Historic Bay Area model railroad relocates to Central Coast

Swanton Pacific Railroad, a historic train in the Santa Cruz Mountains, is set to embark on a new journey after a devastating wildfire and a decision by its operators to sever ties. In a generous move, Cal Poly University has donated the bulk of the Overfair Railroad and its cars to Santa Margarita Ranch in San Luis Obispo, putting an end to the apprehension of fans who feared the beloved railway would be scattered once again.

“This is a truly positive outcome,” expressed Molly Engelman, president of the volunteer Overfair Pacific Railroad Society, a dedicated group that has maintained the trains for decades. Engelman emphasized, “Out of all the possible scenarios, this is one of the best ones we could’ve hoped for.”

In recent weeks, loyal volunteers have worked tirelessly at Swanton Pacific Ranch near Davenport, loading flatbed trailers with ties, rails, switches, railcars, and engines. They are preparing for the journey to San Luis Obispo, where they will coexist with the model Pacific Coast Railroad. Engelman humorously remarked, “Essentially, if it’s not nailed down, it’s moving.”

This relocation brings an end to the uncertainty surrounding the railroad’s long history. The beginnings of the iconic train date back over a century when Louis MacDermot constructed a one-third scale steam train for San Francisco’s 1915 Panama Pacific International Exposition. Throughout the years, the engines were separated and scattered until the 1970s, when Al Smith, one of the founders of Orchard Supply Hardware, brought them together and established the Swanton Pacific Railroad on his expansive wooded property in the Santa Cruz Mountains. Smith’s generosity continued after his passing in 1993 when he donated both the land and the railroad to his alma mater, Cal Poly University.

Under the university’s stewardship, volunteers remained integral to the operation and maintenance of the railroad. The ranch would frequently welcome visitors, who could experience the steam trains in action, complete with station platforms and fully functional signal lights and switches.

However, the devastating CZU Lightning Complex Fire in August 2020 inflicted significant damage on the trains and infrastructure, causing Cal Poly to reconsider the financial burden of rebuilding the railroad. This decision left volunteers distraught and concerned for the railroad’s future. Engelman, who has been involved with the railway since she was a mere 3 years old, reflected, “The greatest fear was that it would vanish without a trace. Another fear was that it would be fragmented and scattered in various directions.”

Fortunately, Cal Poly’s decision to donate the majority of the collection to Santa Margarita Ranch appeased most of these fears. This private ranch not only boasts another 5/8 model railroad but also features vintage railroad cars that were once operational at Disneyland in the 1950s. The picturesque ranch, covered in sprawling vineyards, hosts weddings and events where visitors will eventually have the opportunity to ride both vintage railways, once the Overfair Railroad has been restored to its former glory.

Jeff Badger, a renowned steam engine expert and the general manager of the Pacific Coast Railroad at the Santa Margarita Ranch, confidently states, “It will rise again from the ashes. There is enough metal left to replicate the original treasures that were once here.” Badger optimistically believes that the university’s donation will keep the vast majority of the railroad intact and provide ample opportunities for current volunteers to continue their dedicated work. “Our ultimate goal is to bring the entire fleet back together,” affirms Badger, who actively participated in loading old tracks for their journey south. “This includes all the locomotives and recreating many of the lost cars from the CZU Lightning Complex Fire.”

While the conclusion of this chapter carries a hint of bittersweetness for Engelman and other devoted volunteers who have invested countless hours of hard work, they acknowledge that the future holds new possibilities. Engelman explains, “There is a degree of disappointment that it won’t be staying here. However, we have had three years to mourn. This marks the beginning of a new chapter and a fresh journey moving forward.”

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