Monday, August 1, 2011

Railway History: All Aboard for New Train Exhibit

From San Ramon Patch: All Aboard for New Train Exhibit
The new exhibit that opened July 26 at the Museum of the San Ramon Valley features local railroad history, told through the story of the 'Toonerville Trolley,' and features model railroads on display through August 21.
Trains have a special kind of draw for people of all ages.

The new exhibit at the Museum of the San Ramon Valley, on display through August 21, tells the local story of the railroad line that ran through the San Ramon Valley until 1978, and its impact, through photographs, artifacts, video, and model trains.

Always a popular part of the annual display, the exhibit features model trains on the move.

Currently the larger sized “S gauge” scale model trains are on display through August 6, presented by the Bay Area S Scalers model railroading club.

On August 7, the European Train Enthusiasts will showcase smaller "N gauge" scale trains, until August 21.

The universal appeal of the trains draws in people who don’t typically come to the museum, says Danville resident and volunteer docent, Craig Miller.

Miller has been a docent for the past seven years.

During the exhibit, special guest conductors are on hand to run the trains and share their knowledge with museum visitors.

One of the volunteer engineers, Lee Johnson, of the Bay Area S Scalers, started model railroading when he was nine or ten years old.

Johnson has noticed that the trains seem to hold the attention of the youngest visitors — they usually aren’t eager to leave, he says.

Young children are particularly fascinated by the steam engines, according to Johnson — they like to see the moving parts, particularly the wheels.

Diesels are also popular because children see them more frequently and “can relate to them.”

In fact, the trains one sees in childhood tend to make the most lasting impressions for those who ultimately pick up the model-railroading hobby, he says. “Most people model the trains they knew as children.”

This holds true for Johnson himself, who is most interested in the steam engines and early diesels of the 1940s and 1950s that he saw as a child.

But while the trains capture the interest of young and old alike, Johnson says he and his fellow modelers are concerned about holding the interest of children as they move into their adolescence.

They hope to engage a new generation of enthusiasts to carry on the tradition.

Drew Frank, 7, of San Ramon, might be a candidate.

He says he came to the museum with his family because he “likes trains a lot”— his favorites are the Southern Pacific railroad cars and the steam engines.

Frank says he finds the trains interesting and “likes to learn lots about them.”

The museum is trying to encourage that enthusiasm, by making the local history of the railroad accessible to kids.

In addition to the model railroad display, the exhibit features a Thomas the Train railroad set for kids to play with; a period rail crossing bell that delights children with its loud sound; and local stories to make railroad history come alive.

In particular, this year's exhibit tells the story of the Danville branch of the Oakland Antioch and Eastern Railway, dubbed the ‘Toonerville Trolley,’ after a popular comic of the time.

The Toonerville Trolley was an electric light rail that ran from Saranap (now a part of Walnut Creek), down the middle of Hartz Avenue, and out to the Diablo Country Club from 1914-1924.

To say that the rail-line, and the people that ran it and rode it were somewhat “quirky” is an understatement, and learning their stories is a real treat when you visit the exhibit.

For example, because the rail tracks often became misaligned, passengers regularly had to pitch in and grab picks and shovels from under their seats to help get the car moving again.

And, if you happened to be a Republican, you especially had to pitch in, because William ”Pop” French, known as “The Skipper” of the trolley, was an avid Democrat. He had an ongoing "friendly rivalry" with his Motorman, Frank Flautt, who was an equally as avid Republican.

French reportedly took great pleasure when the railway tracks needed to be repaired calling out, “Republicans, mount the shovels!”, and would sit back puffing on his pipe while Flautt and the passengers made the necessary repairs.

Through such preserved anecdotal stories, artifacts and photographs, as well as the model trains themselves, perhaps a new generation of train enthusiasts will be inspired to continue to ride the rails.

For more information about the exhibit, please call 925-837-3750 or visit

The Museum of the San Ramon Valley is located at 205 Railroad Ave. in Danville.

Hours: Tues.-Sat. 10-2 p.m., Closed Sunday and Monday.

Cost: Free for museum members; $3 for Adults; $1 for Children; $5 for a Family; $2 for Students (with id)

Did you know?:

The depot that houses the museum originally sat 600 feet to the south, and thousands turned out to see it moved to its current location on June 9, 1996.

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