SUNOL, Calif. — A collection of locomotives are revving up on the riverside rails in bucolic Niles Canyon, which served as a backdrop for silent Westerns of the '20s and was the final link in the transcontinental railroad.
Every weekend for months, Pacific Locomotive Assn. members have been trekking to the scenic site about 20 miles southeast of San Francisco to lay new track and set up for the official April 16 opening of the Niles Canyon Railroad.
To start, three or four pieces of equipment will chug along a course of about 2 miles each Sunday. Plans are to expand to at least 7 miles and possibly the entire 9.3-mile route through the canyon.
25 M.P.H. Tops
Trips will be leisurely as the train clanks along at a top speed of no more than 25 m.p.h.
Association spokesman Mike McQuaid said the new railroad is one of about 100 such short lines in the United States and Canada.
He compared it to the "Skunk Railroad," complete with passenger cars from the '20s and '30s, that runs through lush redwood groves between Ft. Bragg and Willits, about 150 miles north of San Francisco, and the "Big Trees and Roaring Camp" steam train in the coastal mountains near Felton, about 50 miles south of San Francisco.
Transporting train buffs on the Niles Canyon Railroad will be a 1924 steam engine, World War II-era diesel locomotives, engines used to haul logs in Clover Valley and Tuolumne County and even a 1950s Vista Dome car.
"There's something very special about these old trains," said McQuaid. "They serve as a link to our past and I think they should be preserved so people can remember our heritage and, at the same time, gain a better appreciation of modern technology."
Frank Presley of Newark is the association's general manager. He said the 500-plus members are history buffs, train lovers and many train engineers.
"We have laborers, lawyers, teachers, accountants. We have several people who are railroad employees," he said on a recent Saturday while he and about 15 other volunteers hammered away at the rails. "Most of us are not only train nuts, we're interested in old cars, trucks, machinery."
There's a strong romanticism attached to trains of days gone by, Presley said. "A lot of it is that for its time, the locomotive engineer was the airline pilot or the (jet) fighter pilot of his day," he said.
Forced to Move
The Pacific Locomotive Assn., a nonprofit corporation, wants to offer the public a train museum of sorts. In addition to a train ride through the canyon, Presley said: "We want to show people what railroading is all about."
After operating the one-mile-long Castro Point Railway near Richmond for about 17 years, the PLA was forced to move when the Navy expanded a nearby fuel dock last year.
The association negotiated with Alameda County to secure a 15-year lease of the right-of-way that winds from Vallejo Mill Historic Park in Fremont, through Niles Canyon to the edge of Sunol.
Southern Pacific Railroad pulled out its Niles Canyon track about the same time but left railroad ties, said Presley. He said the area has been designated a public transportation corridor and he predicted the train club also will be exiled in 20 years or so to make room for a light rail system.
1862 Grant to 'Big Four'
When the Niles railroad fires up this month, it will mark the first commercial train operation in about 15 years on the property Alameda County assistant real estate chief John Fenstermacher said was part of the 1862 grant to the "Big Four." Charles Crocker, Mark Hopkins, Leland Stanford and Collis P. Huntington owned Central Pacific Railroad, which later became Southern Pacific.
Although the project has support from train buffs and some local residents, others have expressed fears of train-crazed tourists streaming into the quiet canyon, pollution from smelly diesel fuel used by some of the engines and fire hazards.