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Cab Ride on the SMVRR

By Hal Madson

I was approached some time ago to make an appearance in a video on the coast line being filmed by Bob McMillan of Valhalla Video Productions. He had a copy of my book and wanted to feature a segment on the Santa Maria Valley Railroad. We filmed the SMVRR on Thursday, July 31st.

The filming started at the engine house located at Miller Street and the tracks, and using the idling GP-9, 1801 for a backdrop, I narrated a short history of the railroad industry here in Santa Maria. We then "chased" the daily switching job as performed by the crew consisting of Tom Braunger, engineer and Vince Martinez, brakeman/conductor. Bob asked Dave Jennings, the general manager, about the possibility of a cab ride, and Dave said that he would see what he could do.

Dave gave us a brief rundown of where the crew would be working that day, and we initially set up right on Jones and Thornburg to get in some "street running" which is always popular with rail buffs. We noticed right away that the track crew was replacing a rail on the short pass just west of us and had a target attached to the main line rail "blocking" the track. The locomotive couldn't pass till the target was removed for an all clear and was delayed about a half hour.

The next location was at Bell siding, which is used to store inbound cars. The crew picked up three reefers for the potato packing sheds on Depot Street, a load of lumber and a hopper of plastic pellets bound for the "Airbase".

We got some excellent shots from the diamond where the north/south line crosses the main as they shoved the three reefers into the loading area. Potatoes are about the only fresh vegetable crop shipped anymore, however at least one shipper is experimenting with some broccoli shipments by rail to the east coast.

After they were done at the potato packing sheds we rushed down line to set up at the McCoy Lane crossing for a shot of the train now consisting of the hopper and lumber car. Bob uses two cameras to get two different angles of an oncoming train or he sets them up to capture the oncoming shot as well as the departing shot. The film is spliced later to complete a "run-by".

We got some shots of the switching at Okonite Cable Company where an empty boxcar that had been loaded with aluminum was picked up and the hopper was left on the drill track. The lumber car was left on the main at the lumberyard. We had a radio tuned to the railroad's frequency and so knew that they were on the way back to Bell to do some more switching.

Back at Bell the boxcar was left on the main while the locomotive drifted down the spur to one of the freezer plants served by the railroad. They picked up a loaded reefer, put it on the main with the boxcar and then replaced it with an empty. The train then crossed Stowell Road where we got additional footage and then we had our first dilemma. We knew that they were going to switch the truss factory and we also knew that they were going to make a pickup at the refinery on Sinton Road. We wouldn't have time to shoot both. Bob was going for the best shots, so I told him, "let's go to the refinery, that's your best shot."

We got set up at Carr and no train. We waited, and still no train. We had the radio on and no traffic. I told Bob that they were probably tied up for beans. We called Dave on his cell phone. Dave told us that he was at the junction switch, which was a mile or so west of our location. The next thing we knew he shows up in his company car. By this time we could see the headlight on the locomotive. They had added another reefer and an empty lumber car from the truss factory. Dave said that there should have been two more reefers, but something must have happened to delay them. They picked up the one tank car of petroleum distillates that was at the Carr loading rack. Dave told us that they have a hard time getting enough tank cars (from the UP) to supply the refinery. The next stop was Guadalupe. Bob wanted a shot of the train arriving at Guadalupe and hoping the Starlight would be going through at the same time.

I asked Dave "where do we get on?" He replied, "Meet me at the west end of the receiving yard" which is Barsug. We could ride from there back to Carr. I told Bob he had a choice; he opted to skip the Guadalupe shot and ride the train! That's a no brainer, right? We set up at Barsug and got the train, which consisted of an empty lumber car, two reefers, a boxcar and the tank car as they headed into the interchange at Guadalupe. There was no return traffic. Dave told us that the next day over twenty cars were due to be picked up. Dave had the crew stop at the west end of Barsug and that's where we got on leaving Bob's car.

Bob opted to ride the front of the locomotive so he could film the trip. Vince stayed with him while I made my way back to the cab where Tom opened the door and said “welcome aboard.” After introductions, I took the fireman's seat and we started back to our destination at Carr where David would be waiting to take us back to Bob's car. I can't begin to tell you how awesome it is to ride in the cab of a locomotive! I managed to take the last shots on my roll of film. I had a long conversation with Tom. He asked me what we were doing and I related to him Bob's project. I mentioned that he had called me because I wrote “the book”. He said you wrote that book? He went on to say that he had a copy and really enjoyed it. He remarked on the amount of research I had done, he seemed really impressed. Here he was making me feel important while all the time I was impressed riding up there in the cab with him!

As we rode along we came to road crossings. It was so cool to be in the cab looking down at the cars stopped for us and not the other way around. We crossed the newly re-built trestle that crosses “Green Canyon.” Dave told us that they re-built it in just three days, working on a weekend. That's another story. We were traveling long hood forward and when the locomotive swung across the road at the junction to head for Santa Maria, that was another experience. It looked like we passed the switch entirely before she answered her helm.

Well, the ride wasn't long enough; Carr came up way too fast even though the locomotive poked along at just nineteen miles per hour. David picked us up and took us back to Barsug, where we caught the Starlight on tape and then headed for home ourselves. What a great day.

We are really appreciative of the SMVRR and all the help they were to us on this project.

SMVRR No. 1801 at the diamond pushing the lumber car and hopper west to the west leg of the wye before continuing south to the Airbase. Bob McMillan photo.

View from cab looking down line to the "Green Canyon" trestle.

A side view of No. 1801 with the enginehouse in the background.

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