A brief introduction to the Jamestown, California roundhouse once owned by the Sierra Railroad
There was a time when steam-powered, short-line railroads were an important part of life in many small towns. Before the highways were improved, these railroads provided their communities with the only means of reliable transportation by offering a connection to the larger national rail system. Freight trains brought in the goods and supplies a town needed, and carried out its industrial and agricultural products. Passenger trains arrived and departed from the local depot.
One of the key elements of every railroad was its operating and maintenance department. More often than not, the railroad had a locomotive roundhouse and shop facility near its General Office. It took dozens of men to run, maintain, and manage a railroad, and it was frequently the largest employer in town. The railroad was more than an economic lifeline and a transportation service: it was a way of life.
The Historic Sierra Railroad Shops and Roundhouse complex at Railtown 1897 State Historic Park in Jamestown is one of a very few survivors of its kind in North America. Where once you could find at least one roundhouse in every large town or city, and perhaps even in smaller towns too, most are gone today-along with, in many cases, the railroads they once served. Challenged by the growth of private automobile ownership, interstate highway construction, and the rise of air travel, many of these railroads simply went out of business.
Following WWII, many of America's surviving short line railroads were operating on borrowed time. Those that could afford to do so modernized, replacing steam locomotives with newer and more efficient diesel locomotives. The old steam locomotives were sold off or scrapped, along with the tools and machinery used to service them. Shop facilities were either altered for diesel service or torn down to new facilities could be built.
Before anyone realized what was happening, roundhouses and shop facilities had all but disappeared from the American landscape. There were a few exceptions, of course. Today, the Historic Sierra Railroad Shops and Roundhouse complex at Railtown 1897 State Historic Park in Jamestown is one of only two remaining, fully operational original shortline roundhouse complexes in the country. (The other is located on the narrow-gauge East Broad Top Railroad, at Rockhill Furnace, Pennsylvania.)
When the Sierra Railroad dieselized in 1955, it built a new shop at Oakdale, 41 rail miles to the west of Jamestown, in which to maintain its diesels. In an unusual move, however, it retained the Jamestown roundhouse facility to store and maintain steam locomotives and rolling stock for its lucrative sideline business: renting period trains to Hollywood's motion picture companies. From the time it was built until today, this facility has always done exactly what it was intended to do, maintaining steam locomotives. The Historic Sierra Railroad Shops and Roundhouse complex was sold to the State of California in 1982, becoming today's Railtown 1897 State Historic Park.
Each of the tracks in the roundhouse has some type of "pit" arrangement. These pits allow room for workers to get under locomotives for inspection, servicing, and repair. The second track in from the west has what is called a "drop table," used for changing out locomotive driver axle sets. This table consists of a short section of track on an elevator, which allows wheels and axles (as a unit) to be lowered into the pit, transferred underneath the tracks, then raised onto the westernmost track, so repairs can be easily completed without the need to lift the locomotive.
As you look at the front (track entrance) to the roundhouse, you will notice a smaller section to the right. This was the original "Engine House" for the Sierra Railway; it now houses the Machine Shop. A four-stall wooden roundhouse was soon built next to this building as business increased on the railroad. While this structure burned in 1910, the original "Engine House" building was saved from the fire. A replacement, four stall corrugated metal roundhouse was quickly built to replace the damaged structure. Two additional stalls and a motor car garage (to the west) were added in 1922.
The turntable which serves the tracks leading into the roundhouse is the second turntable the railroad installed at this location. The first was a wooden "A-frame" type, sometimes called an "Armstrong" because workers had to push the turntable by hand. This new turntable was purchased used from the Great Northern Railway and installed in 1922. It is powered by an "air motor" which gets compressed air through a pipe. This pipe runs above the center of the table and is fed from the "house air" system located in the complex.
The Machine Shop
This shop is what is commonly referred to as an "overhead line shaft" or "flat belt" shop. In this kind of system, one common motor drives an overhead "line shaft" which in turn powers most of the machinery in the shop. The line shaft's power is transmitted to each machine by a flat, leather belt which is moved into position on the ahft by the machine operator.
A few of the machines in the shop have self-contained motors, which were added later. The reason early shops were powered in such a manner was that individual electric motors did not exist as we know them today. Similar machine shops were aften powered by a stationary steam engine or a Pelton water wheel, as this one probably once was. Today, the historic machine shop is powered by a 20 hp electric motor installed in 1920.
The machinery contained in this shop enabled the Sierra to maintain all its locomotives and cars. The railroad also had the capacity of manufacturing many of the required replacement parts in this shop. The machines range from a large wheel and axle lathe (Niles-Beament-Pond, 1913), which is used to press car wheels on to and off of axles; to a vertical boring mill (Belmont Mills, 1909), used to bore the center hole in the wheel to the right size to be pressed onto an axle; to a large lathe (McCabe, 1911), the largest lathe the Sierra owned and useful for any large project including wheel and driver work.
The shop also contains a number of smaller lathes, power hacksaws and grinding machines. Today, many of the machines remain in use to maintain the locomotives and cars at Railtown 1897 State Historic Park.
Nearby is the store house and the Master Mechanic's Office. In it's heyday the Sierra Railroad employed as many as 75 men in the shop complex, and it was quite a job to keep all those workmen supplied with parts and raw materials. This storehouse was the railroad's "hardware store." Workers could come here and get almost anything from bell rope and brooms to pipe fittings, air brake parts, and simple nuts and bolts. A large selection of parts is still maintained in the building. Some of the larger and less fragile parts are stacked outside, as they were in years past.
Movie Prop Area
The "movie prop area" of the roundhouse complex was originally the carpenter's shop and wood storage area. A large saw and joiner here are powered off the same overhead line shaft system that operated the machine shop. The Sierra owned a large number of wooden cars, and these were maintained in this area. The raw wood materials were kept here under cover and out of the weather. The Sierra even built new railroad cars in these shops.
Today, this area is used for storage of many props left behind from the numerous movies shot on the railroad. Among these are many signs that have graced the depot at Jamestown; "fake" rails made of wood; a smoke box cover; fake smoke stack; and partial caboose used in filming Back to the Future III.
Nearby (to the north) is the railroad's original Blacksmith Shop. Here blacksmiths worked over hot forges, creating the parts and tools needed to keep the locomotives and cars operating. In later years this facility was leased to an outside company for the manufacture leaf springs.
A large tank outside the blacksmith shop supplies compressed air for the shops air system. A 75 horsepower air compressor feeds this tank, which in turn feeds a piping system delivering compressed air to locations as far away as the Ticket Office and the Turntable. The working pressure is 90 psi; the tank could be filled in 5 minutes when the system was new.
Maintaining the Roundhouse and Shops
Since 1992, when management and oversight of Railtown 1897 State Historic Park was assumed by the California State Railroad Museum and Foundation, much has been done to the Historic Sierra Railroad Shops and Roundhouse. Primary focus has been on stabilization of aging foundations and wood frame structures. Another important area of concern has been fire suppression. In this regard, automatic sprinklers have been added to much of the complex.
Funding for these and many other projects at Railtown 1897 State Historic Park has come from California State Parks, other state and federal funding sources, and from private donations and the California State Railroad Museum Foundation. If you would be interested in supporting ongoing preservation at Railtown 1897 State Historic Park, we invite you to Support the Museum or consider taking part in our many Volunteer Opportunities.