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Western Pacific Railroad Museum tells the story of the little company that could

Carolyn Shipp
Staff Writer

The Western Pacific Railroad Museum, located in Portola, tells the story of a scrappy underdog railroad, the Western Pacific, and how it changed the industry through its innovation and grit.

With 160 locomotives, freight cars, passenger cars and cabooses, the Western Pacific Railroad Museum is renowned for its thorough collection of artifacts from one specific railroad company.

The practically complete collection proves that Western Pacific Railroad invested all its resources in making one of the most productive railroad companies in the West.

Established in 1903, 34 years after the Transcontinental Railroad was completed, the Western Pacific had a lot of catching up to do. Its two competitors, the Southern Pacific Railroad and the Union Pacific, owned a monopoly in the West, but one route they didn’t have was the Feather River Canyon.

The Western Pacific completed the Feather River Route in 1909 and it linked Oakland to Salt Lake City. As the lowest pass in the Sierra, the route served as one of the main connectors to the ocean and to commerce in the East. Though the Southern Pacific had the Donner Pass route, the Western Pacific had the ingenuity that kept the larger railroad at bay for more than 80 years.

The Western Pacific was the first large railway in the West to switch from steam engines to diesel engines. Operational longevity was important to the company as well, as many engines still worked long after their typical lifespan.

Self-lubricating bearings, concrete railroad ties and computers — the Western Pacific embraced technology that was before its time but became the norm, and even the law, after the company’s successes.

The museum is atypical in that the large trains and cars are open to the public to climb on, touch and enter.

“We really very much believe in letting people get it under their fingers,” said Tom Carter, safety control officer and member of the Feather River Rail Society.

A visitor can see firsthand the “rolling blood bank,” a car that traveled the country during the Vietnam War to collect blood for the soldiers. They can see the rotary snowplow, which saved a Southern Pacific passenger train that was stuck on Donner Pass for three days.

Each piece has a story that reflects the bravery, loyalty and hard work of the little railroad that could. However, as profits rose and fell, Union Pacific absorbed the Western Pacific Railroad in 1983.

With donated pieces from the Union Pacific, and the lease of the Portola Locomotive Facility, the Feather River Rail Society, a group formed after the Western Pacific was absorbed, founded the museum in the 1990s.

According to Eugene Vicknair, Feather River Rail Society secretary, the museum prides itself on having functional, mainline-ready locomotives that, despite their age, could run on the tracks.

Those triumphs come from the volunteers and helpers of the museum who restore the engines to their former state of operation.

The two current restoration projects include the redevelopment of four cars belonging to the elite passenger train the California Zephyr. The Zephyr traveled from Oakland to Chicago, taking the Feather River Route, then switching tracks in Salt Lake City, all while providing top-notch dining and comfort on the way.

The other restoration project is the WP 165, the museum’s only steam engine. It stands now as a skeleton of an iron giant, even though it is actually only a smaller switching locomotive.

Other than the entry fees of $8 for adults, $4 for kids and $20 for families, the museum’s main source of income comes from the highly popular “Run a Locomotive” program.

The program is what Vicknair called “a fantasy experience” for train enthusiasts. For an hour at a time, visitors are welcome to operate a locomotive and be an engineer for a day. The program is typically full throughout the museum’s season, which lasts from April to November.

The museum is an inviting place for anyone interested in the story of Plumas County, the attraction of trains and the history of the people who set the county’s standards for work ethic and determination.

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