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Riding levees on the Yuma Valley Railroad.

Riding levees on the Yuma Valley Railroad

"Boooaaaarrd!' hollers the man in the blue wool suit. His call is followed by a long, tinny hooooot and a clackety-clack, as wheels of an enormous passenger-parlor car begin to roll along behind an incongruously small engine that looks as if it thinks it can. And it does.

This is the Yuma Valley Railroad, beginning another of its 2-hour adventures into the Yuma Valley countryside. The West's newest historic short-line railroad (it began service in 1986) has an improbable route: a round trip of 25 miles, starting near Yuma and running along the Arizona-Mexico border on the Colorado River's east bank.

You might worry that the trip could get boring; it doesn't. Built in the early 1900s by the Bureau of Reclamation, the track perches on a levee, giving passengers vistas of rural scenes on both sides of the border. On the Arizona side are miles of lettuce, melon, and cauliflower fields with rows so straight lasers must have guided their making. Here and there are remnants of old packing sheds--plus the ruins of a town called Gadsden, where the train reverses direction.

Across the river on the Mexico side, nature mostly has its own way. Birds seem to favor both sides equally: the air billows with snowy white egrets, great blue herons, and dozens of sea birds from the nearby Gulf of California.

Part of the trip is through land of the Cocopahs--one of five Indian tribes living along the lower Colorado when the Spanish first arrived in 1540. At one place where passengers get a chance to stretch, the Cocopahs have built reed shelters like those they lived in before the government provided more ordinary housing (this you also see). Occasionally, some Indians offer to sell passengers fry bread as well as beaded and woven handicrafts.

Refurbished stock, volunteer helpers

The line is the brainchild of railroad buff Craig Marks, and its rolling stock was refurbished and is now operated by volunteers. Train departures vary with the month: November through April, trips begin at 10 and 1, with a dinner run (reservations needed) at 6 Thursdays through Sundays. May through July and September 15 through October, trips begin at 10 and 6 (reservations needed) Saturdays and Sundays. July through September 14, one ride only leaves at 6:30 on the first and third Saturdays of the month.

Self-taught historians regale you with information about the area, while other volunteers in calico, overalls, and other suitable attire sell snacks and tickets ($10 dinner run, $8 adults, $5 ages 13 to 18, $4 ages 4 to 12, $7 ages 55 and older).

Many of these volunteers helped buff up, paint, and reupholster the 1922 Pullman coach. A steam locomotive may be on line soon to pull it. Until then, the 1941 diesel pictured above will be in service. By January, a dining car may begin serving meals on all runs (reservations advised). Six miles of track into Yuma are being rehabilitated and may extend the route sometime this year.

For directions to where this month's rides will begin (probably Eighth Street and the Colorado River), call (602) 783-7288, or write to Yuma County Live Steamers Association, Box 10305, Yuma 85364. (You can also ask about membership.)

Photo: Eighty-passenger 1922 Pullman coach, pulled by 1941 diesel, makes levee-top run along Colorado River near Yuma, Arizona

Photo: Conductor in 1920s uniform collects tickets for 2-hour, 25-mile scenic trip
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Date:Jan 1, 1988
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