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Getting on track in Portola.

NERVOUS AND excited, the young engineer pulls the brass handle of the reverser out of neutral and begins slowly backing the long black locomotive out of the switchyard. Two short blasts on the horn, then a nudge to the throttle, and the 660-horse diesel revs up, sending a low rumbling through the cab of the ALCO S-1 Switcher as steel wheels roll over steel rails.

"You're clear, Kate," says engineer Bruce Cooper as the 100-ton locomotive rumbles over a siding switch. "Take us up to 10 miles per hour and hold it steady through the curve." The engineer, a petite 12-year-old, checks the gauges and then opens the throttle, sending Western Pacific engine number 512 surging down the track.

Engineer Cooper, who also happens to be vice president of the Feather River Rail Society's Portola Railroad Museum, smiles as the locomotive rolls past a stand of Sierra pines at a steady 10 miles per hour. "You,re a natural hoghead, Kate," he shouts over the thrumming of the diesel. When she looks puzzled, he adds, "That's the highest compliment a rail roader can give an engineer."

Learning the lingo is only a small part of an innovative program that has made the museum a mecca for railroad buffs--and a growing number of casual visitors. While the museum is a railroader's heaven of retired locomotives amid sidings of aging rolling stock, the real draw is the opportunity to spend an hour or two actually operating a working diesel locomotive.


Sprawling over 37 acres of an old railroad maintenance yard in the small northern Sierra town of Portola, the rail society's operation more closely resembles a weekend hobby that got out of hand than a traditional museum. Looking out over the jumble of Equipment, Cooper sighs with immense satisfaction. "There's nothing like playing with a model railroad when the scale is 12 inches to a foot."

The railroad museum was founded in 1983 to preserve rolling stock and other artifacts from the 72-year-old Western Pacific Railroad (Union Pacific had bought the WP the year before). It has since evolved into one of the world's most extensive collections of diesel locomotives and railroad cars.

Strung along the sidings are 33 locomotives, many still operational, and an assortment of at least 80 boxcars, freight cars, passenger cars, maintenance equipment, and cabooses. Sorted piles of rusting wheels, axles, and springs are stacked between the tracks. On a hot day, the smell of grease and steel and electrical parts rises in the clean mountain air.

Few interpretive signs--and no "do not" signs--interrupt the junkyard splendor of the collection. Unlike most museums, the yard is totally hands-on. Want to walk through the engine compartment of DDA40X Centennial locomotive number 6946? Open the door. Feel like catching a snooze on the conductor's couch in an old 1917 Sacramento Northern wood-sided caboose? Just dust it off. Hang on the cable of a self-propelled crane, or pretend you're a hobo jumping aboard a flatcar.

Don,t miss the 16,000-square-foot diesel shop, where on most summer weekends you can watch volunteers doing restoration work on several locomotives, including the last Western Pacific California Zephyr FP7-A locomotive in existence.


As fascinating as the grounds are, though, for many visitors the biggest attraction is the chance to operate one of the several diesel locomotives available on weekdays year-round (reservations are required). Proceeds from this program have kept the wheels turning at the museum, which charges no admission.

A basic l-hour package ($75) lets you guide one of the switcher engines out onto a mile-long, U-shaped track, experiencing the laws of physics as you try to smoothly accelerate and stop 200,000 pounds of steel. Our family of six all fitted into the cab of an ALCO S-1 Switcher, and everybody had a chance to make at least one round trip.

But die-hard rail fans from around the world come to Portola mainly for the chance to pilot one of the few remaining F7-A locomotives. Operation of the orange-and-silver locomotive, built in 1950, is offered as part of a 2-hour, two-locomotive package ($175).

You don't have to rent an engine, though, just to take a ride. On summer weekends, the entire family can hop aboard a caboose for rides around the track; cost is $2 per adult or $5 per family for as many rides as you want. You can also take part in two days of special events during the museum's annual Railroad Days celebration, August 21 and 22.


Portola is 47 miles north west of Reno on State High way 70. From Truckee, just north of Lake Tahoe, take State 89 north 48 miles to State 70, then head east 10 miles to Portola.

The museum is open 10 to 5 daily in summer and 10 to 4 the rest of the year. For locomotive rental information or reservations, call Bruce Cooper at (916) 832-4131, or write to the Feather River Rail Society, Box 608, Portola, Calif. 96122.
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Title Annotation:Portola, California
Author:Phillips, Jeff
Date:Aug 1, 1993
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