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Night Crawler 

Wednesday, May 26 1999
When just a wee, bitty miscreant, I began craving a more southerly climate, one where women wrapped their limbs in little more than sun-bleached down, and men sported threadbare tank tops and racketeer shades from dawn until dusk, and sunsets were captured in sweating daiquiri glasses with little umbrellas on the side. It was, and still is, my supposition that warmth confers a sense of wealth and well-being in even the most nauseating of characters, so I set my callow sights on Los Angeles, where John Fante and Charles Bukowski had ambled between movie stars and chicken hawks, spilling fortified wine and vitriol on their sweat-streaked undershirts.

My quixotic notion could not be realized by hitchhiking (two hours trapped in a slow-moving car with a talkative, putrid-breathed, ex-merchant marine with chaw hanging off his lip made the price of a free ride too high); train hopping -- a cheap, nearly solitary conveyance for over 100 years' worth of aimless wanderers and drunken castaways -- seemed the only appropriate choice. So I waited for nightfall to catch out of Stockton, heading south. Other than a misadventure with that first boxcar (which was switched sometime in the night), a permanently stiff neck, and a less than stiff bottle of Mad Dog 20/20, the journey was uneventful: The boxcars were not strewn with hobos and migrant workers; the air smelt only slightly sweeter for the star-filled sky and the endless, winding track; I was not crushed by shifting cargo containers or robbed by desperate vagabonds; the clanking and rattling of the stack cars did not become cradlesong; no one offered me beans from the can.

But I did learn a few things, some from trial and error, and some from a chortling switchman with a ceaseless wink: Always choose boxcars with doors that will slide open, rather than closed, with a sudden stop; in pleasant weather, there's nothing finer than a piggyback car with a truck trailer or a gondola empty of scrap metal; only container cars with ribbing have floors; loaded lumber racks are never an acceptable ride under any circumstances; bulls (yard security) drive white trucks; "hotshots" have priority over all other trains; and, in foul weather, you can jump in the last unit of a string of engines and hide in the bathroom until it gets rolling. I also learned that every station has its share of rail fans -- folks so obsessed with trains that when they are not repairing them, riding them, or building models of them in their back yards, they sit near the tracks and just watch them go by.

"Some people like fishing," said Big Pete, a white-haired rail fan who gave me a half-pack of cigarettes and a Miller High Life even though most rail fans detest rail hoppers. "Fishermen don't necessarily like fishing for catching fish, they like fishing for sitting and thinking. The fish is a bonus if it's a good one. Every train is a good one. I've been watching them since I was a boy, working on them since before I was grown." In the time we had, Big Pete explained the brake system and craftsmanship that went into the great club cars, the etiquette of porters, and the price of meals when he was a conductor; he made me look at trains as history and art, rather than folklore and cheap transportation.

The next time I traveled to Los Angeles by train, it was in a sleeper car on a passenger train. Even with soused bridge players and an ungainly magician aboard, it was difficult not to imagine Myrna Loy and William Powell sipping cocktails while they barreled through the night.

Both sides of the tracks are occupied with their share of fancy. Trains are fanciful machines.

It's not so surprising, then, that there are thousands of railroaders in the Bay Area -- retired and working engineers, mechanics, conductors, and ticket takers, avid hobbyists, rail hoppers, and simple admirers. There are over 400 members in the Bay Area Garden Railway Society alone.

For the most part, the BAGRS dedicate their time to building model trains. Besides their personal sets -- some of which are too large to be stored inside -- there is a collective G-gauge modular railroad, to which everyone contributes a section. At exhibitions, such as the Dunsmuir Historic Estate's celebration of Edwardian transportation, the shape of the track and number of trains depends on which BAGRS show up.

"Some people say our sense of humor is warped," says Jim Stephens, a retired machinist who guides me through the meticulous detail along the short line: hillbillies who tap their feet to banjo music, bears rifling through garbage cans, barbecues and cigarettes that smoke, waterfalls, steam, blinking crossroads, a monitor with a train's-eye view, bathtubs filled with goldfish, and tunnels where locomotives disappear. "We're not warped, we're just whimsical." Other railroaders -- for instance, Gary Whaley in his engineer's cap, overalls, and triumphantly shaped beard -- disagree: " 'Warped' 's as good a word as any."

The rolling green hills and gardens of Dunsmuir Estate are flooded with wealthy sunlight. In the meadow, the Bay Area Costumers' Guild picnics and plays croquet while the Eclectics perform period string-band tunes. Jerry Grulkey tools around the mansion on his 60-inch-high bike from 1885 and his velocipede from 1866. The Bay Area Horseless Carriage Club displays four twinkling autos, but the crowds gather near the south pond where train whistles send the ducks scrambling for cover.

"People are drawn to trains. There are kids, and adults too, who just follow the trains around the track, again and again and again, until someone pulls them away," laughs Stephens. "We'll be setting up a much larger track at Roaring Camp for Father's Day, along with the steam engine." Many BAGRS don't confine themselves to models; they also volunteer their time repairing real trains at the Golden Gate Railroad Museum in the Hunters Point shipyard, where retired trains are purchased and lovingly restored.

Bart Phelps and his 15-year-old son Matt have been volunteering at the museum since 1991 when the SP 2472 steam locomotive was finally restored after nearly 16 years of painstaking effort. At 6 foot, 3 inches, Matt looks completely at ease operating the diesel locomotive SP 3194 and a large mechanical cart that long ago replaced the laborious hand-pump variety.

"Railroading's kind of in his blood," says Bart around a white beard and a small puff of pipe smoke that can't hide his pride. "There's railroad people on both sides of his family, going back to the first one built in the United States." Bart, himself a lifelong railroad employee, says his two older sons do not share his youngest's passion. "But Matt took to the freight yards when he was just 3. He drove his first locomotive down the peninsula when he was 6. He can operate a bucket loader, and backhoe, and a bulldozer. I just hope he gets some college in before he decides to take up a railroad career."

In the refurbished 2979 art deco club lounge car, a dapper gentleman in a conductor's hat stands behind a circular bar surrounded by etched glass and mirrors. He serves Coca-Colas and spills a lifetime of iron road stories on the few grateful visitors. Another one of the 500 expert volunteers occasionally passes through with two or three casual supporters, explaining the ins and outs of luxury rail travel in the 1940s. As charming as the tour of the restored car can be, the museum is more of a workshop than a gallery. Volunteers spend most of their time up to their elbows in grease and rust, and they seem to mind not a bit. They're railroaders; they want trains, not relics.

"You get out here, you get dirty, you learn a few things, and hopefully you get the steam engine running. That's why we're out here," says volunteer treasurer David Bell. "Sometimes there's octogenarians out here working harder than I am. There's always a great body of knowledge to draw from -- engineers, electricians, teachers, all out here working on track. It's not glamorous work, but it's got to be done. We all love the trains. We're like kids, you know."

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By Silke Tudor

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Silke Tudor


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