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Hillcrest Farms' Hillcrest & Wahtoke Railroad 10/31/2021

by Chris Guenzler

Elizabeth and I arose at the Best Western Village Inn and after eating their hotel breakfast and finishing our Internet duties, we checked out. I drove via CA Highway 41 to CA Highway 180 to Reed Avenue which took us about five miles. I turned into the road leading the parking lot where we paid five dollars to park at the Hillcrest Farms.

Hillcrest Farms and the Hillcrest & Wahtoke Railroad 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 was not 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 could not 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 could not 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 Pennsylvania. 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 were not 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 website.

Our Trip

We got out of our car and started to look around.

This is the area where the trains are refuelled.

On the way to the ticket office, we stopped at the gallows turntable then Elizabeth and I purchased our tickets for the first train of the day and walked over to the boarding area to wait for the train to arrive.

Glenwood South Park and Pacific 2-6-0 5 would be the power for this first train of the day and upon its arrival, we boarded an open air car. Now sit back and enjoy the ride around the property behind Glenwood South Park and Pacific 2-6-0 5.

I hope you enjoyed your ride aboard the Hillcrest & Wahtoke Railroad. We exited and decided to ride behind the other engine so bought tickets for the next train and purchased two pins of steam engines 5 and 13, the locomotives we rode behind today. We walked over to get a picture of the train we just rode.

We stopped to photograph our tickets since they collect them when you board.

Glenwood South Park and Pacifric 5 pulled the train that we had just ridden. We walked to the boarding area and waited for engine 13 to arrive.

Glenwood South Park and Pacific 2-8-0 13 would pull our train on this trip. So now sit back and relax on your second trip around the property.

I hope you enjoyed your second trip over the Hillcrest & Wahtoke Railroad. Elizabeth and I walked back to the car and followed the signs out to Reed Avenue on a different routing. I drove us south to Traver and we went south on CA Highway 99.

Union Pacific 2840 West south of Tipton. I drove us to the Valero gas station for petrol in Mettler then Elizabeth drove us to the Jersey Mike's in Orange off Main Street where we had a linner. We took surface streets back to our apartment, thus ending another fabulous railfanning adventure. As I always say, "It is good to be home!"