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ORGANIZATIONS : For the Love of Trains : An association of volunteers is sprucing up old railway cars and track, and offering rides at Travel Town.

July 22, 1994|JEFF PRUGH | TIMES STAFF WRITER

LOS ANGELES — They've been work-ing

on the rail-road,

all their Sat-ur-days . . . .

*

All aboard to Travel Town. On the dawn train.

Save the window seats, if you will, for these 20 or so volunteers now arriving with their sleeves rolled up, mallets in hand, sandblasters and elbow grease at the ready.

And please, Mr. Conductor, let them all ride free. These guys have paid their dues. They've unleashed enough energy, inspiration and affection for history these past 10 years to fill a boxcar or two.

As "associates" (not "members") of the nonprofit Southern California Scenic Railway Assn. Inc., they spruce up cars, drive spikes, lay track and--on the first Saturday and Sunday of every even-numbered month--operate a diesel locomotive that pulls visitors in two cabooses on 400 feet of rail at Griffith Park's city-owned Travel Town train exhibit.

The charge?

"Whatever you care to donate to our work," said C. R. (Chell) Hurdle, a railway association past president. He wears a Santa Fe Railway conductor's cap when he's not in mask and goggles on Saturdays, sandblasting nine layers of cracked paint and scum off the interior walls and ceiling of a 1929 Pullman motorcar.

A group with "Scenic Railway" in its name evokes excursions along California's coast, a breathtaking view from a trestle that crosses a gorge. But to these rail buffs, "scenic" means the underbelly of a diesel locomotive, a 650-gallon fuel tank, a radiator fan that blows the way it did in the heat of postwar summers, back when "factory air" was something you breathed alongside a boilerplate, inside a sweatshop.

They're so smitten by rail-mania, too, that they can tell you more than you need to know about their work-in-progress motorcar that they call by its number, the "M.177," for which they've raised about $72,000 (of $145,000 needed) for parts, retrofitting and supplies.

They point out, for instance, that when the old M.177 (also nicknamed "Little Ranger") long ago carried mail and freight on Santa Fe spurs through rural Kansas and the Oklahoma Panhandle in the dead of August, it was 100 degrees outside and 180 inside where the engineer sat. Or they will swear on a stack of timetables that its thirst for fuel measured 10 gallons per mile.

After all, it's not just anybody who gives up otherwise free Saturdays (and some Sundays) for a head-to-toe immersion in the grit and grime of railroading the way it was.

Their immediate destination is the 1930s and 1940s. Their passion is propping up rusted carcasses of rail cars and locomotives left for dead after railroading had built dynasties, shaped destinies and forged America's frontier.

Their next stop: the 21st Century, when Los Angeles officials hope that Travel Town's tracks will be extended so that its restored trains can carry passengers to the nearby Gene Autry Western Heritage Museum and the Los Angeles Zoo and back--a ride of about two miles.

"Railroading is such an integral part of American life--and our city, too, was built on railroads. Too many people have forgotten that," said Linda J. Barth, a historian and city Department of Recreation and Parks manager in charge of planning for Travel Town.

"We're not just dispensing dry, historical facts here. We're bringing railroading back to life. But, frankly, we're a long way from being able to utilize this place fully."

Indeed, it seems an interminable journey, an impossible dream--but not enough to keep many from sweating every detail past dusk, stopping only to wolf down a midday feast of grilled hamburgers, Sloppy Joe sandwiches and potato salad served most Saturdays by one associate's wife, Yvonne Ramsey.

"I watched Travel Town fall apart in the 1960s--and it was disheartening," said Steve DeVorkin, 40, an SCSRA associate from North Hollywood. "But when I saw those plumes of black smoke go up from the Charley Atkins (a diesel locomotive named for Travel Town's late founder), I said, 'Wow! That's exciting! This place now has a purpose!' "

Today, the SCSRA--formed in 1984 and commissioned to help the city of Los Angeles revitalize Travel Town and its 35 rail cars, locomotives and trolleys--has a virtually all-male membership of more than 100.

For most, their weekday pursuits scarcely hint at railroading: They are stockbrokers, TV technicians, students, retirees. Some "armchair" associates live as far away as Kansas, swapping tales about how the M.177 served their prairie towns of Chanute, Emporia, Pittsburg and El Dorado, among others, before Santa Fe retired it in 1956, donating it to Los Angeles two years later.

Few seem to worry that work on the M.177 is so plodding, that the group's Orient Express appetite for restoration far outstrips its Wabash Cannonball budget, and that many may not live to see their dreams.

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