Hear That Train a Comin’

An early upright Fairbanks moves bridges for an 1876 railway


A photo from a Drawbridge, Calif., brochure of the old Southern Pacific Railroad. The original engine shack that housed the Fairbanks engine can be seen to the right.

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"Dad, what do you want for your birthday?"
"I'd like an old Fairbanks upright."

That's not exactly how it went - that's just how it turned out. My son, Dave, a contractor, was remodeling. He found a Fairbanks engine 40 feet up in an old barn, mounted originally to run a line shaft. The owner hooked a cable to a pulley from his Jeep to the engine and cut it loose to retrieve it from the barn. You can guess what happened: As I was told, the engine came down; the Jeep went up. Standing on the Jeep's rear bumper, the owner was in the front seat looking up at 2,000 pounds of engine. Fortunately, the Jeep had enough cable on its winch to let the engine down to the ground and a waiting cart. My son made a deal (the details are unknown to this day) for the Fairbanks. Later, we found out that several other people also wanted it.

Dave called me one day on the pretense of having me look at his remodel. Actually, it was to look at the engine, and he said, "Happy birthday." It finally sunk in after he repeated it three times. Boy, I was more than shocked. Now in reality I am a Stover nut, but I have to admit, this engine is a great runner.

Running a railroad

In 1876, James "Slippery Jim" Fair and Alfred "Hog" Davis decided to build a railroad from the California bay area to Santa Cruz, Calif. They snuck this in under the nose of Leland Stanford (referred to as the "Robber Baron") and his Southern Pacific Railroad empire. Leland wasn't very happy when Slippery Jim and Hog built 80 miles of narrow gauge track connecting Newark and San Jose, Calif., and called it the South Pacific Coast Railroad.

The big problem with the construction was that there were two navigable waterways, Coyote Creek and Mud Slough, which, as required by the U.S. Coast Guard, had to be open for boat traffic.

Hand-operated swing bridges had to be built, and in 1880 these bridges were operated by George Mundershietz. He worked for the railroad and lived in a small cabin midway between Mud Slough and Coyote Creek (about 1/4-mile each way).

There were immediate stops along this route, some for wealthy San Francisco duck hunters who owned cabins along the marsh, and also stops at small towns like Alviso and Drawbridge, Calif. Now Drawbridge did not have a real drawbridge, but swing bridges, which were operated by hand until an Otto engine was installed at Mud Slough. At one time around 1925, more than 90 cabins and houses were built on what was to be called Station Island.

The community was divided like the Hatfields and McCoys. People on the north side of the tracks rarely spoke to people on the south side, who were mostly immigrants. Plus, everybody in those days had guns and weren't afraid to use them. There were houses for "ladies of the evening" and gambling, but strangely, no stores for everyday supplies.

This area's hunting lodges are still there after more than 130 years, rotting, abandoned and sinking into the swamp. The last resident left in 1979. This is now essentially a ghost town. Only the salt ponds owned by the Cargil Salt Co. remain and are actively harvested. The entire area is controlled by the U.S. government and is called the Don Edwards San Francisco Bay National Wildlife Refuge.

An important note is that the U.S. government is undertaking a wildlife restoration project of more than 25,000 acres to restore the wetlands back to a marsh. This is the largest government land restoration project undertaken on the West Coast. It is a very sensitive piece of real estate (as evidenced by the fact that every ranger who works there carries a loaded pistol). Gaining access to this area required some persistence. I would like to thank Clyde Morris, manager of the refuge, for his cooperation.

Back to the Fairbanks

This engine came with a tag from the original coil, which read, "spark coil from Otto Gas Engine on railroad drawbridge (1904) over Mud Slough - Southern Pacific RR" (as it was called then).

Records indicate the Fairbanks, which I am guessing was built in January or February 1900, replaced the Otto in 1904 after the drawbridge had been converted to engine power (with a steel swing bridge) from hand power (with a narrow gauge wooden swing bridge). Nothing indicates why the Otto was replaced.

Currently, this railway is one of Union Pacific's busiest rail lines in California, averaging one train per hour. Today, the Fairbanks runs and the bridge doesn't (well, at least not very well). It is my understanding the original Otto engine still exists, we just don't know where - yet!

Contact Ted Weber at: (916) 966-3460; tcweber1@sbcglobal.com