By Terry Grillo
They were never the little engines that could – they were the biggest things on wheels in Amador County and the ground nearby rumbled when they passed.
For decades the Amador Central´s Baldwin diesel locomotives hauled up and down the tracks from Martell to Ione – 12 miles each way at a steady six miles an hour – pulling trainloads of lumber and particleboard to market. Sometimes mill supplies came back on the return trip.
Their air horns blasted at the crossings and they made you clap your hands to your ears. Children of all ages grinned and found them wonderful. The locomotives were built in the early 1950s.
The blue Baldwins were inherited by Sierra Pacific Industries when the mill property, forest land and short line railroad was purchased from Georgia-Pacific about 10 years ago. The operation was renamed the Amador Foothill Railroad and the short line was kept open for a few years.
Now SPI wants to get out of the railroad business and it made an offer to the Amador County Board of Supervisors on the Friday before its Tuesday meeting: Make a decision to accept them as a donation at your meeting, or they could be scrapped.
“What in the world would we do with two locomotives?” asked District 3 Supervisor Richard Vinson.
General Services Administration Director Trevor Mottishaw introduced a series of speakers who pleaded for the locomotives´ preservation.
“A great asset is being offered to the county,” said Dave Butow, President of the Amador Historical Society.
John Nichols is a railroad engineer and had looked inside the engines before he spoke to the board. The locomotives are numbered, No. 9 and No. 10. No. 9 is little more than a parts bin, while No. 10 is operational, he said.
“They were used as switching engines for many years before they came to the Amador Central,” he said. “So when I started taking Number 10 apart I was surprised. There´s nothing wrong with it.” He said it´s as if your uncle bought a brand new Cadillac, drove it gently for a few years and then parked it, and you inherited the car 20 years later.
“Number 10 was operating as of June last year and it was certified by the FRA (Federal Railroad Administration), in March,” he said. “I could have it running in one day.”
Nichols said that if the county – or anyone with pretty deep pockets – had enough money a lot could be done. He talked about a tourist train, one that would especially cater to the wine market.
“You´d need to establish the signal crossings, bring the track up to FRA specs, get the locomotive recertified, get some cars and you´d have a railroad,” said Nichols.
“Many, many locomotives have been restored, not by dollars but with hours and hours of volunteer labor,” he added.
Andy Fahrenwald is a member of the Recreational Railroad Coalition and also a member of the Amador Historical Society. He asked that the Baldwins be preserved, if only on an interim basis.
“As long as the track is still down, the right of way is intact,” he said. “We´re just opening the door to what might be done with the Amador Central.”
The Amador Central line has been leased to the Recreational Railroaders for a year. They operate the little cars with the pump handles and plan events on the line.
The board passed a motion that said, in effect: We would like to more time to consider this offer, but if we can´t have more time, we must decline.
General Services Administration Director Mottishaw said on Wednesday that SPI has agreed to an extension. He said that if anyone would like to help – with suggestions or money – they can reach him at 223-6375.
Reprinted with kind permission from Amador Ledger Dispatch