Tuesday, August 2, 2005

Railway museum keeps on chuggin'

From the Daily Republic // August 2, 2005

By Barry Eberling

FAIRFIELD - Phil Kohlmetz stood inside the massive shell of the Western Railway Museum's newest construction project and thought about the train car house it will one day become.

That took a little imagination on this recent day. Though the exterior walls on this Wal-Mart-sized structure had for the most part been installed, the roof was nothing but an iron frame, revealing blue sky. Yellow star thistles grew in the hard, sun-baked soil that is the floor.

"Right now, it looks like a big, patch of dirt," said Kohlmetz, the museum's executive director.

He can envision the building finished, with visitors admiring up to 40 vintage electric train cars on display. It will be a lively place, Kohlmetz said.

"I see much more than a big patch of dirt," he said.

The Western Railway Museum is the little engine that could. Founded by the region's train buffs some 40 years ago on Highway 12 between Rio Vista and Suisun City, it keeps expanding.

Volunteers did much of the early construction. During the 1960s, they erected a huge shed constructed from wooden poles and metal siding to create the existing train display house.

This time, the museum is having contractors build a $2 million, 350-foot-long building that will have six tracks running inside it. It will be more sophisticated than a metal shed, with such features as four-inch-thick insulation and a sprinkler system.

"It raises the level of preservation we give to artifacts exponentially," Kohlmetz said.

The museum has raised $1.5 million, including a $310,520 grant it recently received from the state. It needs $536,366 to finish the job. Still, Kohlmetz expects the building to be completed next summer, he hopes without taking out a loan.

I think I can, I think I can, I think I can . . .

Scheduled to go inside the new car shed is the restored Sacramento Northern 1005. Built by the Holman's Co. San Francisco plant in 1912, it once carried passengers on the electric railroad between Oakland and Chico. The museum's parent organization bought it in 1951 for $702.

The museum has restored the redwood, tongue-and-groove exterior. It is restoring the seats, which are a deep, red mohair found only in Europe, Kohlmetz said.

Sacramento Northern 1005 will be a work of art, brought back to life with lots of love and care from museum volunteers. The new building will help keep it in good shape. That four inches of insulation will keep temperatures inside from fluctuating quickly, something that can harm train cars.

"That's really the killer," Kohlmetz said. "It's the contraction and expansion."

Key System Transit Line number 182 will also be featured in the new car barn. It once whisked passengers between Oakland and San Francisco over the Bay Bridge, back in the first half of the 20th century, when interurban electric trains flourished.

Kohlmetz called the Key System the predecessor to BART.

Visitors can sit in the seats, smell that leather-and-vinyl odor and think about the glory years of electric train travel. Everything inside invokes the 1940s and 1950s, right down to the advertisements lining the inside wall.

"Sweep the Communists Out of the Government. Elect Dewey and Warren," a red-white-and-blue ad proclaims.

"RC tastes best," another says, with actress Barbara Stanwyck smiling and holding a glass of Royal Crown Cola.

"Orchids like alcohol. Put your orchid in a highball after wearing it. It will last much longer," advises another.

The train barn will be big enough to hold four of these Key System cars coupled together, just as they were during their working lifetimes.

Another feature of the new car house will be walls that can withstand fire for up to an hour. The museum is located in an area of high winds and hills covered with dry grass. A fast-moving wildfire is a danger.

Construction started last year, with a $600,000 donation from the late Loring C. Jensen providing the seed money. The building will be named for Jensen.

The new building is the largest, most expensive the museum has ever built, Kohlmetz said.

"We take a lot of deep breaths," he said. "The only way I've made it his far is I'm still taking deep breaths."

As the fund-raising effort enters its final phase, the museum has an endorsement from the Solano County Board of Supervisors. Supervisors on May 3 passed a resolution stating the new car house will preserve artifacts representing "a significant 20th century event that had profound effects on California's economy, culture and development."

"The Western Railway Museum is worthy of support from private and public sources," the resolution said.

As it has in the past, the museum is moving forward with an ambitious project.

I know I can, I know I can . . .

Reach Barry Eberling at 425-4646 Ext. 232 or at beberling@dailyrepublic.net.

A Western Railway Museum History
1946: A group of train fans save an old Oakland street car that is to be scrapped. They form the Bay Area Electric Railway Association.
1960: The association buys 22 acres at Rio Vista Junction as the site for the Western Railway Museum.
1965: Some Fairfield residents are surprised to see trains running on abandoned tracks. It is a museum train excursion.
1967-68: Museum builds its first car house.
1975: Museum builds a shop where it can repair and renovate trains.
1981: Museum builds a second car house.
1993: Museum secures a 22-mile segment of the former Sacramento Northern Railway line.
2001: Visitors center opens.
2003: Museum hires full-time director.
2004: Museum board approves building the Loring C. Jensen Memorial Car House.

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