Antique train takes passengers on a trip through time

Double T Acres' history train boarded May 24.

June 3, 2008 

The tracks begin and end at the Double T Acres in Stevinson, the locomotive hasn't belched steam and smoke in almost 60 years, and the four cars behind it have been parked at various sidings for nearly as long.

But on May 24, the oldest existing Union Pacific standard gauge steam engine rumbled to life and more than 35 people took a ride in a 1914 vintage dining car through the Valley to Chowchilla - or so it seemed.

For Tony Azevedo, co-owner of the Double T with his wife Carol, the trip down the tracks began more than five years ago when he acquired an 1887 standard gauge steam engine from a museum in Portola. The engine, originally named No. 737, worked Union Pacific tracks on the east coast until about 1950 when it was retired and passed on to various collectors.

In 2004, Azevedo took possession of a dining car that had carried passengers until about 1960 and two other cars to follow his antique locomotive, including a vintage caboose, the Santa Fe's No. 414.

Assisting Azevedo in acquiring his collection has been California State Railroad Museum Curator of History and Technology Kyle Wyatt, who has helped with authentication of several pieces and tracking of others.

As the antiques arrived in Stevinson tracks were put in place at the Double T. A cover for the siding went up as did a platform for passengers to board the train, and the interior of the dining car was refurbished allowing 46 people to eat as they traveled.

But travel where? A couple hundred feet of track doesn't lend itself to lengthy sorties by train even if Azevedo's pre-20th-century engine could build a head of steam.

The answer rests in another dimension, one not bounded by steel infrastructure nor confined to the limits of steam-driven pistons. Azevedo's train travels in a virtual environment backward through time.

The "History Train's" journey begins when twin digital projectors, mounted in fold-up ceiling compartments at each end of the vintage dining car broadcast a computerized compilation of historic photographs and film clips onto a pair of screens that automatically extend and retract from the car's ceiling near its doors.

The projection highlights the role the railroad played in the development of the Central Valley, including its significance in bringing immigrant pioneers to farm the land and taking crops from depots and sidings to distant markets.

"We gleaned the pictures from all the museums in Merced County," Azevedo said.

Once the visual lesson ended, the lights in the dining car came on and the History Train left the Double T, that night on a journey to Chowchilla.

Passengers in the car felt the jolt as the engine took slack out of the couplers between cars and heard the engine's pistons fire in progressively more rapid sequence. The car jostled and rocked as the train picked up speed, its motion eventually settling into rhythmic swaying as the muffled sound of steel wheels clickety-clacking down the track, crossing alarms clanging and an occasional whistle from the locomotive filled the car.

Peeking through the drapes covering the dining car's windows didn't betray the illusion of motion as all passengers could see was total darkness, also an illusion but historically correct according to Azevedo.

"We thought about what it would have been like traveling through the Valley in the middle of the night," he said. "We asked some of our ancestors what did they see out of the windows (of the train) and they said 'dark.'"

The ride lasted about two hours, long enough for dinner to be served and for the conductor to punch the ticket of each passenger.

More noise from between the cars, jostling as the locomotive braked and, over a speaker inside the car, an announcement of the train's arrival back in Stevinson ended the virtual journey - but with one final illusion. As passengers peered out the windows, now transparent, they saw the car move past one of the siding's vertical supports.

When asked how he managed to create the sensation of motion passengers inside the train felt, Azevedo said, "The locomotive burns coal, which heats water and creates steam that drives a piston. . ."

But it is no secret Azevedo plans to continue the restoration of his vintage railroad.

"We are a long way from being finished," he said. "We're going to restore all the cars, with Kyle's help of course."

Azevedo said the history train would make a good venue for clubs and organizations that want to host fund-raisers.

As for those who came to take the trip on May 24, Azevedo said, "They were just people who showed an interest in riding the train. For me, I get a lot of enjoyment out of watching people having a good time and talking to each other."

For more information about the history train and Double T Acres go to http://www.thedoublet.com

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