Famous train needs makeover before next Hollywood close-up

(The following story by Dixie Reid appeared at ScrippsNews.com on January 25.)

HOLLYWOOD It's so sadly "Sunset Boulevard," a faded Hollywood legend truly gone to pieces.

Here at Railtown 1897 State Historic Park, the far-flung Tuolumne County outpost of Sacramento's California State Railroad Museum, lie the disconnected parts of perhaps the most famous steam locomotive in movie history.

In better times, Sierra Railway No. 3 was a star. Her first onscreen appearance was in a 1919 silent-movie serial called "The Red Glove." Her first feature-film role was alongside Gary Cooper in "The Virginian" (1929), the first "talkie" shot on location.In the 1950s and '60s, the locomotive appeared in a slew of Westerns, from the classic "High Noon" (again starring Cooper) to TV's "Bonanza" and "Death Valley Days." Also among her 72 movie and TV credits are "Gunsmoke," "Petticoat Junction," "Bound for Glory" and "Back to the Future III."

But the old girl (locomotives, like ships, have traditionally been considered "female") has been out of commission for the past decade.

She needs major work to bring her boiler in line with new Federal Railroad Administration safety standards, and she's due extensive general repairs and a good sprucing-up. The price tag for full restoration, which will make her look like she did for her 1929 big-screen debut, is around $600,000.

The nonprofit California State Railroad Museum Foundation has until Friday to raise $300,000 to match a grant from the California Cultural and Historical Endowment _ and is still about $20,000 short.

"We are determined to go forward with the project, even if we need to borrow from other funds," says Kathy Daigle, the foundation's associate director.

(Contributions to the restoration project can be made at 916-445-5995 or www.parks.ca.gov.)

"It should be restored so it can blow its whistle and demonstrate how America grew into an industrial power," says Bill Withuhn, who often saw No. 3 on the tracks when he was a boy living in Modesto. He now is the curator of transportation history at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C.

"We as Americans became the most mobile society on Earth a long time back, and it wasn't because of Henry Ford and the Model T," he says. "We became the most mobile society on Earth in the age of the railroad, and No. 3 stands for that. I think of it as a great icon of California and American history."

Railtown 1897 has no record of Sierra No. 3 ever, in her 116-year existence, undergoing a major overhaul. So, it's time.

"In 2000, we spent $100,000 to dismantle it and get it ready for restoration," says Daigle. "We hoped to do it all at that time, but there were some changes due to the (state's) budgetary crisis. So we've kept it dismantled and looked for ways to find funding to put it back together."

None other than Clint Eastwood came to the rescue early on.

"The Sierra No. 3 is like a treasured old friend," he wrote last April in a letter to the California Cultural and Historical Endowment's board of directors, encouraging the board to award the railroad museum foundation the $300,000 grant.

"Early in my career," Eastwood continued, "I rode Sierra No. 3 on the television series 'Rawhide.' Over 20 years later, I returned to use No. 3 for my own productions 'Pale Rider' and 'Unforgiven.' Even in the business of make-believe, you can't beat the real thing."

Sierra No. 3 rolled out of the Rogers Locomotive & Machine Works in Paterson, N.J., in March 1891 and became the third locomotive (hence the No. 3 designation) on the Prescott & Arizona Central Railway. The Arizona company eventually went bankrupt because of high rates and poor service.

So in 1896, the promoter of the defunct P&AC came to California to see about building a rail line into the Mother Lode. One day in Stockton, Thomas S. Bullock met an exiled Polish prince who represented foreign capitalists investing in California mining. The prince was the brother-in-law of banker William H. Crocker _ whose father, Charles, was one of the Big Four of transcontinental railroad fame _ and the three men got a railroad built into Tuolumne County. The new Sierra Railway was incorporated on Feb. 2, 1897.

Sierra Railway No. 3, an oil-burning locomotive converted to coal in 1900, got off to an illustrious start. She is believed to have hauled the first passenger train on the Sierra line, from Oakdale to Coopers-town, in June 1897, and she pulled mainline freight trains until another engine was added to the line's rolling stock in 1906.

It hasn't been all good times for No. 3. She suffered a few embarrassing mishaps over the years: splitting a switch and falling into a ditch in 1898 (her conductor died in the accident), derailing her tender while backing over a trestle in 1899 and toppling over again in 1919, destroying her original wooden cab. She still uses the secondhand Central Pacific steel cab that replaced the original.

After serving many years as an unsung railroad workhorse, Sierra No. 3 was brought into the spotlight in 1919 when Australian-born director J.P. McGowan arrived to film an episode of "The Red Glove." He stopped it to shoot a train-robbery scene as Sierra No. 3 was pulling a regular westbound passenger train from Sonora, three miles from Jamestown.

"That particular segment doesn't seem to have survived, so we can't actually see what it did," says Kyle Wyatt, curator of history and technology at the California State Railroad Museum. "We know of a reference to it in a newspaper article about the filming."

It was 10 years before Hollywood returned to the Sierra Railway, with its historic railroad shops and roundhouse. The 1929 Western "The Virginian," which also starred Walter Huston and Mary Brian, was the first movie made outside a studio setting.

"There are a number of publicity photos that survive of the locomotive dressed up for that movie, with Gary Cooper posed on horseback next to the locomotive. It clearly played a significant role of some stripe," says Wyatt.

Cooper was reunited with Sierra No. 3 the following year, in "The Texan." Then the little locomotive's showbiz career was derailed for some time as the Sierra Railway went through bankruptcy and reorganization, and the company had no money to pay for needed repairs. Between 1935 and 1951, Sierra No. 18 picked up most of the movie work.

However, when Cooper returned to the Sierra Railway in 1952 to make "High Noon" (for which he would win an Oscar), Sierra No. 3 again became the toast of Tinseltown, the undisputed gem of Jamestown.

She was the go-to locomotive during the heyday of Westerns in the 1950s and '60s, when such stars as Burt Lancaster and Jean Peters ("Apache"), Claudette Colbert ("Texas Lady") and Alan Ladd ("The Big Land") came to town. She was a regular, along with Michael Landon, during the long run of television's "Little House on the Prairie."

"Sierra No. 3 historically has been the asset bringing films to Tuolumne County for 90 years," says Jerry Day, executive director of the Tuolumne County Film Commission. "It's an actual 19th century engine, and only a handful are operating in North America. That's what makes us special.

"If you're going to do a movie about the Old West or the transcontinental railroad or anything from the era of expansionism in America, that's the machine you're going to use."

The little locomotive made her last movie appearance in the 1994 Western "Bad Girl." Her last television work was in 1996, for the Western "Shaughnessy." She was removed from service later that year.

Restoration of Sierra No. 3 could begin as early as next month. Her boiler will be sent to a specialty shop for assessment, and the balance of the work will be done in Jamestown, in the old Sierra shops. She then will be trucked to Sacramento, where her classic black finish will be applied at Regional Transit's state-of-the-art paint shop.

She is expected to be ready for her next close-up by April 2009.

"Hollywood is missing it," says film commissioner Day. "No. 3 is the real deal, and only a handful from that era are still running in North America."

"She is probably the most seen, if not the most recognized, steam locomotive in the world, because of all the films she appeared in for these many, many years," says the railroad museum's Wyatt.

"She is a classic example of the 19th century steam locomotive, the locomotive that won the West."

If not the Western.

Thursday, January 25, 2007


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