Friday, May 18, 2018


A visit to the Western Pacific Railroad Museum
in Portola, Plumas County, California

The Western Pacific Railroad was organized on March 3, 1903.  The first spike was hammered in 1906.  On November 1, 1909, the last spike was driven on a steel bridge over Spanish Creek near Keddie, California. 

The WP became the all-weather transcontinental route cresting the Sierra at Beckwourth Summit some 2,000 feet in elevation lower than the Donner Summit Route chosen by the Central Pacific some forty years before.  According to Norman W Holmes in his book “My Western Pacific Railroad,” it is the route the Union Pacific would have selected as they built their line west had not the Big Four and construction engineer Theodore Judah chosen the Donner Route out of Sacramento for the CP.

Today, tracing the historic line of the WP along California’s State Route 70 offers the rider (driver) a spectacular journey up the Feather River Canyon – complete with granite cornices, tumbling water, picturesque trestles – out across glorious high-country meadows and pristine pine forests, and into the subtly beautiful Basin and Range.  From Belden to Blairsden (great pizza place in Blairsden) the route is dotted with quaint villages and towns.  If you haven’t driven Highway 70, do so.

And along the way, be absolutely sure to visit the Western Pacific Railroad Museum (WPRM) in Portola.  The museum is maintained by the Feather River Rail Society for the express purpose of keeping alive the history of the ol’ WP.

Here are a few shots of what you’ll find:

Volunteers have collected aging rolling stock some of which dates back nearly 100 years. 

What cargo may have passed through this door?

How many times did this hinge squeak open?

The collection of diesel locomotives is beyond expansive.  Many hold the fading livery of one of the WPs four paint schemes.  Others represent lines the WP purchased during its heyday like this Sacramento Northern road switcher. 

I recall watching this very engine roll up Main Street in Chico when I was a kid (often colliding with automobiles driven by motorists who mistakenly thought a 100 tons of locomotive and freight could stop any time soon.)

This yard unit spent its final years near Quincy working a short line associated with a lumber mill…

… but a close up look at the aging paint reveals that there is likely a bit more to its history.

Looks sorta like an interesting quilt square, now doesn't it?

Although the grade was only 1.2 percent or less, the WP used their Portola yards as a point where extra motive power was released after the pull up the canyon from Oroville.  A shop was built here early on but abandoned when maintenance operations were consolidated to Stockton.  Decaying with busted out windows and without power, the building came into the hands of the non-profit. 

Here, the volunteers have established displays including road signs…

…and cargo.

They also use the shop as, well, a shop.  Currently, a steam locomotive is undergoing restoration.

Staffed mainly by volunteers, one gentleman we spoke with gave new meaning to the term “Postman’s Holiday.” A three-trip-per-week engineer on the UP line from Sparks to Elko, he lives locally and spends his weekends and vacations working on the antique equipment and visiting with wayfarers ensuring that the history of the WP is not lost. 

Back out in the yard, this monster caught my attention…

…as did this remnant of the California Zephyr, the supremely elegant passenger service that, having earlier left Oakland, CA, snaked up the Feather River Canyon on its way to Salt Lake and beyond. 

I remember Dad driving us up the canyon simply so we could get a glistening glimpse at the Zephyr, always thinking, if only…

But my visit to the museum was about to get better.

Behind the old shop, we hear this electro-motive diesel freight unit roar to life.  A cloud of exhaust that, normally, one might avoid, this day smelled like a slice of heaven from by-gone days.

Inside, Charles, a retired steam-fitter is ensuring that all the controls – forward drive, neutral, reverse; brake lever, air horn (two longs, a short and a long when approaching a grade crossing), the bell switch, the forward light and the rear – are operating.

Then he motions me to the engineer’s seat, points down the line and says “Give ‘er two short blasts on the horn and start movin’ forward.”

I operated old number 917 (circa 1950) for over an hour.

If only happened.  I’m still giddy about it.



The Feather River Rail Society, curators of the Western Pacific Railroad Museum, is a valuable resource worthy of our support.  Here’s their link to our digitalized present:

My Western Pacific Railroad, Norman W Holmes (Feather River Route engineer) Steel Rails West Publishing, 1996.  This volume contains a concise history of the WP.  The historic photos are fun – as are all old railroad photos to me.  The perspective of the author – a guy who actually ran the route – is unique in the world of rail fan publications.

Lastly, Gumba’s Pizza in Blairsden:

© 2018
Church of the Open Road Press

Sunday, May 13, 2018


“The chosen spot of all the earth as far as nature is concerned…”
- Luther Burbank

Famed botanist Luther Burbank reportedly said this about his adopted home, his beloved Sonoma County.  And I suppose he was right.  For him.

My “chosen spot of all the earth” is close by, geographically, but different.  In a thick catalog of fond childhood memories, it is a place may well hold the fondest.

I reflect on this at the confluence of two events:

1.     Six months ago, Mom passed.  With Dad already on the other side – he had waited 22 years for this – I now represent the oldest generation and I know what’s inevitably gonna happen.  (Not soon, I hope.)
2.     In the current process of rewriting our living trust, the question is raised, “Where do you want to spend eternity?”

Click on this picture to expand it, because it's a really cool shot.
Yesterday, we revisited the chosen spot.  After all, somebody’s gotta know how to get there.

From a ridgetop deep in the remote California Coastal Range one can see Mt Lassen some 110 miles to the northeast.  Turning west, the bank of coastal fog that blankets the Pacific is no more than thirty-five miles off.  In between both Lassen and the coast lie row upon row, ridge upon ridge of seeming unsullied forests and meadows, forgotten place names and forgotten history.

A quarter-mile down the slope stands a cluster of ancient firs, headquarters for a century-and-a-half ago summer sheep camp.

As a family, we’d visit annually with the last of those who’d actually run sheep up that way.  Woods would be explored.  Rusted relics found.  Meadows would be traipsed.  More relics.  Springwater consumed.  Hide-n-seek played.  Sticks gathered for the evening fire.  Outdoor cooking.  Outdoor everything.

After chow, we would walk to the top of the ridge and watch the sun descend, turning the Pacific sky all ranges of oranges and purples and, finally, midnight blue.  In the dark, we’d stumble down the hill to a campfire that would last well past dusk and to stories told by the old sheepherder that would animate ensuing dreams under a starlit sky and last through until today: Stories of mountain lions and Ford Model As, Friday shindigs at neighboring camps and Sunday stillness shepherding lambs across the glade. 

Campfire tales.  Yesterday, they returned.

Atop that ridge stands a copse of gnarled oaks – “looks to me like a Greek Chorus,” Dad said five decades ago – oaks that had and still have a forever view of Mount Lassen, the Pacific fog, and that favored camp just down the hill.  (I never figured out what Dad meant by a Greek Chorus – always swore I’d look the term up, but never have.  Probably never will – don’t want to spoil the image I have.)

The chorus is at rest.  Silent.  The only sounds are the soughing forest, the murmur of a brook and the occasional report from a red tail or a grouse.

In the merry-go-round of a mind entering, perhaps, the final third or quarter – not exactly the home stretch, yet – this is where the finish line will be: intermingled with Dad’s so-called “Greek Chorus,” overlooking the chosen spot of all the earth as far as eternity is concerned.

© 2018
Church of the Open Road Press

Wednesday, May 2, 2018

Genocide and Vendetta

A book recommendation…

A new neighbor moved in a couple of months ago.  Previously, he had lived in Mendocino County outside of Round Valley along what was once California’s “Trail of Tears.”  Having camped many times near Mendocino Pass as a kid I mentioned my interest in the history of the area.  He went to his bookshelf and loaned me this.

Readable and painstakingly researched, it exposes the awful truth about the creation of the reservation near Covelo in Round Valley and the ultimate eradication of the Yuki (Native Americans) living in the Yolla Bolly region of the Coast Range.  

Published in 1981 by the University of Oklahoma Press for 20 bucks a copy, it names names.  And therein lies the problem.

Sources I’ve found report that between 2500 and 8500 copies were produced, but most of them were scooped up by relatives and descendants of the cattle barons and land owners who wished to claim Round Valley for their spreads.  A bogus suit was filed against the authors and publication was ceased. And an important bit of history slipped out of touch.

As an adult, I have had the opportunity to explore a bit of the lovely and unforgiving territory central to this book from the Mendocino / Humboldt Coastline to the Trinities and Yolla Bollys and the river courses of the Eel and the northern Russian.  It is fascinating to take that country and overlay the history written in this book.  On my shortlist of things to do is to re-explore the Yolla Bolly country with my DeLorme’s California Atlas and Gazetteer in one hand and a copy of Genocide and Vendetta in the other.  Summit Valley, Long Valley, Round Valley, Sanhedrin Peak, Hull Mountain, Fort Seward, even Weaverville and Eureka – all exist, now, in a richer and more tragic context for me.

I need to return this copy to my neighbor and am seeking a copy of my own for my collection.  Prices online (as you’ll see below) are out of reach, but I suspect that a used book store or an antique shop might have it in its Western Americana, California History, or Native American section.

So, Church of the Open Road parishioners: Please keep an eye out for a copy and let me know if you find one. Priced reasonably, I’ll certainly buy it.

And while we’re at it, let’s do what we can to ensure voices are not stilled by those they might offend or expose.


Hull Mtn. denizen
Genocide and Vendetta Subtitled: The Round Valley Wars of Northern California  
by Lynwood Carranco and Estle Beard.  University of Oklahoma Press. 1981. $350 – $1148.  (Originally about $20.)