside and lima bean green on the inside.
The car, which seats 122, is designed to bend in the center so it can go around street corners. During its heyday in the 1940s, it carried passengers across the Oakland-Bay Bridge.
"All right!" cried the motorman as he stood at the throttle in the front of the car and gave a series of blasts on the horn.
With a slight lurch, the car took off, rolling smoothly down the track, past rows of vintage railroad cars on the right and a grove of eucalyptus trees on the left. Once out of the rail yard, the car picked up speed to about 35 miles per hour, zipping past an open field with a picture post card view of the San Jacinto Mountains in the distance.
At the end of the line, the passengers listened to a short history of the old interurban line, then moved to the south end of the car where the seats had been turned to face the opposite direction for the return trip.
Disembarking after the 20-minute round trip, first-time visitors Hank and Phyllis Mancini of Fountain Valley said they found the museum "very relaxing."
"It seems a lot less commercial than a lot of places," said Mancini, with his two young children, Kelly, 3, and Andy, 5, in tow.