There's a certain amount of glamour about most of the real railrod operations - particularly if you don't have to shovel the coal that keeps a steam locomotive going - but one railroad; the Sierra, in the foothills of California's Sierra Nevada mountains has had more than its share of glamour. From the average man's viewpoint the fact that the railroad was the two-railed star of such motion pictures as "High Noon," "Duel In The Sun," and "Union Pacific" as well as dozens of television specials including every episode of "Petticoat Junction" is enough to make it interesting. The model railroader, in search of a prototype for his relatively short trains and excess of locomotives in relation to cars finds the Sierra interesting too. The line's steep grades and tight curves kept most trains down to less than twenty cars. Trains of only two or three cars and a caboose were common during the railroad's busiest years of operation. The line reached from the rolling farmlands at the base of the gold rush country right into the mountains. When the terrain became too tough for the standard gauge operation the most famous of the three-foot gauge railroads; the West Side Lumber Co., took over to reach well back into the timber. Even the railroad's rolling stock had a unique fascination all its own. The Sierra is one of those too rare shortline operations that serve as perfect prototypes for most model railroads.
The Sierra was established in 1897 to haul the gold ore shipments from the fringes of the Mother Lode country, cattle, and lumber out of the mountains and down to the Salinas Valley connection with the mainline Santa Fe and Southern Pacific railroads at Oakdale. This connection with two of the West's largest lines is yet another reason why the Sierra makes such a fascinating prototype for a model railroad. Few short lines connected with more than one railroad let lone two with such diverse equipment styles as the AT&SF and SP. The SP's passenger equipment, from the pre-streamlined days of heavy steel and dark green paint, was the only "modern" passenger equipment to find its way onto the Sierra. The Sierra climbs from Oakdale's 155-foot elevation to 1405 at Jamestown, 1796 at Sonora, and 2690 at Tuolumne in 57 rail miles.
The railroad has owned a total of 25 locomotives in spite of the highest and latest number plate being 44. Twenty-two of these were steamers purchased over the railroad's peak operating years prior to 1930. One of the railroad's original locomotives; number three 4-6-0, is still in operating condition and is, in fact, the star of most of the movies and the Petticoat Junction TV series. A twenty-mile branch line was built by 1903 to reach the mines near the town of Angels. The Pickering Lumber Company Railroad connected with the Sierra at Ralph and the famed West Side Lumber Company Railroad interchanged loads of lumber and logs at Tuolumne. Many of the tourists that visited Yosemite National Park just north of the Sierra) prior to the completion of the Yosemite Valley Railroad in 1907 (and, later, the influx of better roads and cars) traveled over the Sierra on the line's six daily passenger trains. The passenger service dwindled to one mainline train a day and a one or two car service to Angels until 1938 when all regularly scheduled passenger service was dropped. Like so many gold-hauling railroads, the Sierra's heyday peaked just before depression years when the price of gold dropped along with the bulk of the readily accessible ore deposits. The railroad purchased its last steam locomotive; a relatively giant 2-6-6-2 articulated, from the Weyerhaeuser Lumber Company in 1952 as a final effort to continue operations as a steam-powered hauler.
A pair of Baldwin 1200 horsepower model S-12 diesels (considered only as switchers by most railroads) supplanted regularly scheduled steam operations in 1955. A third and nearly identical Baldwin was purchased in 1966 when the steam locomotives still in the Jamestown roundhouse were earmarked exclusively for movie or fan trip service. There are still five of the original Sierra steamers sitting inside waiting for the hopefully soon day when the line will be used as a steam-powered tourist line like the East Broadtop, Edaville, and the Strasburg railroads of the east. There is only enough business, in 1971, to keep one of the diesels in operation pulling the once-a-day freight up from Oakdale in the morning and back from Tuolumne that afternoon.
The Sierra owned at least one example of all of the popular small steam locomotive wheel arrangements; two 0-6-0's, four 4-4-0's, the famous No. 3 4-6-0, a 2-6-0, five 2-8-0's, two 2-6-2's, two 2-8-2's, and a final 2-6-6-2 articulated. If this variety is not enough the Sierra had a Heisler-pattern and three Shay-style geared logging type locomotives. PFM offers an exact duplicate of the 2-6-6-2 and reasonably close models of a 4-4-0, 0-6-0, 2-6-2, and a pair of 2-8-0's that could easily be modified to match the Sierra's engines numbered 4, 6, 7; 2 ; 30, 32; and 24. PFM also offered reasonably similar models of a Heisler, a two-truck, and a three-truck Shay that could serve as ready-to-run replicas of Sierra engines in HO scale. NorthWest Short Line has an HO scale ready-to-run brass 2-8-2 that is very similar to the Sierra's number 34. Tyco has a plastic kit and ready-to-run model of the Sierra's movie star steamer; the number three 4-6-0 that is fine for HO scale track. Unfortunately, the model is a good 20 percent oversize in virtually every dimension except track gauge. It is, however, a close copy of the style and proportions of number 3. N and HO scale modelers will have to settle for scratchbuilding their Sierra engines or simply numbering and lettering similar wheel arrangement locomotives to match Sierra power.
The rolling stock and structures of the Sierra are as interesting, to the modeler, as the line's locomotives. All of the railroad's passenger equipment was of the older wooden type with open platforms. Several coaches and a three-door baggage-mail car; all of about 60-feet in length, were known to operate under the Sierra name. The most unusual cars were a baggage-coach and a coach that were only about 40-feet long. MDC has plastic kits of a pair of cars that are similar (although not identical) to the Sierra "shorties" and Selley has the combine in cast metal for you HO scale modelers. Northeastern, Westwood, or LaBelle HO scale kits can be converted to exact replicas of almost any of the Sierra's wooden passenger equipment. A number of both wood and steel Southern Pacific passenger cars were also operated over the line. The railroad used at least one combination caboose baggage-coach car instead of a standard caboose. The current cabooses are also wood but their sides have been sheathed in steel to ease maintenance. The structures on the Sierra are fascinating examples of railroad architecture with many of the buildings having unusual Chinese-style upturned roof eaves.
Most of the buildings have been burned or razed over the years but the entire roundhouse and shop facility, dating to about 1907, still stands at Jamestown along with the freight station and passenger station. The turntable at Jamestown was originally a wooden Gallows frame unit but it was replaced with a deeper pit and a longer steel turntable some time after 1916. The roundhouse was enlarged from its original four stalls to its present six stalls about the same time. There was also a Gallows frame turntable at Tuolumne and another at Angels. A corrugated iron two-stall engine house now services and stores the three diesels at Oakdale. The passengers used the Oakdale Santa Fe wooden station. Several sawmills occupied the upper reaches of the railroad along with the interchange cranes and platforms to transfer the lumber to the Sierra's cars. There was little freight interchange with the narrow guage West Side Lumber Company Railroad since the three-foot gauge line was used primarily for hauling in uncut logs. The low rolling hills with their peppering of oaks and pines and the rock cuts would make scenery-modeling easy and effective. Most of the bridges were wooden trestles of the type offered in HO scale by Campbell and in N scale by Cal Scale. A steel deck truss brige was used, with trestles on each end, to carry the branchline across the S tanislaus River to Angels. Photos of many of the line's locomotives and structures appear in the $6.00 book SIERRA RAILROAD available through your dealer or by mail from Howell-North., 1050 Parker St., Dept. MR, Berkeley, Calif. 94710.
Kratville Publications, 525 Farnam Blvd., Room MR, Omaha, Nebraska, 68102, has an illustrated $14.50 book RAILS TO THE MOTHER LODE that devotes a portion of its pages to the Sierra along with photos and information on the West Side, Pickering, and Hetch Hetchy lines that fed the railroad.
Hallmark Models HO brass ready-to-run VO-1000 Baldwin switcher is a reasonably close replica of the VS-12 machines that the Sierra is now using. Some of the better hobby dalers may still have one or two of the Hallmark engines in stock.
We can't think of a better full-size short line to recommend as a prototype for a model railroad.