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December 6-12, 2006

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Vasona Junction

Courtesy Eddie Smith/Arcadia Publishing
Rail Hail: The Peerless Stage waits on the SP 170 at Vasona Junction.

Train Town

A new book chronicles the history of railroading—full-size and miniature—in Los Gatos

By Michael S. Gant

COMMUTING has changed. In a delightful photograph from the new book Railroads of Los Gatos, the Los Gatos Commuter's Club hosts its 1941 Christmas party aboard the Friday train from San Francisco. Holly boughs deck the railcar while Santa hands out, according to a 1939 poster for the event, "a present for each and every one." Despite the looming war, the Dec. 22 event attracted a festive crowd, judging from the balloons and party hats. Just try that on Caltrain—Santa would probably get run over at an unguarded crossing.

Railroads of Los Gatos, by Los Gatos steam-engine enthusiast Edward Kelley, with help from Los Gatos library director Peggy Conaway, parses some 200 historical photographs of railroad and trolley activity in the town. The book is part of the extensive series of local history books put out by Arcadia Publishing, which recently issued volumes about Mountain View and Alviso.

The story begins in the 1870s, when mining magnate James "Slippery Jim" Fair and banker Alfred "Hog" Davis wanted to lay rails from San Francisco to Santa Cruz. Back then, Santa Cruz boasted, according to the book, "the third busiest" seaport in California, not to mention major timber operations and tanneries. Slippery Jim and Hog created the South Pacific Coast Railroad in 1876 using narrow-gauge track (about a foot and a half narrower than the so-called standard gauge that most trains run on). The line reached Los Gatos in 1877 and pushed on through the Santa Cruz Mountain communities of Glenwood, Laurel and Wrights Station before reaching the coast.

A decade after its founding, Fair sold South Pacific Coast to the Southern Pacific, which switched the track to standard gauge and regularly ran steam engines from the bay to the mountains until 1957. Most of the book's treasure trove of period photographs concentrates on those big, beautiful steam-churning giants with their distinctive silver boiler doors leading the way.

Real rail buffs—the kind who memorize individual engine numbers—will appreciate the 1956 shot of the last Mikado loco in the SP empire, running freight into Los Gatos. A photo taken at Vasona Junction shows the SF-Los Gatos commuter, with a full head of steam rising from its stack, aiming almost straight at the viewer; to the side sits a Peerless Stage bus—two icons of rapid transit lost. A 1909 high-angle view, taken at some ceremony for Civil War vets, takes in a wide swath of downtown, including the Rankin Block and the Opera House. As customary for the times, one and all—men, women and children—are wearing hats.

Los Gatos' steam era wasn't just about the big engines. The book also tells the story of local railroader Billy Jones, who rescued a miniature steam engine known as the 2-Spot. This loco, about one-third the size of the real thing, began as a tourist line in Venice, Calif., before being consigned to a scrap yard, where Jones stumbled across it in 1939. After restoring the engine, Jones piloted it around his orchard, giving rides to several generations of grateful children. The Wildcat Railroad, as it was called, drew visitors from far away, including Uncle Walt himself, who modeled his Disneyland train on the 2-Spot.

Like a real railroad, the Wildcat suffered derailments. In a 1956 photo, bystanders inspect a caboose after its tumble down an embankment. Another shot is so redolent of the valley's greener past that it hurts—the 2-Spot chugs through a stand of blooming fruit trees, with Mt. Umunhum in the distance. After Jones' death, in 1968, volunteers moved the miniature railroad to Oak Meadow and Vasona parks, where it runs on weekends from March to October. But luckily, you don't have to wait four months to take a ride. The Fantasy of Lights train runs Thursday-Sunday, 6-9pm, Dec. 7- Dec. 20, if the weather cooperates.

Railroads of Los Gatos, part of the Images of Rail series, by Edward Kelley with Peggy Conaway; Arcadia Publishing, 128 pages; $19.95 paper. The authors appear on Thursday (Dec. 7) at 7pm at the Los Gatos Council Chambers, 110 E. Main St., Los Gatos.

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