Monday, June 19, 2006

All Aboard!

All Aboard!
Restored Nut Tree Train on Track for Summer Return
By Amanda Janis/Business Writer

Above, the engine has been brilliantly refurbished by a team of employees from San Joaquin Valley's Hillcrest Shops and Christmas Tree Farm for its return to the redeveloped Nut Tree in Vacaville. (Courtesy Photo)

After more than 30 years of service and nearly a decade of hibernation, Engine No. 5 is once again poised to take to the tracks at the Nut Tree.
But it's no surprise.

The Vacaville City Council required that master developer Snell & Co. incorporate the train into the redevelopment of the historic 76-acre site.

"I don't think there's too many cities that go out there and say you can build a development but you'll have to put the train back," acknowledged Mayor Len Augustine recently, at the unveiling of a carousel which will grace the projects's 3.7-acre family amusement park. "But we took that risk."

Vacaville Museum Director Shawn Lum, herself a former Nut Tree employee, explained, "The hallmark of the Nut Tree - one of the things that made it different from other venues in its heyday - was that it purposely appealed to families. The train is the quintessential symbol of that."

Though it was functioning transportation in that it ferried pilots from the airport to the Nut Tree's upscale restaurant, she said, "it was definitely the thing that kids ran to the quickest as soon as the car was in the parking lot. Families were welcomed by the sound of the train."

Lum continued, "Locally it was something that people could wrap their arms around. It was very accessible, so it caused not just the tourist sort of element but it also was what the community saw as representative of this special place of theirs. It wasn't an elitist element."

While it will not shuttle pilots as it once did, the refurbished train will resume another previous purpose - delighting riders of all ages. Engine No. 5 will traverse 1,700 feet of the Nut Tree Family Park, which is scheduled to open in late summer.

The notorious steam engine replica, made by Hurlbut Amusement Company, will be officially unveiled Wednesday at San Joaquin Valley's Hillcrest Shops and Christmas Tree Farm, where it was painstakingly refurbished over the past five months.

"It was in pretty sorry shape," said Sean Bautista, owner of Hillcrest Shops. "The locomotive had a lot of rust and corrosion all through the chassis and floor, the wheels were worn - everything was either seized up or not functioning."

Bautista and his team of nine employees did a complete tear-down of the locomotive. "We ended up making a whole bunch of new parts for it - all new brake rigging, new transmission, new engine," he said. "It's essentially a brand new locomotive that looks exactly like the original."

But restoring the passenger cars presented one of the biggest challenges, he said.

"The old cars had rusted from the inside out, all through the sheet metal," Bautista explained. "The hard part is that when they built the cars way back when, they had no intention of them being taken apart again. It was very monotonous and labor intensive to try and cut those walls off and put new walls on without destroying the shape."

In addition to structural work, his team replaced everything inside the six original cars, gave the exterior fresh paint, new valances and Nut Tree insignias.

They also built two new passenger cars, one of which is wheelchair-accessible, Bautista said.

"It looks every bit as good as it ever did," he asserted. And he ought to know, because like millions of others around the world, Bautista has his very own Nut Tree train memories.

"I remember that train because I'm a pilot and if a girl was really important I'd fly her out to the Nut Tree," he recalled.

Indeed, fusing past memories with the present and future is what the admission-free Family Park hopes to achieve by reviving classic Nut Tree icons - from honey cookies to hobby horses.

In addition to lavishly landscaped grounds and family-oriented amusement rides, a museum focused on Nut Tree and California history will be at its heart, located inside Harbison House, the Nut Tree founders' original 1907 home.

"People will be able to access their old memories within the context of the new Nut Tree," Lum remarked.

Most locals agree, however, it's the train which will be the biggest nostalgia spark.

"When you see that train come around, just stand there and listen to the people around you and everyone of them is going to say something like 'I rode that train when was I was 2 years old!"' said Carol Yount, a deputy city clerk who previously worked at the Nut Tree for 22 years. "They're going to be in the midst of this brand-new development and as soon as they see that train it's going to take them back. Just listen."

Yount was chairwoman of the adhoc "Save the Train" committee.

"When we heard the city first say something about saving that train it was like, 'Oh, my gosh! That would be like frosting on the cake!"' she said.

"It's sort of a symbolic thing," Yount explained, noting that "everyone" rode the train - from children to grandchildren, even celebrities and presidents.

"Generations rode that train," she emphasized. "You see things like that and it triggers memories."

Amanda Janis can be reached at

John Begandy and Adrian Vanden-Bosch pose with the No. 5 engine in 1985.

A "before" photograph of the cow catcher of the Nut Tree train. (Courtesy photo)

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