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March 30, 2012 > Silent film stars to arrive on vintage railcar

Silent film stars to arrive on vintage railcar

By Wes Swift, Niles Canyon Railway / Pacific Locomotive Association

On April 1st, Niles will celebrate the 100th anniversary of the arrival of Broncho Billy, one of 53 actors detraining to establish the western filming location of Essanay Studios. Fortunately the railroad still exists as the Niles Canyon Railway, and the railcar the actors will be arriving on has a rich history of celebrities traveling aboard.

The car was built in 1907, and arrived to take its first trip for the Yosemite Valley Railroad on April 1st, 1908 carrying travelers between Merced in the Central Valley, to El Portal at the doorstep of Yosemite Valley. With a destination like Yosemite, the railroad became an artery for travelers to the park and naturally attracted celebrities as well. The first class car was known as the Yosemite Valley #330, or YV330. It was an observation car with a large rear deck adorned with a brass railing, an ornate solarium in the rear deck ceiling, mahogany and walnut interior, with stained glass transoms on the windows and opalescent glass clerestory windows.

As the first class car of the railroad, nearly all celebrities who rode the railroad found comfort in the cool wicker chairs or sat on the rear deck on mahogany deck chairs. In 1909, the president of the United States became the first know celebrity to ride the car, and during his stay in the park had a peak named in his honor, Taft Peak. The rotund President Taft was followed by Yosemite notables John Muir, and later, Ansel Adams.

Travel to Yosemite before 1926 was possible by automobile, but problematic at best due to difficult roads and the fragile nature of early automobiles. The railroad seized upon that, and offered a auto ferry service for the well-to-do. Movie stars such as Buster Keaton, Fatty Arbuckle, Mae West, Mary Pickford and Doug Fairbanks all traveled in style on the YV330, while their automobiles rode flatcars on the same train.

The Yosemite Valley Railroad suffered when the "All Year Highway" opened in 1926, ushering out the golden age of luxury travel to Yosemite. There were still important people traveling by rail, but only one of the last two celebrities rode the YV330, Winston Churchill. The other dignitary was Franklin Roosevelt who, due to his polio traveled on a special car adapted for his wheelchair.

All good things come to an end, and the Yosemite Valley Railroad was no exception. The railroad was abandoned in 1945, and YV330 was sent to San Francisco to be sold. Eventually, it ended up as a roadside diner in the tiny northern California town of Yreka. As a derelict, it was set to be destroyed in a fire training exercise when the author of this article and his wife Claudia stepped in to save it in 1995. After a lengthy and still not complete rebuild, it is alive and well on the Niles Canyon Railway, ready to accommodate a new generation of silent film actors.

You may wonder how much it cost to save the car from destruction... a measly dollar!

Ride through Niles Canyon with Broncho Billy
Sunday, Apr 1
11 a.m.
Niles (Fremont)
(510) 494-1411

The Steam Train Ride on Sunday, April 1st is at 11 a.m. - it will host our "Broncho Billy," 52 Essanay Players and relatives of Essanay family members coming from far and wide across the state to celebrate their family's film heritage whether they were actors, blacksmiths, painted scenery, wrote scenarios, or worked behind or in front of the camera. The general public is welcome to ride in remaining seats.

Suggested donation for the train ride:
Children age 3-12: $7 (Infants through age 2, ride free)
Seniors age 62 and older: $10
General: $12

Tickets will be available prior to the train ride on April 1. Visit for additional opportunities to ride steam or diesel trains throughout the Spring, Summer and Fall.

Those who plan to arrive in period costume can leave a message at (510) 494-1411 or email: in advance to be placed on a waiting list for a FREE a train ride with Broncho Billy and his entourage.

Photo Caption: Early day vacationers on the Yosemite Valley Observation #330 enjoy a ride down the Merced River Canyon. Obviously headwear was in vogue around 1909, and ties a must for the appropriately attired travelling public.

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