SACRAMENTO NORTHERN’S SOUTH-END FINALE: A BOY’S RETROSPECTIVE OF AN INCREDIBLE SUMMER
Darrol J. Stanley
September 28, 2020
- Embarking on a Lifetime Pursuit
- SN’s 40th and Shafter Beckons
- Through the Sacramento Valley
- The Men and Equipment of 40th and Shafter
- I become a Motorman
- The Moraga Scrapping Incident
- Train Action at Moraga
- “The Greek” and The Tunnel
- Substations and “The Juice”
- SN’s South-End Train Crew
- Other Men of 40th and Shafter
- The Beanery at 40th and Shafter
- My Freight Ride to Pittsburg
- The Men of BAERA
- BAERA’s Final Excursions to Pittsburg
- The Beginning of the End
- The Arrival of the End
- A Final Reflection
Embarking on a Lifetime Pursuit
Let us make a journey together and reminisce about a magical electric interurban railway: The Sacramento Northern. The very name Sacramento Northern invokes a powerful nostalgic memory for most western traction enthusiasts. Join me as I relate a remarkable period in my life that I call The Incredible Summer of 1956.
I was fortunate to be at the right place at the right time to see the end of electric interurban railroading in the west. It was propitious that the experience not only helped me to develop as a man of better character, but it also made me a lifetime railfan consumed with enthusiasm and passion.
Most railfans, including myself, struggle to explain when and where their hobby originated. David P. Morgan, longtime editor of Trains Magazine, wrote the most plausible answer. He observed that most lifelong railfans of his generation, of which I am a member, began the journey at a railroad station with positive experiences. He also believed that this often resulted in a strong commitment with a lifetime pursuit. Morgan found his avocation in the Central of Georgia Railway depot in Monticello, Georgia watching consolidations leave for Macon or Athens.
While I first spent many happy hours at the Southern Pacific's Berkeley station, I found my avocation in the Sacramento Northern Oakland depot and yard watching electric freight motors operating through the Oakland Hills headed towards the California Delta. There were many positive experiences over that Incredible Summer of 1956 involving Men of Character, an Inquisitive Boy, 40th and Shafter, and My Personal Electric Railway.
It is hard to believe that almost 65 years have passed since the summer of 1956. It is equally hard to believe that the Oakland, Antioch, and Eastern (SN’s south-end) through the hills of Oakland has been gone longer (since February 28, 1957 or 64 years at the time of this article) than it operated from Oakland to Sacramento (from September 3, 1913 or 43 years). However, the SN is remembered in the minds of, unfortunately, an ever-decreasing few. One could not experience the Sacramento Northern Railway south-end without being impressed by its unique operations and scenery, especially the Oakland Hills and the Shepherd and Redwood Canyons in particular. The most important aspect to me was, however, the wonderful individuals of great character associated with the SN as employees or railfans. This is a story about both. I wrote this first to remember one of the most wonderful times in my life known to me as the Incredible Summer of 1956, but I also wrote it for the younger few that would like to know "how it felt" to be around SN’s interurban electric railroading.
My introduction to the SN was during the winter of 1953. A relative had moved --on the other side of the hills-- to Concord. The family was on an outing to see them when, somewhere between Walnut Creek and Concord, I observed the SN track and overhead. I can still clearly see what happened next: an electric motor came around the bend with a small train heading for Oakland. From that moment, the Sacramento Northern and I easily became friends for life. My father had an aunt who lived on 42nd Street near Telegraph Avenue in Oakland. My parents allowed me to wander around her neighborhood about a year or so later. One lucky outing brought me to 40th and Shafter. It was a boy’s toy-land! It was a compact yard just large enough for a railway, but it was one clearly small enough for a boy to enjoy. While I liked my Lionel electric train set, this was far better. It was, regretfully, only a short visit, and I did not return until the summer of 1956.
SN’s 40th and Shafter Beckons
My parents had built a home in Piedmont, and we moved from Albany in early June of 1956 just after school ended for the year. I had to make do on my own for the summer since I had left my boyhood friends behind, and I knew no one in our new town. The call of SN’s 40th and Shafter yard was clear, and it now was quite accessible from the Key System bus that ended its route at the top of our new address. The bus line quickly took me to the enclosed Piedmont Avenue Key System C line train station that was within easy walking distance to the SN yard. Oh, yes! I indeed did walk through the Key System C line cut to get to the SN yard completely ignoring the no-trespassing sign. I also walked down Oakland Avenue every so often to the end of the C line. The bridge-unit quickly took me to 40th and Broadway Streets, almost adjacent to the SN’s yard. A map of the yard can be found HERE for reference. It is from Harre Demoro’s book, Sacramento Northern. I did not know Harre well, but I did enjoy his stories about the SN over the years. It is well worth noting as I have referenced in this article a number of areas delineated in the map. Another map and a detailed discussion of this wonderful magical railway yard by Garth G. Groff can be found in another section of SN On-line entitled “Oakland’s 40th and Shafter Yard.” Please see: (https://www.wplives.org/sn/shafter.html)
SN and Key System fans might not know that the Key System had a D line. The Oakland Traction Company (Key System) and the OA&E (Oakland, Antioch and Eastern) had mutual trackage rights. The OA&E could operate on the Key System to its Oakland Pier down 40th Street. In return, the Key System had received the right to operate on the OA&E at least to Rockridge, if not to Havens. The OA&E built the track on Shafter off-center to allow double-tracking at a later date to accommodate the Key System. The Key System never chose to exercise this right, and thus the Key System never commercially operated its D line. It is interesting to think of what type of equipment the Key System would have used if it operated over the route considering the higher voltage and the steep grades to Havens.
I actually recall my first visit to the yard that summer of 1956. It was late in the day, and I soon had to walk back to the house on 42nd Street to be picked-up. I quickly scanned the block and a half sized yard, and I headed for the old storage and maintenance shed on the west side of Shafter. It was there, that late afternoon, that I saw the 1005 for the first time. What a beauty; what an interurban! She defined for me instantly what I still believe to be the standard for an interurban electric railway passenger and baggage car (known as a combine). Holman Car may have been going bankrupt, but they still put together one magnificent electric railway car (forget the splicing of the end that kept sagging). It was an exclusive design of the OA&E known to no other electric railway. In addition, it belonged to my personal line through the hills! Please see an article entitled “Holman Car 1005: Last Survivor of its Class” in another section of this SN On-line website: https://www.wplives.org/sn/holman.html
Through the Sacramento Valley
I have used the term south-end. This may be confusing to some readers. The Sacramento Northern Railway was a merger of two different electric interurban lines. The south-end was the well-built Oakland, Antioch and Eastern which used overhead catenary for electric power collection. The OA&E ran from Oakland to Sacramento a distance of 85.99 miles (94.89 miles from SF over the Bay Bridge). Operations on the OA&E were split at the “water barrier” at West Pittsburg, which required the use of a railway car ferry. South-end operations north of the ferry centered in Sacramento while operations south of the ferry centered in Oakland. The south-end operation was designated by the SN as their First Subdivision. The north-end was the old Northern Electric. The NE ran from Sacramento to Chico (a distance of 99.42 miles). It was a poorly constructed railway and used “open uncovered third-rail” for electric power collection. It took years for this method of electric power collection for railways to be outlawed. It finally was outlawed by California in 1946 with stringent exceptions (like the SFO Bay Bridge). The north-end operation was designated by the SN as their Second Subdivision. The SN used direction from Oakland in their timetables. Hence, if you were going away from Oakland you were heading east (west if heading to Oakland), regardless of the physical direction.
The entire SN ride from Oakland to Chico was 176.51 miles (185.41 miles from SF). This was one of the longest electric interurban rides in America. By the summer of 1956, the ferry was gone as well as the electric overhead north of the “water barrier.” Fortunately, for me, the interurban electric operations south of the ferry were still in place while electric terminal operations also continued in Yuba City-Marysville. My comments herein refer to the 37.69 miles of electric railway operations between Oakland and Pittsburg. A map of the entire SN Railway can be found HERE. It is from the Sunday, April 23, 1939 Time Table No. 20. I have also have replicated and enlarged another map of the Oakland to Pittsburg segment so the many places noted in this story can be referenced HERE.
The Men and Equipment of 40th and Shafter
Another afternoon in early June, I came back to look at the 1005 and the other cars in the yard. These were the Salt Lake and Utah 751 (an open-end observation), Saskatoon Canada Municipal Railway 12, and Sacramento Northern Birney car 62. They made great toys for a boy. The equipment, which was present at this time in my toy-land, can be reviewed HERE. . It is from a Bay Area Electric Railroad Association (BAERA) brochure written by my good friend Richard Reynolds. Richard was at one time president of BAERA. He also ran a popular, but short-lived, tourist train to Eureka on the old NWP. He also bought a number of items of electric and steam railroad equipment, most of which is preserved today at Rio Vista Junction. He helped me greatly when I was developing Railtown 1897 and running the Supper Chief as a shareholder of the Sierra Railroad Company. The Sierra will always be in competition with the SN for me. My first railfan excursion, shared with my grandfather at the young age of 10, was the April 17, 1955 R&LHS “Farewell To Steam” for the Sierra Railroad. This excursion from Emeryville to Jamestown (via the Santa Fe to Oakdale) utilized both the Sierra #28 and #38.
This June outing, however, I met a SN railway employee for the first time. He was Andy Anderson, a very nice man with a pleasing temperament. I only had the opportunity to see and talk with Andy a few times. These meetings seemed to have all come in the first part of that wonderful summer. He was busy at work in his small shed on the north side of the storage and maintenance yard. He informed me that he was the signal maintenance man. He explained what he was fixing, and he talked about the signals and the many problems associated with maintaining them. It was only years later that I found out about the unique signaling construction of the OA&E. They were very unusual with a “wig-wag” on the top, very much in line with the then disappearing San Francisco traffic signal lights with their moving arms. Andy must have had a big task keeping all of these ancient 1910ish relics working. Perhaps, this is the reason he was continually out on the line fixing something and seldom in his shop.
The next person I met was Joe Hahn. Joe was an "older man,” but he was younger than Andy. He was recently married, and it would be over a year before he had his first child, a daughter. He was probably not over 25, but old to me! Joe was extremely nice to a young boy of eleven hanging around a railway yard. He had an appearance that you would remember, however. He was thin, and he weighed not more than 140 pounds. He had a very pronounced eye stigma that resulted in glasses that you would always remember. Joe and I became very good friends. This friendship lasted into the late 1960s as SN operations first moved to Walnut Creek and then to Pittsburg. I lost track of him after getting married and moving to Southern California. I will remember him the most of all the wonderful employees of the SN.
Joe was listed as a carman. He actually did multiple things for he truly had a "jack of all trades" job description. One of his duties, to my delight, was servicing and placing the motors for the next day's operation. There were four active motors used at the end of electric operations. These were the Baldwin-Westinghouse 661 and the General Electric 652, 653, and 654. Everyone seemed to want to use the GE's over the BW. You only had to sit once in the BW 661 motorman's pull-up seat to know why. Your view was not only limited, but also you felt cramped sitting on what really was a very hard pull-up wood seat with no back. On the other hand, the GE's had cushioned motormen's seats that were fixed and were very comfortable, including a back, as well as allowing a very open view. The BW 661 was set-aside stored but operational. I spent many happy hours playing motorman in this BW motor. Thus, unlike so many others, the 661 was my friend.
I only saw the 661 in use once on the freight. The most likely reason was that two of the GEs were undergoing repairs. The 661 departed 40th and Shafter in February 1957 for the scrap yard with the Sacramento Northern and 661 spray-painted over. It is sad that this motor was not preserved, but it appears to have been “an unwanted castaway” by both the SN employees and the railfan community but not me.
A great article on these BW motors can be found in another section of this SN on-line website. Entitled “SN Baldwin Steeple Cabs 440-441 and 660-661,” it was written by Garth G. Groff. It can be found at: https://www.wplives.org/sn/baldwin.html Information on the GE motors by Garth G. Groff can also be found on this SN on-line website entitled “General Electric Steeple Cabs on the SN.” Please see: https://www.wplives.org/sn/ge.html
I become a Motorman
Every afternoon, Joe would service and move the motors back to the storage track. After a few days just watching, Joe allowed me to ride the motor into Shafter Avenue, help throw the switch, and ride into the yard placing the motors near the old passenger car repair shed then used to maintain the motors on the northeast side of the main yard. I kept hoping for what indeed came next. One day, he allowed me to sit in the motormen's seat and run the motor into the street. No car was going to hit my motor! I used the gong and air-whistle too much. This was to be repeated a number of times. A few times, when there were no freight cars on a yard track, we first went to the south end of the yard (40th street), and I then operated the motor through the yard into Shafter Avenue and up the street towards the end of the 600 volts wire and yard limit. Not much of a ride, but a real ride nonetheless with me as the motorman. I must not have been the best motorman as Joe would never allow me to run the motors off Shafter into the yard and the storage track.
The Moraga Scrapping Incident
Over the summer, I helped Joe service the equipment. Sometimes I was more hindrance than help. However, he was so patient. He knew I liked his electric railway, and so did he. One of the more memorable experiences was towards the end of the summer. The railway was getting ready to close down. You could feel the sadness as items were beginning to be discarded. The railway decided to scrap a few old freight cars. The job fell to Joe, and Joe's ever-so-often assistant, Red. Red got his name for the simple and logical reason that he had red hair. I do not know his real name. Now Red was not too bright, and he was often given an assignment that he did not complete. Indeed, there were times when it would have been far easier just to do it yourself than to ask Red. Red, however, had a good heart, and Joe never really said anything negative against him. However, you could see, at times, Joe's irritation in his eyes. You also kept your distance from Red as he had a tendency to experience accidents.
We spent four or more days scrapping these old freight cars. The cars were set-out on a siding in Moraga near the closed station. In those days, Moraga was open farmland with wonderful orchards. You could see very few buildings and almost no automobiles. We first torched the cars, and then we cut them up. I really do not remember the car types we scrapped. One, however, was an old SN boxcar (probably used in the past for LCL freight).
Red was to set the boxcar on fire our first day out on the job and burn it down to the trucks. He poured a good amount of gasoline on it and then lighted a match; he almost set himself on fire as the boxcar exploded when he lighted it due to the amount of gasoline he used and the old dry boxcar wood. Our first fear was for him, and our second fear that it was going to set the adjacent field on fire. Fortunately, neither of these things happened. These were the “good old days” before all the state and federal regulations. I had a problem too with that boxcar. I banged my head on that car just before he poured the gasoline, and I had a scratch on my forehead for a few weeks.
Train Action at Moraga
We usually arrived at Moraga before the eastbound (north) train came through. This allowed me to see it run at speed through the Moraga crossing. By then, the train had only a few cars. The consist of the train had become very standard. On the front end was a motor, a few freight cars behind it, a caboose, and the second motor. I remain baffled that the caboose was not trailing the second motor for safety reasons. The evening train heading west (south) back to Oakland usually had more cars since the real reason for the south-end SN track to Oakland was to give the Western Pacific access to the Oakland Terminal Railway and the Oakland Army Base. The connecting line between WP and OT built in 1956-1957 ended this need. It also ended the costly electric service over the lower cost of diesel power. SN had wanted to dieselize this operation for some time. They even tried a diesel train to Oakland at least once. It apparently caused havoc to the households on Shafter Avenue. Oakland City authorities quickly informed the SN that the franchise specified an “electric street railway.” The SN, thereafter, was not able to use diesel power on Shafter Avenue. I still maintain that there was only one good thing that came out of the abandonment over the Oakland hills and the end of electric operations. This was the fact that Joe bought a home in Walnut Creek in a new development next to the depot. It was one, if not the best, of his financial endeavors.
“The Greek” and The Tunnel
One day on the way to scrap the cars at Moraga, we drove up Shepherd Canyon and down through Redwood Canyon. Joe drove this route (in the SN’s 1953 Ford pick-up; some say it was a 1952 GMC pick-up) in order to stop at Eastport. Eastport was at the eastern end of the tunnel through the Oakland hills, between Sequoia and Havens on the maps. The setting on the east side was better than the western approach. The western approach had, nonetheless, its own merits since the line wound its way up the steep grade into the Oakland hills through the Montclair district and the narrow Shepherd Canyon on its way to Sacramento. Eastport had a few buildings next to the tunnel entrance. One was a substation that I had never had the opportunity to see the interior. Another building was the home of the track-walker. I never knew his real name. We all called him “The Greek.” He lived by himself, and he obviously was born in Greece, once you heard him speak. This trip was not the first time I saw him. I had seen and talked to him twice before at 40th and Shafter. Each time he had walked all the way down from Eastport (through the tunnel to my wonder and envy!) to 40th and Shafter to collect his payroll check. He maintained the place around the tunnel entrance nicely. He even had a small garden. I saw “The Greek” once more walking through Montclair inspecting the track in late 1956. I never saw him again.
“The Greek’s” responsibilities also included the tunnel watch. The tunnel was always a draw for me. While I never had the opportunity to walk through it, I did walk a few yards into both entrances, more than once. The tunnel was 3200 feet long, and it was built on a 1.9% east grade. The west end of the tunnel, however, was not called Westport, but rather Havens. Havens was actually a station a short distance further southwest from the western entrance to the tunnel.
The tunnel was built to high standards, and the tunnel itself apparently caused few problems. The west end, however, was built on unstable ground that created problems around the tunnel’s entrance. There was always water flowing out of the tunnel at this western end. The track needed to have retaining walls constructed to stop the soil and gravel from getting on the track, especially near the entrance to the tunnel, due to the soil movement. “The Greek” did a lot of hand shoveling to keep it clear. He also did some shoveling around Merlin Cut further south of Havens, which had a tendency to experience similar problems. The winter of 1956-1957 was a wet season so he, most likely, was kept busy shoveling the last few months before abandonment of the line.
Eastport, while it appeared lonely, had great tranquility. The Redwood Canyon then, as now, has great appeal due to its beauty. You can easily see why the OA&E from the start and SN until 1940 ran popular picnic trains to Pinehurst, a station a short distance east from Eastport, in the Redwood Canyon. The railway owned a picnic area in the redwoods that had an enticing environment. They called it “The Adirondack’s of the Pacific.” I always was on the lookout for Pinehurst while riding the railway. Valle Vista and the curve were just beyond, and I always liked that view too.
Substations and “The Juice”
I saw a substation interior once. This was the substation at Concord. I was with Joe for whatever reason. He seldom ventured out of 40th and Shafter. I presume he had to fix a car set-out at Concord. He was responsible for working the entire Oakland-Pittsburg line so he had to make some trips. At any rate, the substation was there, and I asked to look inside of it. He opened the door, but he would not let me go in. It was most interesting.
We have just been speaking about 'The Juice." SN never owned a line-car. They repaired overhead wires with tall four-wheel push cars painted yellow. They were set out at various points along the line. I never saw one in use. I never, in fact, saw anyone working on the overhead nor did I know of anyone who was responsible for such work. I still do not know who was in charge of the four south-end substations located at Oakland, Eastport, West Lafayette and Concord.
SN’s South-End Train Crew
The train crew at Oakland was composed of very interesting individuals. The oldest employee was Oscar Schindler who had gone to work for the OA&E, if I remember correctly. He was the senior motorman. He was not at all talkative nor did he like kids. I never spoke to him other than to say hello. He apparently retired at the end of operations from Oakland. I went to the new center of operations, Walnut Creek, soon after the Oakland hills abandonment. It had to be soon after as the overhead wire was still up. Les Paul, not Oskar, was now operating one of the SN’s 44-ton GE diesels on the then Lafayette-Pittsburg segment. I do not think they went west (south) from Walnut Creek very often. I never saw them go in that direction, or heard that they had, and the only time I know of a train going to Lafayette was one in which Gilbert Kneiss (WP’s PR man and then head of Pacific Coast Chapter, R&LHS) ran just before its abandonment and its conversion to a rail-to-trail. This was one of the first conversions of a rail-to-trail in America.
Les Paul, the other motorman, was a little more talkative, but not much. He would answer questions with very short answers. He spoke in a soft voice. The conductor, Walter Butterfield, however, was very loquacious. He was always talking up a storm. He liked kids so he not only answered questions, but he also went out of his way to say hello and make you feel welcome. He also wore a memorable looking hat with its front-rim turned up. One of my first introductions to colorful language (by the then standards of the day) was through him and his comments to Les Paul. Butterfield was on a boxcar being coupled to another car in the Oakland yard. Les Paul, as everyone knew, was not the world's greatest motorman. He often misjudged distances. This time he hit the other car so hard that Butterfield was knocked off the boxcar. He came running back, and he gave Les Paul a loud and colorful speech! I will have more to say about Les Paul and his motorman’s abilities later in this article.
There was a very colorful brakeman, whose name was Charles Dowd. However, we all called him (at least behind his back) the Dandy or the Ladies Man. He was actually quite handsome. He had a family in Sacramento, and he went home to see them on weekends. He slept in the caboose in the yard late Sunday night through Thursday night. After the train tied up, he would eat and then end up in various bars around town entertaining. It was also mentioned to me that he and others had, more than once, ignored Rule G and drank in the caboose not only in the 40th and Shafter yard but also on the road returning to Oakland. I never saw him (or anyone else) impaired, however. He also was responsible to place the unique SN “electric hook” from the caboose over the wire to charge its batteries. I often waited around to see him do this interesting task.
Even though the Dandy lived in a caboose in the yard, he seemed always to be the last to work. I often remembered the train being made-up with the Dandy still in the caboose. He always shaved just before he came out to work. We all knew he was about to come to work as he would throw out a bowl of used shaving water from the rear end of the caboose just before his arrival.
Other Men of 40th and Shafter
Then there was Trappey. I do not remember his real name. He was the interlocking tower man. He sat in the triangle tower on 40th street, above the old passenger station. The SN line curved from the Key System onto Shafter Avenue at this point. He also issued the train orders. I never really understood why they needed to use train orders. His train orders often read 'Extra-654 run Oakland to McAvoy and return." The SN at this time had only one train crew on the subdivision. So why do it at all? I do not know, but they did. The orders never said anything about meeting the Detour at Pittsburg to my knowledge. The SN Detour was a train from Sacramento (via the WP and Santa Fe) with its famous EMD F3As cab freight units (301-A and 301-D) from the legendary and defunct New York, Ontario and Western. This was the only other possible train on the subdivision, and it operated only on the steel mill extension east from the Pittsburg depot. This entire segment was also within the Pittsburg yard limits. Unfortunately, I never saw the Detour in service.
Trappey's other responsibility was working the interlocking Tower from the Key System onto the SN. There was usually only one train a day. The Oakland Terminal came up from Emeryville with one of their two ALCO diesels. Both were painted black with road numbers D-1 and D-2. The Oakland Terminal Railway was, by now, a jointly owned railway by the WP and Santa Fe. The SN also had the right and the ability to Y on the Key System’s C line, but I never saw this. Trappey's job was not too much work. Every time I went up to see him, he appeared to be idle. He was not too polite during the visits, but he did not say do not come back. In later years, he became the agent in Walnut Creek and then Pittsburgh towards the end of the active life of the subdivision.
One non-SN railway individual should be noted. I do not remember his name. He lived on 41st street about three houses northwest from the corner with Shafter Avenue. He was retired from the Key System. If I recall correctly, he was the master mechanic at the Emeryville shops. He always wore overalls, and he watched the train activity most of the time. He also gave sage advice more than once on making repairs to the equipment.
Another railway employee was Ed Bohanon, the master electrician. He was grumpy, but he let me roam around his work area, and he did answer questions. He often commented about his health, and I do not think he felt well that summer. He often complained about his stomach. He also said the Hickory Pit Restaurant on Telegraph Avenue and 44th was too greasy and made him sick. The Hickory Pit was a favorite of most of us around the SN since it was not only reasonably close to the yard, but it had great BBQ food. He, apparently, was Joe’s boss who gave him numerous chores. Joe made fun of him every so often. He commented more than once about “the famous repair.” An electric motor needed repairs. Ed made the repairs. Unfortunately, he made a mistake. He had wired one set of truck motors to run one direction while the other set of truck motors were wired to run in the opposite direction at the same time! This error must have been a sight-to-behold.
The Beanery at 40th and Shafter
Speaking of food, the yard did have its own café referred to more often as the "Grease Spoon" or a “Beanery." It was in the freight building on the opposite side of the interlocking town on Shafter Avenue (the southwest corner of the main yard). It was small, old-fashioned, with five or six red-stool seats facing the counter. The café was originally established by the SN’s food-concessioner. It initially served as a complement to the food service on the passenger trains. At the end of south-end operations, the cook independently operated the café. I do not remember his name. I did not eat there very often since it was "pricey" for a young boy. I do not remember prices, but a hamburger was at least ten to fifteen cents more than Kwik-Way or McDonald's. These two had the cheapest hamburgers in town at 15 cents. Doggie-Diner, with its famous, giant, rotating dachshund head sign, was also close by, and it too received my trade. I made the mistake, only once, while eating my burger at the beanery commenting about the size of the meat patty. I heard a discourse for the next fifteen minutes about the cost of meat, by year, since the end of World War Il. He also rightly complained about too few customers in general and the fact that they came in “only for coffee.” I always had a Coke with my hamburger and fries as the place had a number of the old Coca-Cola merchandise items on the walls. The café closed at the same time the Oakland hills line was abandoned.
My Freight Ride to Pittsburg
One of the reasons that I went into the “café” was to see the SN agent in Oakland. He was indeed, an older man, heavy set. I do not recall his name, but I made sure he knew who I was. I always asked him to let me ride the freight trains. While he never said no, he never said yes, either. I had also asked to do this through a few letters to the SN’s key man in Sacramento, H. J. Mulford, about a ride; he politely sent back letters with a definite NO.
Toward the end of summer, I became concerned that I would never enjoy the freight ride experience. Joe must have talked to the agent because he said to me one day in the yard that I could ride the freight that week. He made me enter his office (the only time I did) to "sign papers." I signed my eleven-year old name to some legal document. He told me not to get in the way and be sure to be careful. Therefore, in the last days of August of 1956, I was allowed to ride the freight. I immediately went out to buy my trainman’s overalls and cap. I was going to be just like them.
On the morning of my ride, I arrived early. Butterfield asked me if I wanted to ride in the caboose or a motor. I chose, of course, the motor. Since Oscar did not like kids, he placed me in the motor with Les Paul. I took my seat opposite of him in the motorman’s chair that would face backwards to the direction of the train. I immediately opened up the window, and Les Paul said do not lean out too far. There was, indeed, not a big gap between the seat level and the window ledge. This would allow the motorman, if necessary, to lean well out of the cab.
After yard switching, we were off up Shafter Avenue. The climb through Montclair was particularly nice since I knew all the landmarks. Indeed, the SN Montclair-Havens segment was close to my new home and within walking distance for my exploration. This section is now a rail-to-trail path. As we passed through Havens and approached the tunnel, Les Paul asked me to close the window. He did likewise. While I never heard of any problems in the tunnel, everyone seemed to play it safe. Soon we came out, passed through Eastport, and into the Redwood Canyon. It was a clear sunny day, and I do not think Redwood Canyon and Pinehurst could ever be more beautiful. As we came to Valle Vista, I went to Les's side of the cab to see the view. Moraga and the orchards in bloom were below us. A very memorable sight indeed.
We soon were in Walnut Creek where the train conducted switching in the yard. The train crew moved something for Diamond Walnuts, but we were soon off. We may have stopped at Concord to do some switching, but the first major switching movement was at Port Chicago. It was here that the BIG Les Paul incident occurred.
The train crew started switching the yards. A number of cars were involved as this was the interchange yard with the Santa Fe. We were moving up with a car on the south track to couple it to others when the “motormanship” of Les Paul became obvious to me. We suddenly hit the other car with such force that I went flying through the cab since I was sitting backwards to the movement! I slid along the oval electrical box in the center of the GE right into the wall. Les Paul looked over to see what happened with an expression like "why did you not hold on?"
His next comment was that the motor was dead. He did not initially seem concerned as the crew had been warned in Oakland that the electrical power could go down for as long as fifteen minutes. No sooner than he said the motor was dead, Oscar went by in his motor heading westward on the inside or north track. Walter Butterfield came running back asking what was happening since Les was not acknowledging his signals. Les said the motor was dead. Walter said fix it. Les seemed to think, for only a few seconds, and he then threw what was the emergency electrical switch. The motor (I think it was the 652, his favorite) came alive. He said nothing to me about the incident then or ever. I had flown through the cab, and I had hit the emergency electrical switch and cut the power from the pantograph to the motors. It was at this point that I remembered the Oakland agent’s comment not to get in the way so I became very quiet and apologetic. I never said anything further about the incident nor did he. However, I think I was the only person to have ever killed a Les Paul motor!
The rest of the trip was uneventful, and we returned to Oakland in the later part of the afternoon. After we left the tunnel, and we were coming down the grade, I decided to ride the motor on the outside. So I stepped onto the deck and grabbed the railing tightly. It was a pleasant trip from Havens to Rockridge observing everything. I will never forget the face of the woman motorist when I waved to her as we crossed the Warren Freeway at grade. She was surprised to see this young boy. In retrospect, I was a very fortunate young boy to be riding the freight. There again, however, it was my personal electric railway.
The Men of BAERA
One cannot talk about the Sacramento Northern at this time of the south-end finale without mentioning the Bay Area Electric Railroad Association (BAERA) and railfans. We all knew that this antique electric interurban railway was shortly to end. It was the last interurban electric railway operation in the west. Railfans could be seen taking photos on a regular basis. There was a demand for a “last excursion” with the 1005 and 751. It turned out that there were three “last excursions.” The first was July 8, 1956, the second was November 10, 1956, and the truly final one occurred on January 13, 1957.
These excursions would have been impossible without three BAERA individuals. These three, in order of their importance for the excursions, were Howard T. Wolfe, Eldon W. Lucy, and Addison H. Laflin, Jr. These three also made BAERA a major society organized and competent enough to support a true electric railway museum. The current museum exists today only after a number of failed efforts.
Howard T. Wolfe was the most important for the simple fact that he, almost alone, worked on the cars to have them capable of operating on the excursions. He fixed, cleaned, and painted everything necessary. He could be found in the yard late in the afternoons almost daily during that summer. I met Howard early that summer. It was a late afternoon in June. He was working on the SL&U 751. It was an opportunity to step inside for the first time. I climbed on board and met this active, friendly, and knowledgeable railfan of solid character. Howard lived in the Rockridge area of Oakland, and he was a confirmed SN fan. He informed me that there was an electric railway club, and I proceeded to join the club, BAERA. I became a member at the September 1956 meeting.
One key reason to join BAERA was that another excursion over the line was to occur. It turned out to be the first of the “last” excursions. I ‘helped’ him to get the cars ready for the trip by cleaning the windows and sweeping the floors. I also spilled some paint as we touched up the 1005. Unfortunately, I did not make the Saturday July 8, 1956 trip as my parents forced me go to our place in the Napa Valley for an extended 4th of July retreat. I thought that one of the opportunities of a lifetime had passed me by. However, “the last” was not truly the final excursion.
Howard was also the first person to attempt to establish an electric railway museum. This was the ill-fated “Traction Meadows.” The group was able to purchase two and a half miles of track of the Stockton Terminal and Eastern, at the east end of its line. Unfortunately, the ownership of the ROW was challenged in court in a petition that said the ROW was given by the landowners to the ST&E to operate over as an easement, but the ST&E did not own it and, therefore, could not sell it. The courts ruled in favor of the farmers, and Traction Meadows died except for a small amount of track and land at Bellota that the ST&E had purchased outright for a station and yard. We both worked and had fun with speeders in that small site until Rio Vista became a reality. Howard looked to establish a museum at other locations as well. These possible locations included Livermore (around today’s Niles Canyon Railway), Alum Rock Park, and finally the Colusa-Meridian line that the SN was to abandon. Colusa looked very promising, and the two of us examined the line looking at the street trackage that was very appealing for an electric railway museum. We also walked a good amount of the rural track. It was a great fit except for the bridge over the Sacramento River. However, everyone felt it was too far away for volunteers to come up from the Bay Area to make it successful. Ultimately, the last and current choice (Rio Vista Junction) turned out to be the perfect location. This location was found and purchased by a group called the Central Valley Development Corporation, as I recall. It was a BAERA group dedicated to the SN. I fondly remember the first night that BAERA had possession of it as a group of us slept in sleeping bags in the “Service Station.”
Eldon W. Lucy was a long-time president of both BAERA and California-Nevada Railroad Historical Society. If Howard was the arms of BAERA, Eldon was the brains. He was a banker by trade at Crocker-Anglo’s Oakland main, and he had graduated from the University of California (Berkeley). He served in WW II in the US Army in a unique unit stationed in the Bay Area. The unit was assigned the responsibility of evaluating and protecting railroad track in the west that might be sabotaged. He had the personality to bring individuals together to accomplish a task. I personally think he was the nicest and most considerate individual I have ever known. He was truly a man of great character. We remained good friends for twenty years until my move to Los Angeles found us seldom together. He put BAERA on a more formal and effective basis as well as making it financially sound (with the help of Victor DuBrutz). He also personally bought electric (he owned personally the Saskatoon 12) and steam road equipment, and he generously contributed to other acquisitions by BAERA. He was also a good negotiator. Thus, he was able to negotiate the excursions with the management of the SN. Many miss him as he died in 2003.
Addison H. Laflin, Jr. was the heart, soul and cheerleader of the Bay Area Electric Railroad Association. He was the third most important person for the excursions, but he was the first and forever the foremost most important BAERA person due to his very lengthy and tireless efforts on behalf of the club. He was a graduate of the University of California (Berkeley) in journalism. I think his sole reason for living was the BAERA and electric railways. He became interested in them in the 1930s. He was active at the end of the passenger days on the SN. He always wanted to be a conductor. He applied for a platform job in San Francisco for the Municipal Railway. I thought this was odd since he always loved his Key System F line. However, his parents quickly put an end to this and made him join Ford Motor Company at the old Richmond plant. When the plant closed, he moved on to the YMCA in San Francisco. Many remember him for his famous root beer ice cream float episodes. For some reason, he could not make them well so, of course, we all ordered them to see him get frustrated.
Addison was also the editor of The Review. It was more often than not referred to as “The LAF-lin Letter." This was the main publication of BAERA. He produced it faithfully for so many years. It was always a pleasure to read. He did this as secretary of BAERA. While there always was a president of the group, it was always "The LAF-lin Night" at the Hotel Shattuck where we met on Friday evenings. We, indeed, did some laughing as at the end of the meeting we usually ran a Laurel and Hardy short. Addison could get easily flustered, as already noted. We all took our turns at the meetings trying to activate this characteristic. The Laflin station at Rio Vista Junction is named for him, a good man of character with positive ideals and good intentions. He was, indeed, a man of character who died rich without much money.
BAERA’s Final Excursions to Pittsburg
The end of summer brought me hope, as there was yet to be another “last” excursion. The Saturday November 10, 1956 trip was announced, and I was shocked to read the price of a ticket. It was $8.00, cold cash. To a boy of eleven, this was real money, and the ticket was seriously going to deplete my financial resources. Even though a Licorice Vine cost only a penny, I quickly came up with the money. The two or so weeks before this November excursion, Howard was at the yard everyday fixing up or painting one thing or another on the SN 1005 or SL&U 751. I ‘helped’ him to get the cars ready for the trip.
The day came, and I was on-board. I was small enough to ‘squeeze’ my way through the crowd in the baggage compartment to be next to the motorman as we moved up through the Oakland hills to the tunnel and beyond. I wanted a first row seat to see both Pinehurst and Valle Vista and its unique highway bridge. The whole trip was uneventful but very delightful. We had a number of photo stops. I did not own a good camera at the time so I did not take any pictures. At the end of the line, we Y’ed the train on the steel mill extension at Pittsburg and brought the consist to a stop next to the Pittsburg station heading west (south). We, then, were off to dinner along the river. I was walking down the middle of Pittsburg’s main street, on the way to a fish dinner on the river’s edge, when I first met Eldon W. Lucy. Our friendship began right then.
Early dinner at Pittsburg with Eldon was over, and we all reversed direction to the waiting train. We rolled towards Oakland slowly going through the causeway under the AT&SF and SP tracks for everyone to enjoy the famous railway structure, and we continued through the then rural countryside of Northeastern Contra-Costa County. Twilight gave way to evening as we left Moraga. No longer able to see well outside, the railfans of the two-car train turned to conversation. I did as well.
I strolled forward as the two-car train rolled through Redwood Canyon as I had been riding the observation platform of the 751. I entered the rear of the 1005 just after Pinehurst, and I sat down on the left rear end seat. The car was modestly lighted and the conversation was lively. No sooner than I sat down than Vernon J. Sappers entered the car. He was the Dean of History for both the Key System and the Sacramento Northern. I do not recall anyone ever stumping him on a question about either railway.
Vern was dressed for excursions in a SN conductor's uniform; he was in essence the conductor for the excursion. I really do not remember the actual conductor, as Vern seem to do all the work. It is hard to imagine today the informality of railways such as the SN. The trip was really operated by the club, and the only railway employee that participated that day was the motorman and Vern instructed him what to do.
Vern took care of his parents, who like Eldon and Addison, never married. He seldom came to the Friday night BAERA meetings. He seemed to keep to himself although in his final remaining years he was active at Rio Vista Junction as well as helping out Orange Empire in Perris. I should have actually known him better since he was the nephew of my dad's godfather.
I was to ride my electric railway one more time. This was the third and truly last excursion. BAERA decided to run one more "last train to Pittsburg" with the 1005 and 751 if they could. Eldon negotiated strongly as the maintenance of the line was minimal during the last year of service. He was successful so a trip was set-up for Saturday January 13, 1957. There was nothing overly eventful about the excursion except we all seemed so sad. We knew the end was near, and this truly last trip was never going to be repeated. The one thing I do remember, ever so clearly, was the weather. It was raining very hard with gusts of wind. I actually remember the photo stops because we got so wet. The Meinert photo stop was truly the worst. Meinert was the point that an abandoned branch connected with the main line. There was still a switch and some track in place. Everyone wanted a good view or picture so most of us hiked up a hill that was to the west of the train. The skies then proceeded to burst with a great downpour. Many of us slipped on the hill returning, partially covered with mud, to the train. I also remember that my good friend and fellow railfan, Eric O. Witt, could not make this last trip. He was never to ride the SN under wire.
The Beginning of the End
Christmas vacation 1956 became quite important to me. It provided me with the last days to spend with my personal electric railway. The end was clear. The facilities at 40th and Shafter started to take on a run-down appearance as nothing was being repaired. Over time, things just disappeared like the 661. The New Year of 1957 began, and it was not going to be a good year for the SN.
There was a large building on the southwest corner of 40th and Shafter, just west of the interlocking tower and south of the old shop and storage yard. It was a two-story office building. It had been boarded-up as long as I could remember. It was, however, the old headquarters of the OA&E and later the San Francisco-Sacramento. I presume it held the office of Harry A. Mitchell, longtime key railway official of the SN and predecessors (also, I might add, the Nevada County Narrow-Gauge Railway!). Mr. Mitchell was not only president of the SN, but he also held, for a short time, the presidency of the Western Pacific. I never went through the building, but I had the opportunity to look inside more than once through the door opening onto the old shop and storage yard. One could not see very far as I do not remember any lights ever being on.
It would appear that soon after the Great Merger of the south-end with the north-end, the Sacramento Northern Railway’s Oakland Head Office was closed, and it was moved to the Mills Building in San Francisco. The Mills Building also then housed the headquarters of the WP. When the SN’s Head Office was closed and moved to SF, they apparently did not take the railway’s historical records. For days just before abandonment, Joe and Red hauled papers out of the building and burned them across the street in the freight yard. I rescued, of course, as many papers as a boy could carry away on the bus back home. I, predominately, got SF-S items and only a few OA&E items.
The Arrival of the End
Time kept ticking away. Now it was February of 1957 and only twenty-eight days till the end. A few uneventful days were spent with Joe. I especially remember the rides into Shafter with him on the electrics. He would be soon off to the new terminal of Walnut Creek with the gang. For an eleven year-old boy without a car, Walnut Creek was a long distance away. I knew I would not be seeing him and the gang very often in the future.
The last night of operations of my personal electric railway finally came on February 27, 1957. The freight arrived back in Oakland late that night with a host of railfans watching its arrival for the final time. It was to be a very active night as the SN 62 Birney and Saskatoon Municipal 12 were loaded on flat cars in the passenger yard. I do not remember the SN 1005 or the SL&U 751. I think they already had been moved a few days earlier. There was some difficulty in getting the two streetcars loaded so the evening wore on. I think it was well past eight when the cars were finally placed in the freight yard. The Saskatoon streetcar would be picked-up by the Oakland Terminal the next and last day. The Sacramento Northern Birney 62 was lucky. It was part of the consist of the last electric train over the Oakland Hills the next day, February 28, 1957.
The red railway flairs were out in great quantity that last night of operations. The motors did more switching, and the crew handed them over to Joe Hahn. Joe did his usual servicing for the next and last day of operations. I would not be present for the final freight departure from Oakland as my parents said I had to go to school. Such was the penalty of being that age. I knew I had to miss the final day.
Joe ran the last motor into Shafter Avenue, threw the switch, and brought it back to the storage yard on the northwest corner of the 40th and Shafter main yard. I quietly observed the movement. The pantograph was pulled-down on the last motor, and the electric motor went dark and dead. With that simple activity that I had observed so often, I sadly realized that the end of my personal electric railway had unfortunately arrived.
The final day, February 28, 1957, arrived, and I went off to Piedmont Junior High School disconcerted that I would not ever see that operation again. I looked out from a classroom to see steady rain falling from a gray sky. It seemed even the heavens were sad as the end had truly come. Over the years, I have seen some pictures of the final trip. A clear review of that event also was covered in an article by Jack Ryan published in the March 1, 1957 issue of the Oakland Tribune. A copy is HERE. It is well worth the read.
The last trip I took on the south-end of the SN was from Port Chicago to Walnut Creek and return. This took place on April 12, 1962. It was in anticipation of the abandonment of the line from Walnut Creek to Clyde due to its sale to BART. BAERA did not sponsor the trip, but the old BAERA gang was on-board. It ran with a single 44-ton diesel trying to pull three or four heavyweight cars. More than once, it had difficulty, and we often cruised along at walking pace speed.
The SN local was moved after this date to operate out of Pittsburg instead of Walnut Creek. Thusly, my railway was gradually getting smaller and smaller. First the Oakland-Lafayette portion (and the electric operations!) disappeared on February 28, 1957; then the Lafayette-Walnut Creek section the next year; and then operations were now confined to this little segment between Pittsburg and Clyde. This segment was also soon closed; it was left idle with some track removed. Other portions of the SN south-end line, north of the ferry, were likewise soon abandoned. The SN south-end is now totally gone except for the BAERA Western Railway Museum section. The north-end has had multiple abandonments. The Woodland branch is the only segment still operating. Today, the SN that railfans want to remember is almost totally abandoned.
A Final Reflection
I returned to Rio Vista Junction and the Western Railway Museum, for the first time in almost fifteen years, for member’s day in September 2019. I wanted the opportunity to ride again the 1005 for the first time under wire since 1957. It was a most pleasant ride to Gum Grove, and the 1005 looked and ran just as she had performed in the past.
At the end of the day, I looked down on the museum from the parking lot and reflected. I reminisced on how wonderful the entire day had been and how much had been accomplished at the museum. Rio Vista Junction had become the perfect electric railway museum with an interurban ride worthy of the SN’s historical reputation. The museum had come a long way from that first Saturday night of BAERA’s possession when I slept in the “Service Station.” I thought again about everyone from that Incredible Summer of 1956 and how extremely pleased they all would have felt about the outcome. The Sacramento Northern lives!
I also stood reflecting on a very personal note: the whole Sacramento Northern experience of that magical summer. At the time, I did not realize the magnitude of all this on me. It is now close to sixty-five years later, and I can recall in intimate detail so many events. I do know what individuals mean when they say –it seems only yesterday--. I did not realize at the time how wonderful the 1950s were for a boy growing up in America. Yet this was real to me and formulated, almost as much as the B-Westerns did, a framework of thinking and conducting oneself, perhaps though not perfectly. However, when you failed to live up to social norms, you had guilt and this too was justifiable. This SN summer strongly aided in my character development. I had a close family, good friends, and an interesting hobby with individuals like Eldon Lucy and Eric Witt. It was a time in America when a boy could hang around a railway yard and sit in active motors without anyone getting excited or fearful of a lawsuit. Employees of the SN, especially Joe Hahn, had time for individuals, and we moved at a very different pace. All of those in my circle at that time believed in, and remained quire confident of, the American future; thusly I moved forward confident too of my future while able to remember and value experiences from my boyhood past.
The Men of Character, an Inquisitive Boy, 40th and Shafter, and My Personal Electric Railway remain lasting in memories of this seasoned and lifelong railfan.
This article was enhanced by the excellent editing of Carole Tait Stanley, my wife. I would like to also thank Paul Finnegan for all his help in preparing this article.