Occasionally, someone will approach Kim Baker when she's out shopping and out of uniform.
Baker manages Railtown 1897 State Historic Park in Jamestown.
"You never know when people will recognize me and say, 'I live near Railtown,' " Baker said. "I kind of laugh, nervously, and ask, 'So do you love the trains or hate trains?' "
Yes, there is a love-hate thing with trains, as strange as that might seem.
Trains, no doubt, helped forge a nation and settle the West, and romanticized American culture. They are fascinating to many people, adults and children alike.
But others who might appreciate the railroads' value also hate to be inconvenienced by them, even the history-laden trains of Railtown, which is fighting to avoid closure because of state budget cuts.
Similarly, some valley residents living near the Union Pacific, Burlington Northern Santa Fe or Modesto & Empire Traction tracks detest the horns that frequently wake them from a sound sleep. Never mind that they live alongside tracks built in the 1870s through then-empty fields and are largely responsible for the existence of the towns or cities where these folks live.
Growth breeds inevitable clashes between past and progress, industry and individuals, pragmatism and emotions.
In 2005, a rise in train-related accidents compelled federal safety officials to mandate louder horns and more visual signs in an effort to better warn motorists about oncoming trains at crossings. That, in turn, increased the decibel level of the voices of protest.
It doesn't matter whether it's an 80-mph Amtrak train, a slow-moving Modesto & Empire Traction train creeping through the Beard Industrial District and the airport neighborhood, or a tourist train choo-chooing at Jamestown.
Loud is loud. Blast is blast. Eardrums are
Complaints from residents have Modesto officials looking at establishing "quiet zones," which would cost upward of $1 million, including road improvements.
Six years ago, the noise of 60 to 70 trains barreling through Escalon each day forced changes in that city. It spent $700,000 to install wayside horns at four crossings. Mounted at the crossings, the horns are triggered automatically by approaching trains. The sound is directed at the motorists at that particular spot instead of having a horn on the engine, disturbing virtually everyone as it passes through town.
Do wayside horns work?
Duane Lovett has worked at the Bank of the West in the heart of Escalon for 15 years. The Burlington Northern Santa Fe tracks go right past the back wall of the bank building, which he recalls was built on a one-time railroad easement.
Before the crossings' upgrades, he said, "if someone left a door open, (noise from the train) echoed through" the bank, he said. "You could feel it."
Now, with the wayside horns and other improvements, the noise isn't as intrusive.
"I like to say, 'What trains?' " Lovett joked.
In Riverbank and Oakdale, though, city officials who frequently espouse the virtues of creating jobs and enhancing economic development have opposed a proposed gravel quarry at Cooperstown, east of Oakdale. The quarry would employ roughly 40 workers at far more than minimum wage. Its developer hopes to provide the roadbed gravel should the state's controversial high-speed rail system be built.
The cities' collective gripe? The quarry would send up to 60-car trains through Oakdale and Riverbank, possibly as many as 20 a week, though three or four would be more likely. Riverbank sued Tuolumne County, which approved the project, and they are hashing out a settlement.
When I wrote about this issue last year, I got some interesting and emotional responses.
One resident of a subdivision on Oakdale's west side left me an angry voice mail. No one, she said, told her when she bought her home that trains might use the tracks that are right behind her house.
Trains ride those rails routinely, if not daily, and have since 1904. If they were that loud and annoying, she probably would have noticed one by now.
Another caller, practically sobbing, told me she lives in Modesto and teaches in Oakdale. She drives north on Claus Road, crosses the tracks and takes Highway 108 east into work every morning. If she has to wait at Patterson Road for a 60-car train, she pleaded, she'll be late for work and her students will be without a teacher.
That one puzzled me. You wouldn't, I asked her, simply turn right at Riverbank High School and onto Patterson Road? She could drive east alongside the train tracks until she got past the end of the train. She could then turn north on Langworth or Crane roads to reach the highway and ease on into Oakdale.
She really does love trains, the woman assured me.
Just not when they bother her. That seems to be a prevailing attitude these days.
Jeff Jardine's column appears Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays in Local News. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (209) 578-2383.