Back Tracks: Historic steam engine to run again in Jamestown

June 19, 2010 

JAMESTOWN — Steam locomotive No. 3, a Sierra Railroad workhorse that found fame in movies and television, will return to the limelight next month.

After a 14-year absence, the engine is set to debut July 3 at Railtown 1897 State Historic Park. It will pull passenger trains that day and July 4, then enter limited service on the excursion schedule.

"A lot of engines came and went, but someone had a soft spot for this one," said George Sapp, restoration lead worker at the park.

Railtown employees and volunteers have worked for three years to overhaul the 119-year-old locomotive, which was pulled from service in 1996 because of wear and tear.

The $1.5 million restoration was funded by private donations and $300,000 from the California Cultural and Historical Endowment, a state program.

"We basically had to strip it completely down to the frame," said Rick Petersen of Angels Camp, one of the volunteers working on finishing touches in the Railtown roundhouse Tuesday.

The work included a new $600,000 boiler, the part that burns oil to produce the steam that drives the wheels along the track.

Railtown has five other steam engines, but No. 3 is something special. It has been featured in dozens of movies and TV shows since 1919, when the daily passenger train stopped for filming of a robbery scene in the silent picture "The Red Glove."

The locomotive appeared in 1929 in "The Virginian," the first Hollywood talkie shot on location. It drove the tension in "High Noon," the 1952 classic about a marshal awaiting his nemesis on the noon train.

No. 3 thrived in the heyday of TV westerns in the 1950s and 1960s, including "The Lone Ranger," "Rawhide" and "Gunsmoke." It was the Hooterville Cannonball in "Petticoat Junction," the '60s sitcom.

From Arizona to Oakdale

The 50-ton engine was built for an Arizona railroad in 1891 by Rogers Locomotive Works of New Jersey. That line quickly folded, and No. 3 joined the Sierra Railroad upon its construction east from Oakdale in 1897.

"It actually pulled the first passenger train into Jamestown in 1897," Sapp said.

The engine played a real-life role in the development of Tuolumne County, serving its lumber, mining and dam-building enterprises.

The railroad ended passenger service in 1939 and shifted from steam to diesel locomotives for freight service in the 1950s.

No. 3 continued its screen career, thanks to a 1948 restoration. It later became part of Railtown, founded by the Sierra Railroad in the 1970s and later acquired by the state.

Fund raising for the restoration started in 2002 and drew wide support, including a 2006 letter from Clint Eastwood about the pending state grant.

"Early in my career, I rode Sierra No. 3 on the television series 'Rawhide,' " the actor-director wrote. "Over 20 years later, I returned to use No. 3 for my own productions 'Pale Rider' and 'Unforgiven.' Even in the business of make-believe, you can't beat the real thing."

The Sacramento Bee contributed to this report.

Bee staff writer John Holland can be reached at 578-2385 or jholland@modbee.com.

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