Rail Museum Gets Up Steam : Visitors Will Soon Be Offered Rides on Trains

Times Staff Writer

Norm Hill is a caboose man. It has cost him two wives but his buddies say he sacrificed them without a qualm.

The Orange County resident spends most of his weekends painstakingly restoring vintage cabooses, right down to the coal scuttle, the polished oak toilet seat and the Clabber Girl baking powder can in the pantry.

Right now, Hill's heart's desire is a 1946 Betty Grable calendar. The pinup pose. The one with Betty looking over her shoulder and showing off her cute caboose. He needs it to add the last perfect touch to old Atchison Topeka & Santa Fe No. 1413. His second choice is an old newspaper announcing the Aug. 6, 1945, dropping of an atomic bomb on Hiroshima--something to add that last authentic touch to the mid-40s caboose.

Larry Rose, a La Mesa architect, is into steam engines like No. 11, a 1929 100-ton behemoth that was delivered new that year to the Coos Bay Lumber Co. in Powers, Ore. Now, old No. 11 is in line to pull the first excursion train to leave Campo for Clover Flat, a maiden journey of seven miles on the San Diego & Imperial Valley Railroad.

Rose had some long-distance help in bringing No. 11 back to top operating condition. The original engineer and fireman are still living in Powers and are glad to discuss No. 11's idiosyncrasies with the volunteers restoring her.

Rose' wife, Tanya, made the realistic choice to join her railroad buff husband in his time-consuming hobby, but his architectural firm superiors were less perceptive. As overtime hours began to eat into his weekends, Rose informed the firm that they must leave him alone on weekends or he'd quit. Rose got his way.

Jim Lundquist, a San Diego Trolley operator, joins the Campo crew most weekends, taking the perfect "busman's holiday" by spending his off hours playing with trains, big trains. And, when he's not at the controls of an iron horse or a streetcar, he's in a San Diego High School classroom along with about 60 other railroad buffs, learning the basics of running a railroad.

What keeps these men, and about 250 others, away from home, off the golf course and far from a TV set during weekends is the Pacific Southwest Railway Museum in Campo with its eight steam engines, five diesel engines and about 35 other pieces of rolling stock.

Some come to sweat and groan over an oily gear or balky wheel. Some come for the shop talk and camaraderie that goes with the adult hobby. None of them come for the climate which often fluctuates from the 80s to the 30s during a 24-hour period in this border town in south-central San Diego County.

The four-year history of the Campo railway museum is one of begging, scrounging and sometimes buying railroad stock from wherever it exists, then running it out to the railway sidings in a Campo meadow or moving it into the Campo "shops," a cavernous building built by German and Italian prisoners of war in the '40s and once the Mountain Empire High School gymnasium. Rose has his favorites. There's John D. Spreckels' personal railroad car which the PSRMA rescued from a 27-year stop at the Del Mar Fairgrounds and discovered, under a coating of bilious green paint, delicate inlaid wood paneling and colorful stained glass windows. And, two decrepit 19th Century wooden passenger cars from the back lot of 20th Century-Fox--victims of one too many Civil War skirmishes. Or the narrow-gauge coal-burner, Coahuila y Zacatecas No. 1, from a mine in central Mexico which ended up as a decorative conversation piece in Pasadena.

Although the PSRMA has more than 1,350 dues-paying members and operates rail excursions all over the world--Europe, South America, Canada, Mexico and, next year, Africa--this seven-mile excursion from Campo to Clover Flat means a lot, Rose said. It's the first chance the local group has had to show off its own equipment on its home turf with its own members as crew.

The last major hurdle--a $10-million liability insurance policy--has been vaulted and the paint is dry on the refurbished cars. The tracks have been hand weeded (courtesy of county honor camp inmates) and sprayed with weed retardant (courtesy Dow Chemical Co.) Now only the paper work, bane of all railroad buffs, remains, Rose said.

On or before the Fourth of July, the Campo regulars will invite the outside world in take a look at their treasures and take a nostalgic trip back in time on an old steam engine-driven train poking along the rusted rails. Tickets for the hour's ride will be about $7 for adults, less for kids, Rose estimated.

None of the museum's extra special pieces will make the journey, only "people-proof" cars and sturdy engines, he said. But the rest of the museum's wares will be on display and the buffs will be around to spin tales and conduct tours for the uninitiated.

"This is what a museum should be like," Rose explained. "It should be a living, moving thing, not something to look at behind glass. Not a dead place."

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