Niles Canyon Railway is one more organization that has suspended activities due to COVID-19, and it saddens me to think there are no clackity old trains chugging from Sunol to Niles through the beautiful ravine.
But plenty is happening behind the scenes. After all, brush must be cut from the tracks and the equipment does require maintenance, whether the trains run or not. Also, the Pacific Locomotive Association, which operates the railway, is in the midst of acquiring and restoring Southern Pacific locomotive No. 1744, a five-year project that will total about $500,000.
Normally volunteers raise money with their Sunday train rides, special events and gift shop sales. But of course this funding is halted, so the group is soliciting donations for the $30,000 needed to move the two final pieces of the locomotive.
The Sunol-Niles excursion, a true museum in motion, has about 45,000 riders each year who come from around the Bay Area and, indeed, all over the world to partake. "Train of Lights" trips during the holiday are especially popular.
It has been almost 10 years since I made the train ride, but I well remember buying tickets at the old Sunol depot then climbing aboard, helped by volunteers in vintage dress. The scenery was lovely, and I enjoyed the chatter of the train-enthusiast travelers as we were pulled along the old Southern Pacific tracks to Niles by a diesel engine then back with a steam engine.
Last week I called association president Henry Baum to get the details of the new fundraising endeavor. Henry, as all train aficionados in my experience, was full of enthusiasm for everything railroad. He explained the purchase of SP No. 1744, a big undertaking since it is in Colorado and had been disassembled for repair. The pieces are gradually being shipped to California.
An expert in Colorado will reassemble the boiler, making replacements for parts that are in bad shape, which will take three to four years. The undercarriage also remains in Colorado. But the tender and cab are in the Pacific Locomotive Association's Brightside maintenance yard off Niles Canyon Road, where containers also store loose parts needed to eventually reassemble the locomotive.
"It's quite a bargain because it is in pieces," Henry explained. "Typically a locomotive that needs to be restored, when it's all in one piece, will run you half a million dollars. Here, it's also going to cost us half a million dollars -- but spread out over five years."
Find information about the organization, the history of trains locally, and making donations at www.ncry.org.
Henry said mostly the equipment they purchase -- which includes 20 locomotives -- is bought at scrape value. They also have passenger, freight and maintenance cars, as well as eight cabooses. I have loved the red cabooses since I was a child in the '50s watching trains pass through my uncle's orchards in San Jose.
I asked Henry if he loved trains as a little boy and the answer was an unequivocal "No!" He said he hated trains growing up in Chicago where they were ubiquitous. Nonetheless, his dad continually made him gifts of Lionel trains, then set them up in the basement for his own enjoyment.
But when Henry moved to Livermore a few decades ago, he commuted to work through Niles Canyon and fell in love with it. He eventually checked out Niles Canyon Railway, turned in a volunteer application, and went one Saturday to help out. He was assigned to the track crew -- and was hooked.
"The people were great," he recalled. "I didn't know anything about building a track, but the group will teach you everything to do the job right and safely."
He also ended up taking the ACE train to Silicon Valley for 20 years before retiring.
Henry is on a crew working to lay track from Sunol to Pleasanton, and the crew is nearing the bridge at Happy Valley Road. He estimates they are about three years away from reaching Valley Avenue, behind Richert Lumber, although the ultimate goal is Bernal.
Before that, check out the Sunol-Niles train ride when it starts up again. And for now, you might consider a drive through Niles Canyon in your car for a scenic getaway.
Editor's note: Dolores Fox Ciardelli is Tri-Valley Life editor for the Pleasanton Weekly. Her column, "Valley Views," appears in the paper on the second and fourth Fridays of the month.