The Ties That Bind : Little ‘Railroad That Can’ Maintains Glory of Ribbon of Steel’s Golden Age

Times Staff Writer

Goes right after the byline. CAMPO--It’s a journey into the past, to the days when iron horses chugged across the prairies, scaring Indians and stampeding buffalo. It’s also a nostalgia trip that lures grandparents with grandchildren in tow, bringing the youngsters to experience “the way things were when we were your age.”

It’s the Golden State Limited on the San Diego & Arizona Eastern Railway, running from the Pacific Southwest Railway Museum in Campo through chaparral thickets and narrow rocky gorges, past the Brown Dog flag stop to Miller Creek, and back again, a distance of 14.8 miles round trip.

“We just wanted the grandchildren to see what it was like when we were young, before the days of jet airplanes,” explained Nancy Heil of El Centro. Her husband, Norman, an apprentice brakeman on the make-believe railroad line, came along for the ride and to answer the dozens of questions posed by grandchildren Leanne and David Dear of Yucaipa. The kids were favorably impressed with the sentimental journey but made it clear that this railroad ride does not hold the thrills that Disneyland does.

The Golden State, or the Campo Creeper as Nancy Heil irreligiously nicknamed it, was created by a bunch of railroad buffs, some of them ex-railroaders themselves, who drive out to Campo in south-central San Diego County on weekends to play with their man-sized toys. From the rolling stock they have accumulated over the past decade or so, they have restored a 1950s diesel engine and some 1920s passenger cars, including a once-plush “sleeper car” with seats that recline and dressing rooms for the overnight passengers, an observation car with one of those rounded back platforms favored by presidential candidates during the 1920s, ‘30s and ‘40s for whistle-stop campaign speeches, a parlor car and a dining car.


The museum added the hour-and-a-half train trip to their repertoire in January, and it has played to sizable weekend crowds since. Volunteer crews are assembled from members with past railroading experience or trained at classes held by the Pacific Southwest Railway Museum Assn. Everyone has to pass federal standards tests and supply his own authentic railroad garb. Even so, to railroad junkies, it is the ultimate high--getting to run your own railroad.

George Heflin IV, at 15, is an experienced veteran on the Short Line, able to substitute in half a dozen capacities, sometimes doing several at the same time. From the elder trainmen, Heflin has earned sincere respect.

“George talks a lot older than he looks,” one grizzled railroader commented. “And, there’s hardly anything he can’t do better’n most of us.”

“It’s in my genes,” explained George, a sophomore at Granite Hills High School. “My great-grandfather was a conductor on an interurban.” George graduated from a hobby in model railroading to the Campo crowd and promptly decided he had found his niche in life. After college, he hopes to go into railroading as a career, probably as an executive.


Three trips a day, at 11 a.m., 1 p.m. and 3 p.m., give the crews and apprentices plenty of hands-on experience and a store of tales to share back at the bunkhouse built to house crews for the weekend. Engineers, firemen, brakemen, conductors, porters, agents, maintenance crews and a smattering of other specialists are schooled in creating as realistic a picture of old-style railroad passenger service as possible.

One iron-fast rule: Wave at everybody. It’s the best public relations (and the cheapest) that a railroad can have.

Heflin sings out the string of mythical stations along the Short Line--"Campo, Campo Junction, Barrett, Brown Dog, Black Dog, Clover Flats and Miller Creek"--in authentic railroad garble before each trip. Most of the places exist, he explained, but Brown Dog crossing was named for a friendly hound that greeted the track maintenance crews, and Black Dog memorializes a black mutt that rushed out and nipped at the track crews’ heels.

At Miller Creek, as far as the Railway Museum Assn. is permitted to run its trains, the brakemen and switchmen spring into action to move the engine to the rear of the train for the return journey, and Heflin, doubling as narrator, continues his spiel of the history of the railroad (“John D. Spreckels himself drove the golden spike” in 1919 after a 13-year struggle to build this direct rail route from San Diego to the East), the checkered history of the rolling stock (“This car was in such sad shape that no one else would bid on it, but we did”) and the countryside, which looks much the same as it did in the halcyon days of railroading.

There used to be mountain lions along the route, Heflin said, but they have moved away from civilization. There still are deer and other wild animals to be seen from the train windows.

In the summer, Heflin’s tasks often include serving cooling soft drinks to the passengers when the temperature pushes the 100-degree mark, and he’s also had experience in persuading cattle to move off the track--an irritating bovine habit that has destroyed the Short Line’s on-time record time and again.

Every member of the volunteer crew has a story to tell from his experiences with the weekend railroad.

A brakeman recalls the painful encounter with yellow jackets that had appropriated a trackside shack where the train register was kept. After that, the register was hung on a barbed-wire fence until the wasps moved on.


An engineer recounted an encounter with a dump truck that “came so close (at a crossing) you couldn’t have gotten a piece of paper in between the truck and the engine,” and a fireman topped that tale with one about a close shave involving a motorcycle gang who ignored the railroad crossing warnings.

As he punched the authentic-looking tickets, Conductor Rene Scheuerman reminisced that his mother had been a “Harvey girl"--waitress in Harvey restaurants at railroad stations in Kansas City, Mo., and Dearborn Street in Chicago.

Passengers chimed in with memories of the “good old days” including an elopement by rail to Denver, listening to 1940s presidential candidate Wendell Wilke preach about “one world” from the rear platform of a flag-draped train, waving at the engineer and having the engineer wave back and being lifted up by your dad so you could drop a letter in the slot on the side of a mail car.

Then there’s the evening’s occupation in a small desert community: going down to the station and watching the 8 o’clock Imperial go through, and, one memory everyone over 40 recalled: listening to the lonely sound of a locomotive’s wail late at night.

The journey from Campo to Miller Creek may be only 7.4 miles long but the memories that the train trip recalls span many a lifetime.