JAMESTOWN, Calif. — Cabooses are known as "crummies," said docent Bill Gillaspie, because conductors "used to spend so much time living in them, and they were crummy."
Nicer adjectives are in order for Railtown 1897 State Historic Park, where Gillaspie has volunteered since the early 1990s. On a beautiful morning late last year, the Air Force veteran and former school-bus driver provided a personal tour of the 26-acre site, which is a 100-mile drive southeast of Sacramento. The tour was not special treatment for a reporter; Gillaspie does it for any visitor.
Railtown 1897, although associated with the sleek and extensive California State Railroad Museum in Sacramento, is not a sophisticated tourist attraction. Some of its locomotives no longer are operable, most of the other exhibits are in pieces and/or look grimy, and the only hint of something higher-tech is a video screened next to the gift shop. Nostalgia is what this place is about, and it's what Gillaspie embraced when he chirpily said, "Are you ready to step back into history?" as we approached the Roundhouse.
The 1910 shed's name is a stretch, as the building bends a bit but is far from circular. "Kids like to tell me the Roundhouse isn't round, so I tell them it's a quarter-round," the guide said with a twinkle in his eye.
The first thing we encountered in the Roundhouse was a "movie star." Locomotive No. 3 (built in 1891) has that nickname because it has appeared in dozens of films, starting in 1919. From what I saw, however, No. 3 is not ready for its close-up, Mr. DeMille. Flecked, dirty paint and huge gaps where engine parts should be do not scream screen siren.
Here and at several more stops along the tour, Gillaspie asked if I remembered this or that scene from "Back to the Future III." I have seen the film, but have to dig pretty far back into the past to recall details. If you are contemplating a visit to Railtown 1897, you might enhance the experience by reviewing the 1990 Michael J. Fox sci-fi adventure flick. It relied heavily on Railtown 1897's stock materials, including Locomotive No. 3.
Locomotive No. 28, built in 1922, has a more-active existence these days.
It pulls tourist trains on a six-mile, 40-minute round trip on weekends, April through October.
When my host and I were about to step up into a short passenger car, constructed more than a century ago to negotiate the sharp curves on Sierra Railroad's Angels Camp branch, Gillaspie piped, "All aboard!" I wonder whether he used to say that at school-bus stops.
The little coach has a ghostly feel, what with a lack of lighting, the dusty, spottily shredding cloth seats and brown-with-age pull-down shades. Gillaspie pointed out a few windows whose rippled glass indicates they are original. A wood stove in the corner provided warmth, he said, but passengers could get toasty if they sat too near it. Seat backs flip back and forth so riders could always face forward.
A nearby motorized passenger car, a sort of 1920s minivan, was used for runs to and from the Hetch Hetchy reservoir project. From one of the rear seats, a metal chute flows down to just above the tracks, in front of the rear wheels. Whoever sat by the chute was charged with occasionally pouring sand down it so that the little railcar would have traction and not spin its wheels.
At one point, Gillaspie mentioned something about a "petticoat" being a metal part inside train engines. "Oh, so the TV show's name was a real pun," I said in reference to the 1960s CBS comedy "Petticoat Junction."
No, the guide said, cueing up an anecdote he no doubt replays for most tour groups. The show's title was a reference to its female characters dipping their undergarments into the railroad's water tank. A replica of the tank used in "Petticoat Junction" was built in the 1980s and rests on Railtown 1897's grounds.
The tour's other highlights included examining a handcar used by John Wayne in a 1930s film. Hollywood props such as wooden signs of fictional railroads that were attached to Locomotive No. 3, a fascinating perspective painting from the mid-1990s TV show "The Adventures of Brisco County Jr." and a blown smokestack from "Back to the Future Part III" are in or just outside a former repairs shed. Gillaspie encouraged me to pick up an ultralight fake rail that actors used, though real rails weigh hundreds of pounds "and some of those movie stars couldn't lift their own suitcases," the guide said with a hint of disdain.
Among the other noteworthy motion pictures that used Railtown 1897 equipment and nearby scenery were 1929's "The Virginian," starring Gary Cooper and which the state historic park claims was the first "talkie" filmed outside a studio; 1952's "High Noon," Cooper's iconic spin as a lone-crusader sheriff; and director-star Clint Eastwood's 1992 Western masterpiece, "Unforgiven." "The Lone Ranger," "Gunsmoke" and "Little House on the Prairie" are among the many TV shows that used the site.
Railtown 1897's existence can be traced, not surprisingly, to 1897, when Sierra Railroad opened a line from Jamestown to Oakdale. Branches to Sonora and Angels Camp were added soon after; all commercial operations ceased in 1935. Opened for tours and tourist train rides in 1971, the complex was sold to the state in 1982.
The historic park, a few blocks south of Highway 120 just beyond downtown Jamestown, is open daily from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. until April, when spring and summer hours commence: 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. On site is a gift shop whose DVDs for sale do not include, ironically, "Back to the Future Part III." For more information: 916-445-6645 or www.railtown1897.org.