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Preserving the Niles Canyon Railway

4 November 2008 No Comment

Photos and Story by Linsay Rousseau Burnett

Since 1961, the mission of the all-volunteer Pacific Locomotive Association (PLA) has been to operate a working railroad museum that preserves the physical aspects and atmosphere of Pacific Coast railroading from 1910 to 1960. Starting in 1984, the organization opened the Niles Canyon Railway as a living history museum.In November 1869, four months after the driving of the “Golden Spike,” the last leg of the First Transcontinental Railroad was finally completed, connecting Sacramento to the San Francisco Bay. Cutting through Alameda County, the route took passengers through the Niles Canyon. Today, the Pacific Locomotive Association is preserving the heritage of the Niles Canyon Railway through restoration projects, museums and year-round train rides.

A 1927 steam engine pulls passengers through the Niles Canyon

A 1927 steam engine pulls passengers through the Niles Canyon

Jim Evans, 61, is secretary for the PLA’s board of directors and has been involved with the organization since 1968. Evans said that all the equipment on the trains and in the train yard has been restored and saved from the scrap yard.

The organization is moving forward with plans to develop a rail museum in Niles that will be open seven days a week as well as ongoing work on the train tracks and equipment preservation. “Being all volunteers, it’s taken us a while to get everything together. The only revenue we get is from our donations,” said Evans.

Despite these hurdles, Evans said it is an appreciation for trains that keeps these volunteers committed to preserving this history and sharing it with others.

For Jennifer and Greg Kniss, it was the history that drew them to the tracks on Sunday afternoon. Visiting from Los Angeles, Jennifer Kniss, 48, read about the train rides on the Internet and decided it would be a perfect excursion on their way up to Napa. “I thought it would be a really cool thing to do because not a lot of people know that this is a piece of history in California,” she said.

Even some local residents do not know much about the railway. Sisters Irma Bonilla and Mayda Taylor grew up in the area. Taylor, 55, now lives in Placerville and is visiting Bonilla in Hayward. “We never rode the train then [growing up]. We never really paid attention to it. But it’s a nice thing to do on a Sunday afternoon,” said Taylor.

A desire to slow down and appreciate history is why Rachel Stanton brought her husband and their three daughters out to the tracks. The family has never ridden on an historic train before. For Stanton’s two youngest daughters, 8 and 5, this would be their very first train ride.

Engineer Dave Burla

Engineer Dave Burla

“It’s good to sightsee. When you’re driving or riding BART or Amtrak, things are whizzing by you. I like the old-time feeling best and they’re all enjoying it,” said Stanton.

Developing a sense of appreciation for trains as a child is something David Loyola understands. Now 21, Loyola said that his parents used to take him all over California visiting different places. “One of the things that always stuck was trains,” he said.

Weaver has been a volunteer with the PLA for six years now and plans on continuing his involvement with historic trains. He spent six months working on historic trains in Utah and is pursuing a degree in mechanical engineering.

Loyola said he is not just focused on the equipment. “What I like best are the people. The people you meet, the people that are here. I love stepping back in time and seeing what they used to do,” he said.

It is this feeling, along with the physical equipment, that the PLA is trying to preserve. Evans said that they expect the majority of their current projects to be completed within the next five years.

While the organization receives some assistance from groups such as the Niles Historic District, the success of these projects is largely dependent upon personal donations. As the holiday season grows closer, the PLA is gearing up for its biggest fundraising event of the year, the Train of Lights, beginning November 28th. Stanton said that her family would definitely be back for the event.

Visit the Niles Canyon Railway website for more information: www.ncry.org

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