Take a ride through history
Western Railway Museum restores, displays and runs old trains
Paul Trimble has long since retired, but on Wednesdays and Saturdays, he keeps busy with an avocation that’s held his interest since childhood.
A former newspaperman living in Oakland, Trimble spends his free time welcoming visitors to Suisun’s Western Railway Museum, a place dedicated to a past when trains once formed the backbone of America’s transportation system.
“We are perhaps the No. 1 rail museum in the Far West devoted to suburban and interurban transit,” he said.
Trimble, 67, sometimes plays the role of tour guide. He shares historical knowledge with visitors who ride the trains and streetcars of the old Sacramento Northern railway showcased at the museum.
Although the WRM displays about 50 pieces from all around the country, the museum mostly showcases trains from the heyday of Northern California’s electric era between 1900 and 1950.
One piece in the collection is “Birney” car No. 62. Birneys are trolley cars named after their creator, Charles Birney, and No. 62 actually made the last streetcar run in Chico on Dec. 15, 1947. In its day, Trimble relayed, college students could be seen shaking old No. 62 right off its tracks just for laughs when the trolley made its frequent stops around downtown.
Along with No. 62, the museum runs several trains and cars along five miles of original, restored track procured from Union Pacific.
Petaluma & Santa Rosa Railroad car No. 63 is another of those cars. This piece is restored to its original luster and sports the painted slogans “Ship on Railways and Save on Highways” and “Electric Transportation is Necessity” on its outside. In later years, when trains such as No. 63 had to compete with the automobile, rail companies depended on shipping profits for survival.
Several other trains are currently under restoration at the museum. These restorations can take several years to complete because most of the work is done by volunteers, and labor methods and materials used are not unlike those used in olden days.
“Sometimes you have to buy a tree and cure it for a couple of years,” said volunteer restoration worker Paul Zaborsky.
One car, Salt Lake and Utah Railway No. 751, is under restoration at a cost of nearly $350,000. Almost completed, No. 751 boasts crushed velvet seats stitched in Germany for the main passenger section and leather for the smoking section. No. 751 is an “observation-parlor car,” meaning it serviced passengers as a luxury coach.
Another project is tucked away under lock-and-key in the biggest car house at the rear of the museum. Here the “Bidwell,” a parlor car built in Chico in 1914, awaits funding for restoration. After being decommissioned, the Bidwell became someone’s home until its recovery by the museum in the early 1980s.
Just like the volunteers who donate their extra time to the museum, the Bidwell and other restoration projects must wait until monetary donations can get them moving again.
For Trimble, volunteering is something he doesn’t have to think twice about.
“You have to have a love affair with these things,” he said.