Facebook Page

Sad Winterail Trip 2013 Part 2

by Chris Guenzler

We drove into the property and after a phone call we met Melissa Bautista who would give us a tour of their railroad.

Hillcrest Christmas Tree Farm Hillcrest & Wahtoke Railroad Visit

Melissa started off taking us into the shop building.

Shop views.

A steam boiler being worked on.

A new project that they are building a locomotive for.

A tender being worked on.

Views of steam engines being worked on.

Another boiler being worked on in the shops. This shop can build and rebuilt almost any small steam engine.

A Brief History

Hillcrest Christmas Tree Farm is the oldest in the San Joaquin Valley. Founded in 1960 by Ed and Bonnie Toews (pronounced Taves) it has been at its current location ever since. The history of the railroad began with Ed if "fake" trains count. Some years back before we owned the place old Ed began building a train to move people about the farm. It featured his only and therefore his favorite, tractor with some serious decoration to make it look like a locomotive. Ed built some cars and a caboose on trailers and the first Hillcrest train became operational. This train wasn't limited to tracks and began running around the whole farm and was featured in some local parades. On the weekends, during the Christmas season, people could enjoy a train for a small fee. In February of 1992 they purchased the farm from the Toews. A year after purchasing the farm we began to explore the idea of adding a "real" train. Wouldn't it be cool to lay track to the different fields of Christmas trees and Pumpkins and use the train to bring the trees, pumpkins and guests back to the parking areas? This began our unquenchable thirst to find a train. Several questions needed answering first:

How big does it need to be?
What gauge should the track be?
Will it fit on our land?
How wide do the turns need to be?
Should it be scale to larger trains?
Should it be real steam or fake?
Where does buy a steam train?

In 1984 while stationed in Texas with the Air Force we discovered an old steam train in an abandoned amusement park in Carlsbad New Mexico. It was straight out of a "Scooby Doo" cartoon mystery. This was some years prior to owning Hillcrest, as a matter of fact this was some years before owning much of anything! We had inadvertently camped next to the parks back fence the night before. The train was a "Winton" (built by Winton Brown of Oakland CA.) It was two foot gauge of approximately 6" scale. The owner, (we tracked down through asking the locals in the bar across the street) was Pete Pelletier, he had commissioned the building of the train and wanted to sell it to us; on the spot; for a very good price. He told us of its history and how it never ran correctly under steam, he even hired the builder and relocated him to New Mexico just to run it, but the locomotive never performed well so they eventually converted it from steam to diesel/ hydraulic. Being militarily poor we couldn't afford the $40,000 he wanted for the locomotive, 5 cars, caboose and 1.5 miles of track. It was a bargain even back then, but we just couldn't spend two years income on a train we had no place for.

When considering the question of where does one buy a train, we chased the Abe Lincoln down first. It had been years since we talked to the owner. He had since passed away and the train, along with the park, had gone through another owner. The city now wanted to make a go of it and didn't want to sell. This closed the door to the possibility of having the "Abe Lincoln" run at Hillcrest. It was probably a blessing that it didn't end up here. We wouldn't know so many very nice 15" gauge railroad folks and the Abe had a 200' minimum turn radius. The curves would be excessively large for our property.

Later that same year while continuing the research (where does one buy a train?) we found a very helpful video titled "Big Little Railroads" initially purchased for landscaping and excavation ideas, it became a Bible to finding the right size train for our needs and the experts who could help us with this quest. One of the train men mentioned was Eric Thompsen. After watching the video 100 times, I called up Tilden Park Steam Trains and Eric answered the phone! It was like talking to a movie star, I was humbled. The family went up to visit the park and meet Eric and our long term friendship began. Eric taught us so much over the years, like how to spike track, build switches and he advised us on the purchase of our very first train. Unfortunately Eric passed away in 1995. Since then his daughter Ellen has taken over the railroad and still operates it to this day. Our relationship with the Thompson family has grown, even after Eric's untimely passing.

In 1994 after so much searching and bugging people like Eric, Ken Keagy and others, we bought our first "real train." It was a "Crown" locomotive with 4 cars that had been owned by Jim Adams, Dave Harms and a group of guys in Illinois. We saw the ad for it in the classified section of a railroad preservation magazine. Funny what you can find in a bookstore at the Railroad museum in Jamestown. This little train had been in several parks over its life time and was sitting on concrete in a barn when we first saw her.

The locomotive was manufactured by the Crown metal works company of Wayno PA. It was their first ever built (serial number 001) and launched them into business manufacturing steam trains, ours was 15" gauge, the smallest size they built. Melissa and I both broke out laughing when we first saw the engine sitting there. It looked like a piece of space junk that had burned up while reentering the atmosphere and crashed through the barn roof. I think our laughter offended the sellers. We weren't laughing at the train, or the guys, but at ourselves. The journey to find this "real" steam train had taken some time and many turns, and now here it is, right before us.

"That's all there is?" I think came out of my mouth. We were laughing at ourselves. So we bought it. Actually, for the price, it allowed us to get started with the track and layout and begin building the railroad.

The above was taken from the Hillcrest Farms Web Site

Our tour

They have this beautiful hand car.

A logging skidder. From here we went inside and met the engineer/designer of the locomotive works here.

One of the current projects.

Some of the pictures on the office wall.

Three views of the Disney Engine that they rebuilt.

The family dog here.

Fire Fighter training class. Now we would tour the engine house.

The fuel tanks use waste oil combined with diesel fuel.

A flat car.

Two views of The Cricket.

Things inside the engine house.

A track speeder.

Boilers for future locomotives.

Vertical boiler locomotive.

Engine 5.

Shay 7.

Diesel 57.

Bob and Melissa with the rear of Engine 13.

The engine house has all the locomotives stored inside. They have to be removed on days they are operating because this is part of the track used for the train ride.

A Garden Railroad is also here.

A Hillcrest logging skidder.

Two hopper cars.

The coal chute.

Future tunnel location.

Bridge on the future line.

The Car Barn.

Interesting switch.

Inside the car barn.

A single spiker.

Passenger Car.

Track Speeder.

The engine and passenger cars were from the Fort Wilderness Railroad that was part of Disney World in Florida.

Steam roller.

Two more views.

Diesel 15.

A pair of flat cars. We thanked Melissa for the fantastic tour and told her we would come back Sunday afternoon after our Niles Canyon Photo Train. From here we drove to Sanger.

Click here for Part 3 of this story