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Cal Poly's Little Love Affair With Steam


By Lawrence Biemiller

Santa Cruz, Calif. -- Throttles open and exhausts barking, two perfectly matched Pacific-class locomotives burst out of the trees, one coupled right behind the other. The Pacifics lean into a long curve under twin gray plumes of smoke and steam, polished boiler jackets gleaming in the morning sunlight, driving rods churning beside white-trimmed wheels. The meadow fills with the sharp chuffing of hard-working engines and the clatter of steel wheels crossing rail joints. The spotless tenders trailing the locomotives are lettered "Swanton Pacific Lines."


1914
No. 1914 at the yard-limit sign

Behind the second tender, green coaches filled with passengers begin swinging into view. Only then does the anomaly become obvious -- the passengers, even the grinning little kids, are too big. Much too big. Or rather, the train is too small, and so is the track. In fact, the Swanton Pacific is exactly one-third the size of a standard-gauge railroad. The rails are 18 7/8 inches apart, 19 inches on curves.

What it lacks in size, though, it makes up in uniqueness. For one thing, its steam locomotives -- four in all -- were built to haul visitors to the 1915 Panama Pacific International Exhibition, held in San Francisco to celebrate both the opening of the Panama Canal and the reconstruction of the city after the 1906 earthquake. The two locomotives pulling this train, a special "doubleheader" for photographers, are near-perfect replicas of the Southern Pacific Railway's P-6 passenger engines, which made their debut in 1913. Even in miniature they weigh 12 tons each and are 17 feet long.

The Swanton Pacific is also the only North American steam railroad owned and operated by a university -- California Polytechnic State University at San Luis Obispo. In 1993 Cal Poly inherited the diminutive line, and the 3,200-acre ranch on which it is located, upon the death of a wealthy alumnus named Al Smith. The railroad is run by the all-volunteer Swanton Pacific Railroad Society, an arm of the university's foundation. In keeping with the donor's wishes, the railroad has its own endowment account, worth about $1.3-million, and the volunteers steam its locomotives up about a half-dozen times a year to offer free rides to the public.

On days the railroad is running, a big cardboard likeness of a smiling Al Smith greets visitors, who include a large number of families with young children and a scattering of camera-toting rail fans. Between rides, visitors may find the university's forestry students demonstrating ax-throwing while ag-business students hawk raffle tickets for 50 pounds of beef from grass-fed animals raised right on the ranch.

But the train ride is the main attraction, particularly for the children. The line ambles along shady Scotts Creek for about a mile before emerging from the trees to skirt the streamside meadow and reach its destination, a stop known as Folger. There the locomotive is turned -- on a stretch of track known as a wye -- and coupled to the other end of the train for the trip back.

"I've always been a train buff," says the railroad society's president, Edgar J. Carnegie, a retired Cal Poly professor of agricultural engineering who makes the three-hour drive from San Luis Obispo about twice a month. "But the last train set I had before this one was N gauge" -- a model-railroad scale so small that a P-6 locomotive would be less than four inches long.

Mr. Carnegie seems to have adapted well to one-third scale. Among other things, he and the agricultural-engineering department's students have built the railroad a 120-foot-long truss bridge, a rail-mounted crane that is used for construction and maintenance, and a lovely Victorian-style station called College Park. Building bridges and cranes, he says, teaches the students engineering principles that will serve them well when they design farm equipment.

The railroad society has "about 90 or 100 volunteers that contribute," says Mr. Carnegie. One of them is Randy Jones, a longtime devotee who years ago helped his father build the turntable that now sits in front of the railroad's five-stall roundhouse. Mr. Jones says most of the work at the Swanton Pacific is done by fewer than 20 hard-core volunteers, plus about two dozen others who can be counted on to help even though, as he puts it, "their lives don't, technically, revolve around the railroad."

The Swanton Pacific's history is as complex as that of any full-size line. As preparations for the Panama Pacific Exposition were under way, a wealthy young Oakland resident named Louis M. MacDermot planned and built the Overfair Railway, which carried fairgoers around the site for 10 cents each. In addition to laying several miles of track, Mr. MacDermot built four identical passenger locomotives -- the name "Pacific" refers to their wheel arrangements -- and one switch engine. A fleet of 62 coaches completed the equipment roster.

The line was not a big moneymaker, however, and after the fair ended Mr. MacDermot stored the equipment on the family estate in Oakland. Although he lost the estate during the Depression, he hung on to the locomotives and cars until his death in 1948. The equipment was subsequently scattered, but saw little use because its one-third scale is almost unheard-of among miniature railroads. The locomotives were reunited in the 1980s by Mr. Smith, the owner of a chain of hardware stores. Mr. Carnegie remembers visiting the ranch, which Mr. Smith let the university use for faculty retreats and other events, and being taken by the host on a tour of the Swanton Pacific facilities. "He walked me into the roundhouse, and my eyes just bulged out," Mr. Carnegie says.

The locomotives are indeed eye-openers. Mr. Jones is eager to show off how carefully Mr. MacDermot copied the details of the P-6 class, making only a handful of alterations -- the cab windows, for instance, are much larger than on the originals, to accommodate full-size humans. Two of the Pacifics are currently running; a third is disassembled for boiler repairs, as is the switcher. Mr. MacDermot never completed the fourth passenger locomotive, which is now on display at the California State Railroad Museum, in Sacramento.

The locomotives were originally operated by one person, but at the Swanton Pacific they run with two people crowded into the cab, their knees interlocked. The engineer controls the throttle, the brakes, and the high-pitched whistle, while the fireman looks after the boiler, making sure enough steam is available to pull the train and adding more water from the tender as necessary. Mr. MacDermot designed the locomotives to burn coal, but like many of their full-size counterparts they were later converted to burn oil. Because they don't spew out burning cinders, oil-fired locomotives start fewer wayside fires -- an important feature in dry climates like California's.

Besides the steam locomotives, the railroad has one diesel that it bought used a few years back after someone spotted an ad for it and it proved to be the right size for the Swanton Pacific's tracks. The diesel's origins are a mystery, because no one here had ever heard of another one-third-scale railroad. "As near as I know, we have all the 19-inch gauge railroad equipment ever built," Mr. Jones says.

Small though it is, the Swanton Pacific has many of the same challenges bigger railroads have. At the end of the afternoon, when the last families have made their way to their cars, Geoffrey Tobin is at the throttle of one of the Pacifics, with E.S. Przemielewski, known as Edski, as his fireman. With almost 200 pounds of steam pressure showing on the gauge in the cab, the engine is coupled nose-first onto the back end of a string of passenger coaches that need to be shoved up the steep hill past the roundhouse and onto the coach sidings. The loud chuff-chuff-chuff-chuff of the exhaust races ahead when the wheels slip on the grade. This is delicate work -- the cars must be pushed right to the end of the track, but no farther. Brakemen pass hand signals back along the train to Mr. Tobin, who has one glove on the throttle and the other on the air brake -- two carlengths, one carlength, half a carlength, good. The brakemen uncouple several cars, and he backs the rest of the train out to put another cut of cars on the next siding. Two carlengths, one, half, good. With a few gentle chuffs from the stack, he backs the locomotive out and heads for the roundhouse.

Copyright © 2005 by The Chronicle of Higher Education. Published August 5, 2005.

Doubleheader
A Swanton Pacific doubleheader, run for photographers.

No. 1914 on the turntable
No. 1914 on the turntable.