Saturday, April 15, 2017


Tripping back in time:
A visit to the Western Railway Museum

There was a time, not so very long ago, when rail travel was the preferred mode of getting from here to there.  Even in an area as remote as California’s northern Sacramento Valley, for pocket change, one could hop aboard an electrified interurban car in the morning, and by evening, arrive in San Francisco.  Post World War I, it was how you got around.

A few weeks back, the local paper reported that the folks at the Western Railway Museum sponsored Wildflower runs every Saturday, Sunday and Wednesday in April.  I’d driven past the Museum countless times, stopping only once before perhaps thirty years ago, to wander among the derelict rolling stock and wonder about the bucolic nature of early 20th century travel.  This would be our chance.  We packed a picnic.

The Northern Electric Railway ran from Sacramento to Chico with side routes connecting many larger bergs in the valley.  Merging with a route that ran from Sacramento to Oakland, the Sacramento Northern Railroad was established.  Large self-propelled passenger conveyances used either overhead lines or third rails to supply electricity over the one hundred eighty-three-miles of right-of-way.  It was the longest and most extensive interurban rail system ever.  Rails tunneled through the pieces of the Coast Range and bridges spanned the Sacramento, the Feather and the Yuba River.  Trains would roll onto ferries to cross the Suisun Bay and then roll off on the far shore.  For a time, the Sacramento Northern even ran trains across the lower deck of the Bay Bridge.

Folks and freight sped along the valley floor bringing farm wives to shopping – much to the chagrin of Sears Roebuck and Co – and goods and produce to market.  A peach picked in a Colusa orchard on a Wednesday afternoon, could be enjoyed for breakfast on Thursday morning in “the City.”  Seemed like a pretty good system.

But weather events wiped out bridges and, in the 40s, the advent of the automobile provided greater travel independence.  The Sacramento Northern suspended passenger operations, substituting a bus line that would later be subsumed by Pacific Greyhound – then a subsidiary of Southern Pacific. 

Electric operations soon ended to be replaced by diesel motive power.  I can recall the big Sacramento Northern General Electric diesels lumbering up Chico’s Main Street dragging a half dozen or so freight cars to the Continental Nut Company’s almond processing plant at Lindo Channel; thence five miles further to the WWII era airbase that then and now serves as the town’s municipal airport and industrial hub.  Once or twice a month, some automobile driver, thinking he had the right-of-way discovered that several hundred tons of freight train: a) couldn’t stop on a dime and b) could render a righteous amount of damage to the family sedan.  For this reason, and many others, I’m sure, the Western Pacific, which by then owned the Sacramento Northern, halted operations.  Ultimately, the rails were pulled.

The volunteers at the Western Railway Museum have recreated the heyday period of interurban (latin: between cities) transit, finding and restoring many cars. 

In the 1920s, car number 1005 looked like this:

Today, and a quarter of a million dollars and countless hours later, she now operates:

With a beautifully refurbished interior:

The Wildflower Tour, although short, does tug at the nostalgia of those earlier days.  The route leaves the barn area a Rio Vista Junction:

Passes an old filling station that once served as a terminal for passengers heading to or from the delta:

Then rumbles along five miles of restored track adjacent to Suisun Bay.

A delightful journey of a century or more in less than an hour. 

Heading home, I recalled a scene from the Disney movie “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?” where the villainous character voiced by Christopher Lloyd shares a vision that would kill LA’s Red Car Line of great strips of concrete where every five or ten miles you could fill up your car or get a hamburger or snack or sleep in a little room and then get back on the road and be on your way and I realized the Disney film, animated though it was, was far from fiction.

It is interesting how much history slips into the forgotten.


Notes:  The easiest way to get to the Western Railway Museum is to exit I-80 to State Route 12, west of Fairfield, heading east on 12 toward Rio Vista.  The museum is about half way between Fairfield and Rio Vista.

Also out this way, California’s Delta provides engaging roads, scenery and lost-in-yesterday towns like Isleton, Walnut Grove, Locke (an historic Chinese colony dating back to the Chinese exclusion act – more forgotten history), Ryde, Courtland and Clarksburg (visit the Bogle Winery).

For details on the Western Railway Museum, check out their website and plan a visit:


Resources:   “Sacramento Northern” (Interurbans Special # 26) by Ira Swett.  Pentrex Media Group, Pasadena CA, 1998.  Photos, timetables, history.

“Sacramento Northern Railway” (Images of Rail Series) by Paul C Trimble.  Arcadia Publishing, Charleston, SC, 2005.  One of those cool little collections of historic photographs.  Arcadia publishes similar volumes – always fascinating to me – about cities, towns, and unique historic elements.  They are easily available in just about any place you visit and are about any place you visit.

© 2017
Church of the Open Road Press

Monday, April 10, 2017

An Open Letter to Triumph Motorcycle LTD re: Dealer Closures

10 April 2017

Mr. John Bloor, CEO
Triumph Motorcycles Ltd
Normandy Way
Hinkley, Leicestershire LE 10 3BZ
United Kingdom

Greetings Mr. Bloor:

I am writing to express my disappointment in the loss of the Triumph franchise by my local dealer Santa Rosa (California) BMW Triumph.  My interactions with the dealership have always been positive and professional whether when servicing my BMW, consigning my Moto Guzzi or purchasing my Triumph Thunderbird.

Rumor on the street suggests that the loss of Santa Rosa’s franchise – and that of other small dealers – is related to a requirement on the part of Triumph that dealers maintain a greater minimum floor space, locate closer to other motorcycle or automobile dealerships and operate their businesses six days per week.

While such requirements make sense and may prove beneficial for Triumph sales in larger markets, smaller dealers are confronted with simple economic question: meet the requirements and lose profit margin or kill the brand for the area.  Sadly, it appears that many dealerships are opting for the latter.   As a result, enthusiasts such as myself, must scramble to find authorized service or to simply drool over a new Bobber or Bonne 1200.

The owners of Triumph motorcycles with whom I have come into contact are passionate about their machines, the brand and the legacy.  Corporate decisions that limit small dealers’ access to Triumph cause me to wonder whether the passion riders hold for their Tigers and Bonnevilles is shared reciprocally by Triumph Ltd. toward their riding customers.

I look forward to the day when the Triumph brand returns to California’s North Bay region.


Sunday, April 2, 2017


…skip one good riding day
and you’ll always be one behind…

Somebody’d reported yesterday that there were acres upon acres of California poppies carpeting the rolling hills along 128 in the Yorkville Highlands.  Perhaps there’d be lupine, too.  Either was good enough to set me on a renewed Saturday ritual.   

Back the Subaru out of the garage, center the big Triumph, give it a thorough spring cleaning – it could sure use a bath…

Polish this beauty until I can see my reflection in the paint and the chrome blinds innocent passers-by.  Then set off to check out those flowers.  At least that was the plan.

After backing the Sube onto the street, I automatically, and needlessly hit the down button for the garage door opener and entered the house without hearing the BANG!  Ten minutes later, armed with a bucket of warm water and a bundle of soft towels, I hit that button again.  Buzz.  Nothing. 

And again.  Buzz.  Nothing.

I pulled the release to manually raise the thing.  Wouldn’t budge more than a couple of inches.  And when I let go, the door slammed back to the floor.  My fifteen or more minutes of trouble-shooting and WD-40 brought me no closer to a solution.  Bang!  Buzz.  Bang!  Bang!

The cacophony drew interest from my bread-baking wife indoors.  In seconds, she pointed at something above the garage door and asked:  “Does that spring always look like that?”

It’s been a longer-than-usual non-riding season.  The weather gods had dumped record amounts of rain on northern California this winter and the medical gods put me on the DL for six to eight weeks recovering from some knee work.  So when the weather turned very, very nice, and word was afoot that the hills were carpeted in wildflower burst, I didn’t need any additional encouragement.

California’s State Route 128 heads west from US 101 at Cloverdale twists over a rugged volcanic ridge and into Mendocino County (where the pavement is much better) before dropping into the Yorkville wine-growing region.  There, wide sweeping turns invite an easy throttle and thanksgiving for spring riding days such as these.  Boonville is a nice waypoint for coffee.  And there there’ll be that carpet of poppies.  Plus if I choose to motor further, an hour will see me touring the spectacular California coast along highway 1.  I’m due!

Well, maybe not.  The T-bird is trapped.

According to the video, changing the tension springs on a garage door is about a one-hour task.  It requires few tools and just a bit of safety precaution.  Parts are less than $150.00 and the company is now custom-making the springs to the specification I ordered.  With enhanced shipping, the kit should be here by the end of the week.

Just as those poppies and lupine begin to fade.


Notes:  The tension spring video:

…and it turns out, the garage door can be opened manually – it takes two people to do this – but the busted tension spring will not allow the thing to stay open without the application of some remedial physics.  I’m leaving things status quo until the parts arrive.  Makes for a better story.

But, I did manage a wildflower fix by hopping on the old Peugeot - better therapy for the knee, anyway - checking out offerings in our small downtown and it’s hinterlands.  Thus, these:

Showy loco – perhaps

Red bud

Desert star – maybe, maybe not.

Something yellow

Vinca – beautiful, but invasive: not native to the west


California poppy

© 2017
Church of the Open Road Press

Friday, March 17, 2017


A St. Patrick’s Day therapy session

In the forty days and forty nights since they worked on my debrided right knee, Northern California had experienced rainfall that would cause Noah pause.  Because I couldn’t heft the big Triumph, the fact that the weather was marginal for riding didn’t cause similar pause for me.

But then, the weather turned nice.  Highs reaching the 70s.  Skies purely blue or only dotted with fluffy, white clouds.  Sonoma County’s network of curving roads cresting verdant rises, dry and ice free.  The California poppies would be blooming.  And the doc said I should “spend time on a bike” to rebuild strength in my knee.

In the garage, then, I straddled the Triumph and pushed the starter button.  If the thing fired up – it had been six weeks since last I’d ridden it – I’d give some thought into taking a short spin to test out my repaired joint.  That “some thought” took about a second and a half.

Dang!  The ‘Bird looked good when I pushed it out to the street.

I headed south on Dutcher Creek Road toward the Dry Creek Valley, Lake Sonoma and beyond, stopping many times for photos, as, I figure, getting on and off the cruiser would be good therapy for my knee.

The paper reported that just last week, the growers in the Dry Creek area were enjoying bud break.  In the parlance of viticulture, the term “bud break” has nothing to do with half time during the Super Bowl.  No, it means that the growth cycle has been renewed and we sure as hell hope there won’t be a late season hard freeze.

Dry Creek is dammed at the west end of the valley.  Lake Sonoma provides irrigation and domestic water as well as miles of hiking trails and a little used 14-mile dead end called Rockpile Road, a route that crosses the reservoir on a massive bridge.

Rockpile Road threads the ridge that separates the two arms of Lake Sonoma, passing through the Army Corps of Engineers administered recreation area and into a viticulture area identified as – surprise – Rockpile.

The road is little used – it is gated about twenty minutes in – so traffic is generally limited to the ranchers and farmers who work out that way.  

The pavement is grand with sweeping curves and sections that arc over one summit, then the next, reminding me a bit of Montana’s Beartooth Pass, only more temperate, less traffic, and with better wine locally available.

But, with ample warning, it ends.


I pedal the Big Blue backwards on the pavement, arranging for myself enough space to hoist the thing around.  This is when I discover that one knee works and the other knee works not so well.

Using the guardrail to flex and relax said knee, I view the green hills – St. Patrick’s Day green hills – that lie beyond the pavement’s end.  Credited to Luther Burbank is the statement, "I firmly believe, from what I have seen, that this is the chosen spot of all this earth as far as Nature is concerned."  

Today’s ride out and back on Rockpile Road supports his contention.

It’s been an hour and a half on and off the Thunderbird and the bum knee feels not so bum.  I’m torn between making a longer day of it, risking fatigue, and just heading back to the barn.

What could I do to enhance this already glorious day?  Then, at US 101 and Lytton Springs Road, a solution presents itself.

Tacos al pastor and a beverage perched on the seat of the bike. Just like lunch on a real road trip.  What could be better?

A Modelo Especial sounded particularly good; if only I’d not been on the bike.

Catching the freeway north, I settle in for a ten-minute blast toward home. I’d been out of the saddle too long, but the big Triumph remains as comfortable and forgiving as I’d remembered it.  I was glad for today’s glorious weather and thankful that the Biblical rains we received happened while I was under in-house confinement orders. 


Note:  Upon returning home, I reviewed notes from the doc who worked over my knee and discovered that when he said “bike,” he meant:



Today’s Route:  Exit US 101 at South Cloverdale Blvd, head west.  At the first intersection (landmark Starbucks, Sinclair Gas, liquor store, abandoned antique store across S Cloverdale) turn left heading away from town.  Somewhere along in here, the road becomes Dutcher Creek. Pass the Fritz Winery two miles southwest (stop in if you have a moment) and continue for a total of about six to Dry Creek Road.  Right on Dry Creek to the end of the valley.  At the spillway, turn left – your only choice – on Stewart’s Point Skaggs Springs passing Lake Sonoma the Visitor Center (stop in if you have a moment).  Continue up the hill about three miles.  Stewart’s Point Skaggs Springs will exit left, but you’ll want to continue on what is now Rockpile Road, over the big bridge and west for another dozen miles or so.  Return?  Retrace.  Consider following Dry Creek Road six or seven miles east into Healdsburg where you can hang out at the town’s square like the area glitterati.

© 2017
Church of the Open Road Press

Tuesday, March 7, 2017


A journey into early aviation, art
and a little-known grandfather

Minor knee repair and poor weather has me off the motorcycle for a few weeks, and boxes of Mom’s memories have been stacked in the corner of my den for too long.  No time like the present, I suppose…

Sifting through her stuff, I find an ancient box designed to once hold a ream of typing paper.  Scrawled on the end of the rapidly deteriorating lid are the words: “Hap’s Clippings + pix.” 

E W Bagnell was my mother’s father.  Known as Hap to me, but others referred to him as Cap or Bobby, I knew very little about him other than that he was designated an Early Bird, wrenched on Lindbergh’s Spirit of St Louis, and later took up oil painting.  And he smoked Lucky Strikes.  We moved to Chico in 1957, he followed, lived with us for a year and then departed for Oakland’s Veteran’s Hospital where he died at about age 68.

Opening that ragged box of “clippings and pix” revealed some hidden history…

This from the Glendale Independent, Sunday, August 2, 1953:


Works of prominent Glendale artists will be exhibited beginning tomorrow in the city’s newest gallery, the large modern office of the Glendale Independent, 122 S. Maryland Avenue…

…Chosen to be the first exhibiting artist is E W Bagnell of 510 California Avenue, an artist member of the Art Association and a member of the Business Men’s Art Club of Los Angeles…

…The Bagnell exhibit, hung for the month of August, includes 18 oil paintings, the featured canvas being a portrait of the artist’s mother, Mrs. Elizabeth Bagnell, 93 [which currently hangs in Mom’s bedroom in Chico, CA]; and “Kings Ranch Rodeo,” from the private collection of Mr. and Mrs. M O Johnson, and loaned for the opening of the gallery…

…he had professional studios in Houston, Tex. And in Pasadena…

[Bagnell] is a pioneer in aviation and is among the early flyers that enjoy the distinction of the title “Early Birds.”* He was a captain in the Army engineers during World War I.

In his pioneering he helped build one of the earliest airplanes, sponsored by the Nebraska National Guard, and laid out Kelly Field, now Kelly Air Force Base in a cotton and mesquite field on the old Frio City Road just outside San Antonio, Tex.

Other early air ventures were test piloting for Curtis Airplane Co., and commercial flying in Mexico.  Then he and Capt. Ralph Taylor were sent by the Aero Club of America to Washington DC, with an airplane, which was set up on the Polo Field behind the White House to stimulate interest of Congressmen in airplanes, then a novelty.

Through those early years in aviation and in the Army he had little time for painting.  But he is now making up for lost time and his paintings on display in the Independent gallery are evidence of his talent and accomplishment…

Other clippings tell more of his story…

Among the other artifacts uncovered searching through Mom’s memorabilia is a model of and the patent application for a devise that when dropped into the steel pipe casing of a spent oil well, with a mechanical twist the unit can expand to press against the casing’s interior so the pipe can be craned out of the well for re-use.  Early recycler?

Also discovered: two prototype electric toothbrushes – he didn’t get the patent application on these – the works of which were encased in Bakelite.**

I pour through this trove and think of the man I barely knew.  His Army adventures began a century ago this year. 

His work in the aviation industry saw him piloting an exotic Italian tri-motor…

…and flying folks hither and yon.

Clearly, he had other adventures, however…

…and a bit of a reputation…

Hanging over the piano in my den is one of his oils called “Splitting Headache…”

…the last oil he created before he went to Oakland.


*Early Birds Membership was limited to those who piloted a glider, gas balloon, or airplane, prior to December 17, 1916. The cutoff date was set at December 17 to correspond to the first flights of Wilbur and Orville Wright. 1916 was chosen as a cutoff because a large number of people were trained in 1917 as pilots for World War I.[2] Twelve of the aviators were women.

Hap’s name is embossed on a plaque in the Smithsonian’s Air and Space Museum along with the Wrights, de Havilland, Sikorsky, Glenn Curtis and others.

** Bakelite is one of the first plastics made from synthetic components.  Bakelite was used for its electrical nonconductivity and heat-resistant properties in electrical insulators, radio and telephone casings and such diverse products as kitchenware, jewelry, pipe stems, children's toys, and firearms.

© 2017
Church of the Open Road Press