By Aaron Isaacs, HRA editor
I had last visited the Western Railway Museum in 2006 as part of the second joint ARM/TRAIN conference. Returning to Sacramento for the HRA Spring conference offered an opportunity to see how things had changed.
In 2006 the new Carhouse #3 was almost complete but not yet occupied. It has been a huge improvement, because all the essential historic pieces are now under roof. Furthermore, the building is well lit and has widely spaced tracks separated by concrete walkways. That makes it a viable display barn and overcomes the problem of many storage barns, where closely spaced tracks and poor lighting make it impossible to actually view the equipment that surrounds the visitor.
Sacramento Northern interurban #1005 (Holman 1912) is the museum’s signature piece. It survived after SN passenger service ended in 1941 by being sold to the Key System for World War II service and was finally retired in 1949. It was donated to the Bay Area Electric Railway Association. Unfortunately, its frame was damaged in a switching accident before it could be delivered to the museum in 1964. Since we visited the car has undergone a major restoration and returned to service.
We rode the museum’s Scenic Limited, a three-car interurban consist of #1005, SN trailer #1020 (Hall Scott 1913) and Salt Lake & Utah parlor-observation #751 (Niles 1916). The obs stands in for one of the two SN similar open platform cars to form a typical SN consist.
It’s a 10-mile round trip on the museum’s restored SN mainline. The track was in place but deteriorated and the overhead was gone. WRM rebuilt the track and exactly replicated the overhead catenary. In 2006 the line had been reopened as far as Gum Grove. Now it extends almost another mile to Birds Landing Road. There is one more mile of unrestored track extending to Molena, and reopening that is the ultimate goal.
In 2006 the ride was rough. Since then WRM has acquired a collection of track machines and dramatically improved the ride quality. They have also installed a substation at Gum Grove, eliminating low voltage at the south end of the line.
With beautifully restored rolling stock on home rails running at good speed through an unaltered rural landscape (ignore the wind farm to the east), this is a real time machine, an essential history experience.
Returning to the main site at Rio Vista Junction, we toured the carbarns to see what was new and improved. Portland Traction #1001 (Kuhlman 1926) is a rare Indiana Railroad survivor and was recently completely restored.
San Francisco PCC streetcar #1016 (St. Louis Car 1951) was restored in 2010.
Key System #561 and #563 (both Gilbert Car 1887) are unlikely survivors. Built for the New York City steam-era elevated lines, they were requisitioned in World War II for the newly built Richmond (California) Shipyard Railway. They were cosmetically restored a few years ago.
Since we last visited, a short interurban freight train has been restored. It includes Central California Traction 36-foot wood boxcar (Holman 1910), Oakland, Antioch & Eastern, later SN wood-framed flatcar #2002 and Western Pacific, later SN wood caboose #1632 (WP Shops 1937, from 1916 Pullman boxcar #15451).
Currently in the shop for a major overhaul is Key System streetcar #271 (St. Louis car 1901), purchased in 1904 from original owner Lehigh Valley Transit.
New to the museum is San Diego Trolley #1018 (Siemens 1981), one of the first generation of cars that introduced light rail to the United States. Also new are three former Southern Pacific Interurban Electric Eastbay bodies ( AC&F 1911) that went to Utah during the war, and a large Salt Lake, Garfield & Western open trailer #306 (Salt Lake, Garfield & Western 1922) acquired from the Heber Valley Railroad.
Our final stop was at the archives in the museum’s visitor center.
WRM has a vigorous archive program, with about 30 volunteers doing cataloguing, over 100,000 items to date.