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  • The Amador Central

    Text and Photography by Sean Zwagerman

    MAIN PHOTO: The view from No. 11 of the scenery east of Pete's Hole, looking down at Rock Creek. ABOVE: Baldwin S-12 No. 10 and SW1200 No. 11 at the Martell enginehouse. LEFT: Engineer Jeff Schultz
    RailNews - July 1997 - Page 34 RailNews - July 1997 - Page 35

    RailNews - July 1997 - Page 36

    Earlier this year, Georgia pacific sold a large portion of its timber holdings in the Sierra foothills along with a lumber mill at Martell, California, to Sierra Pacific Industries. Sierra Pacific, however, was not particularly interested in the mill: the pearl in this transaction was the timberland. And so it was that shortly after Sierra Pacific purchased the mill, it announced its intention of shutting it down, putting about 200 people out of work at the end of March. In these times when computer and telecommunications companies are laying off employees by the thousands, of what consequence, one might ask, is the loss of a mere 200 jobs in a place few people have ever heard of? Looking just at the numbers, it does seem a minor story. But the stilling of the mill in Martell can be considered in another way-as a local insurance of the larger trend of mergers and layoffs, as one community's version of a story that is being told nationwide. By telling Amador County's story, I hope to show how much was lost along with those 200 jobs.

    Of primary interst here is the loss of the Amador Central Railroad, a feature of the local landscape for over 90 years. When I first wrote about Amador Central for Pacific Railnews in 1994, I mentioned the railroad's remarkable resilience. The short line not only prospered, despite the precarious California lumber industry and the numerous times down the decades that the mill and its railroad changed hands. In 1995, in response to the withering of the timber buisness, Georgia Pacific closed one of its other mills in the Sierra foothills and increased production at Martell. To handle the growth in lumber shipments, Amador Central replaced its tired and tempormental Baldwin locomotives with two Electro-Motive Division switchers, purchased from its sister railroad down south-Ashley, Drew & Northern. Amador Central even increased its work force by 33 percent-from three employees to four-hiring Garth Brazil as a new fireman. This allowed his prodecessor, veteran Amador Central employee Louis Leon, to concenttrate full-time on a major track repair project. The railroad seemed destined to remain a resistant and flourishing perenial amidst the drought-stricken timber industry.

    Unfortunately, it is difficult for a 12-mile short line, with four employees and one customer, to control its own destiny. Georgia Pacific sold the railroad's future to Sierra Pacific, and Sierra Pacific spokesman Ed Bond said, "We need a chance to evaluate the railroad's future." In reality, the new owner spent no time at all doing so: Sierra Pacific filed to abandon the line almost immediately. Then the company learned about the conditions attached to abandonment: not only would Sierra Pacific have to remove the track, it would have to restore the right-of-way to its natural condition, as it appeared before Amador Central's construction (then Ione & Eastern) in 1904. With that, Sierra Pacific withdrew the abandonment application to "evaluate the railroad's future." Since the company's subsidiary Sierra-Pine will continue operating the particle board plant at Martell, some held out hope that Amador Central might survive. But Sierra-Pine President Dwight O'Donnell said, "It's unlikely the particle board plant would generate enough material to justify the rail line's continued operation." Instead, Siena-Pine will truck the particle board south to the mill at Chinese Camp, where the Sierra Railroad will haul it down from the mountains.

    As could be expected, many people appeared with suggestions for saving Amador Central, ranging from the reasonable to the impractical, from the imaginative to the imaginary. At the reasonable and imaginative end of the spectrum was Mike Hart, president of Amador's mountain neighbor, the Sierra Railroad. Hart offered around $300,000 for the short line and the mill site, which he planned to convert to an industrial park. According to Amador Central's General Manager Annette Polte, Hart's offer was "about what the railroad's worth." Sierra Pacific, however, set the price at $1 million.

    Among the impractical and imaginary plans is the in evitable dream of a tourist train. Annette Polte points out the obvious liability nightmares connected to such a scheme, and attorney Theodore Phillips notes, "The people who own the ranch land the railroad runs through would fight against running tourist trains or even, for that matter; turning the light-of-way into some kind of multi-use public trail." Furthermore, the features making the route unique and beautiful also make it impractical as a tourist line: it runs between Ione and Martell, which most people would read as "between nowhere and no place." All such visions are now mere dreams, however, for it seems that Sierra Pacific has in deed made a decision on the railroad's future: on April 15, Amador Central locomotive No. 11 left Martell for the Sierra Pacific mill at Quincy, California, and soon No. 12 will move to the mill in Susanville. Thus Amador Central has effectively-if unofficially-been abandoned, though its traces will apparently remain on the land, to slowly decay like an untended vine.

    One proponent of turning the line into a tourist railroad said of Amador Central, "It's nostalgia, it's memorabilia. It brings back the past and a slower pace of life." It was probably in these same terms that Sierra Pacific viewed the railroad, and saw it as out-dated and expendable. What has been lost however, is not nostalgia and memorabilia, not some reminder of the past. What has been lost is a unique and vital railroad, operated in the present by actual people, in a small, rural county that cannot afford the loss. Nostalgia is what remains, scraps and memories as lifeless and sentimental as dried flowers.

    "This is devastating to this community," Annette said. 1 arrived at her office early on the morning of March 28, with a sympathetic (and, after a two-day trip from Los Angeles, somewhat pathetic) bouquet of flowers. "And after 26 years," she conceded, blinking away tears, "it's really hard." Louis Leon, who has been with the railroad even longer than she, will go to work for a railroad contractor down in the valley. Engineer Jeff Schultz has been hired by the Sierra Railroad, and Garth Brazil will continue to work for Georgia Pacific in Arkansas.

    "I've found everybody a job but myself," Annette said, She loaded her office into cardboard boxes, saving over two decades worth of articles and photographs. "The bulldozers are coming next week, and I'm not going to let them destroy all this." Annette had agreed to donate Baldwins 9 and 10 to a railroad museum in Folsom, but Sierra Pacific reneged on the donation, offering instead to sell the locomotives to the museum. The museum members are angry, and Polte is offended and hurt. "I have never," she said, "gone back on my word."

    After a 10-minute stop at Halfway to cool its brakes, the train is under way once again.
    RailNews - July 1997 - Page 37

    This is a story, then, whose characters are true and genuine, a story about a few of the individual faces and names behind the impersonal statistic of 200-laid-off employees.

    It is also a story about stories, and this perhaps is the saddest, yet most subtle loss. As Joan Didion wrote, "We tell ourselves stories to live," to explain the world to ourselves, to explain ourselves to each other. Through our shared, everyday stories we establish a sense of connectedness, of community, of belonging. As we left Martell in locomotive No. 11, pulling the last seven cars out of the mill, we were taking part, for one last time, in the living story of Amador Central. The stations along the line are not marked by buildings, or even signs-just by stories.

    As the employees go in separate directions, who will tell the story of how the station called Pete's Hole got its name? Who will care-or know-to ask? The only place the station is marked is on the mental map of the people who run the railroad. When they go, the map and the story disappear with them, or linger on as artifacts, as nostalgia. Who will know that Halfway is the place we stopped, as trains have stopped thousands of times before, to let the brakes cool on the downhill trip to Ione, and to gaze one last time across the creeks and ridges to the distant Sacramento Valley? Between Sunny brook and Overpass, we descended into a sweeping curve through a soft green field, scattering as usual a herd of cattle, which has failed to learn from experience that the train will not leave the rails and devour it. Purple lupine grew thick along the tracks, and vivid orange poppies cast an abstract pattern across the verdant meadow.

    "This is really beautiful," I commented to Jeff. "I haven't seen this part of the line before."

    He looked at Garth and they both smiled, as if they knew a story I didn't.

    "If they ever try to run this railroad again," Garth said, "they'll find that the tracks stop at one end of this guy's property and start again past the other end. There won't be anything in between!"

    "We had a derailment here once," Jeff explained, "and when they came to fix it, they found the landowner stealing all the lumber off the car we derailed. They searched his property and found rails, ties, spikes, everything."

    "That's amazing," I responded.

    "Not if you know the family," the storyteller grinned.

    We passed through acres of burned hillsides just west of Lanes.

    "When did that burn?" I asked.

    "About three years ago," Jeff said. "Just before you started, right Garth?"

    A woman waved to us at the next grade crossing. "That was the fire chief's wife," Jeff said, "the one who put that fire out."

    By the end of the two-hour journey, I began to feel included, and to understand what was truly being lost.

    As we arrived in Ione, Jeff began counting. "Seven, eight-I'm going to have to take my shoes off in a minute, I can't count that high!"

    There were 24 photographers in total, along with a swarm of school children and assorted residents of Ione. We all understood in some way that this story mattered, that it was worth the telling though each would tell it differently. We wanted to be members of this community of stories, to feel included in a living narrative that was coming to an end. To look at the last run of Amador Central in this way is of course the luxury of one who was not laid off, and the privilege of one fortunate enough to have participated in the story when it was still being told, and still being lived.

    Sadly, the living story has been supplanted by "nostalgia and memorabilia," by memories, like this one, of what used to be. The Amador Central's story is now the Amador Central's history.

    Thanks and best wishes to Annette Polte, leff Schultz, Garth Brazil, and Louis Leon.

    Article Details

    • Original Author Sean Zwagerman
    • Source RailNews
    • Publication Date July 1997

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