Hear That Train a Comin’

By Staff
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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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The Mud Slough bridge, used regularly today by Union Pacific Railroad. The shack no longer exists.
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The engine as it came home with 100-year-old dust.
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The Fairbanks engine cleaned and running.
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The original Otto engine spark coil with tag that was found with the Fairbanks.

“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

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