About – Billy Jones Wildcat Railroad
The Billy Jones Wildcat Railroad is a Grand Scale miniature railroad with a colorful history in Los Gatos, California.
The railroad’s oldest piece of operating equipment is the historic steam locomotive #2, or “Two Spot” as she is often called. The 2-6-2 “Prairie” type locomotive was built in 1905 by the Johnson Machine Works of Los Angeles, to run on the Venice Railway in Venice Beach, California.
For many years during the early 20th Century, the amusement parks at Venice Beach drew thousands of tourists. They often arrived by streetcars, whose owners promoted Venice Beach as a destination to cool off and have fun. By the 1930’s the country was in a depression, and oil wells began sprouting up nearby. Venice Beach was no longer a popular destination for pleasure-seekers.
Billy Jones was born in 1884. When he was just 13 he got his first railroad job with the Southern Pacific Railroad, where he worked for the next 50 years. Billy Jones had a long career with the Southern Pacific, and is credited with saving a number of SP locomotives from being scrapped, and many of them survive today, thanks to him.
In 1939, when the Venice Railway no longer needed #2, it was discarded, along with scrap metal destined for the steel mills of Japan. Billy Jones happened upon the sight, and purchased the 18” gauge #2 on the spot for $100. He hauled the locomotive to his ranch in Los Gatos and restored it to operation. Billy Jones, along with some railroading friends, began building the Wildcat Railroad through the orchards on his ranch in 1941. The first trips were made in 1943. For the next 25 years the Wildcat Railroad delighted thousands of visitors.
Following Billy Jones’ death in 1968, friends and neighbors petitioned the Los Gatos Town Council to save the railroad. Area business people formed a non-profit organization to purchase the railroad from the Jones estate. The Town Council was persuaded to allow it to be relocated to nearby parkland. Volunteers got to work raising funds, laying track, building structures, and thousands of tasks needed to run a railroad. The new Billy Jones Wildcat Railroad opened in 1970.
Number 2 is still the star of the show, but over the years, two diesel locomotives were purchased. This allowed Billy Jones Wildcat Railroad time to rebuild #2 and provided time for regular maintenance of the locomotive. One of the diesels often replaces steam during slower times of the year.
A newly constructed steam locomotive had recently been acquired by Billy Jones Wildcat Railroad before our visit in early June, 2013. Number 5 had just arrived on the property but was not yet ready for revenue service. Number 5 is a 4-6-2 “Pacific” type engine that was custom built for Billy Jones Wildcat Railway by Merrick Locomotive Works of Marshall, WI. Following regulatory permits and volunteer training, it was expected to enter revenue service in July.
The railroad operates with dedicated volunteer crews with some help from park employees. Fares are kept very low, and frequent departures encourage high ridership.
Our visit to Billy Jones Wildcat Railroad
I had arranged our visit with Peter Panacy, CEO of Billy Jones Wildcat Railroad, via telephone a few days before flying to San Francisco. The plan was to meet chief engineer Bill Church at the locked gate at 6:30 on a Saturday morning. Some road construction near my hotel confused my GPS and I was afraid I would not arrive in time, but I managed to get there with a few minutes to spare.
Bill was waiting for me and volunteer Greg Reiter when I drove up. The three of us exchanged early morning pleasantries and walked to the large building housing the locomotives and rolling stock. It appeared that the building had been added on to over the years as equipment and operating changes occurred, but it was all laid out very well. We found #2 and # 5 side-by-side in the building.
Bill Church is the Chief Engineer for Billy Jones Wildcat Railroad. He retired from the Post Office, where he was responsible for keeping high volume mail processing equipment operating at peak efficiency.
Greg Reiter is a professional fire fighter in Southern California. The distance between home and Los Gatos keeps him from volunteering at Billy Jones as often as he would like. Greg grew up near Billy Jones Wildcat Railroad and began volunteering here when he was a teenager.
Under the watchful eyes of Bill, Greg set about checking over #2 before actually starting the fire. Before too long, a burning rag was inserted into the firebox and the atomized fuel began heating the boiler. I kept busy with recording the action with video and still photography. I also wandered around outside the shop to get additional visual material for our production.
As #2 was warming up in the engine house, a slew of other volunteers came and went. (There were free donuts in the shop). Finally there was sufficient boiler pressure and the locomotive came out of the shop into the morning sun. Greg moved the engine back and forth on the shop track. Then it was backed to the car barn where it pulled out three large passenger cars, each capable of carrying 24 riders. The cars were built by Billy Jones volunteers in 1971.
The engine and cars pulled over the turntable to clear the switch to the station, then backed up until the consist was spotted at the platform. Then #2 moved to the turntable for a spin. After turning, the engine proceeded past the cars and station to clear another switch before backing to the train. Already there were people behind the barrier in the station, eager to board, but they would have to wait until the train made one “test” run around the entire park to make sure that the tracks and the train train itself were in good order. Soon the train reappeared and stopped at the station. Once again #2 moved to the turntable while the cars quickly filled with passengers of all ages. The engine was soon connected to the cars and the first trip was underway.
For the rest of the day, trainload after trainload of happy riders were taken and returned from the Billy Jones Wildcat Railroad station. I was given permission by Bill to wander anywhere I pleased to get video footage as long as I was very careful.
Meanwhile, the temperature and humidity in Los Gatos were both rising to an uncomfortable level. After having a delicious BBQ lunch and a bottle of water with Bill, I headed back out to the line near where I had left off. With the video cameras rolling, I heard not a whistle but a horn! What’s this? The next train was being pulled by diesel 3502!
OK, maybe it was just a one-time around for the diesel, but, sure enough the next trip was the same. I walked back to the station area and spotted Bill. He was apologetic but said the hot weather was starting to affect the guys who were operating #2. One of them had brought a laser thermometer which was recording crazy high temperatures inside the tiny locomotive cab. Besides, #3502’s cab was air conditioned. I was disappointed by this turn of events but totally sympathetic. I could not imagine being in the confined space of #2’s cab with the firebox in my face on a humid day such as this.
We continued catching some interesting action with the diesel from several points along the route during the afternoon.
After our long day of filming, I came away very impressed with the professionalism and knowledge that Bill had about the care and maintenance requirements of the equipment used here. Likewise, all of the volunteers I encountered, besides being friendly, were committed to doing their work safely while still having fun.
The railroad and its long colorful history are in good hands, and with the addition of #5 to the locomotive roster, an ongoing tradition of steam will continue at Billy Jones Wildcat Railroad for decades to come! I hope you will visit!
See our story about Billy Jones Wildcat Railroad
Our Billy Jones program, which follows #2 from early morning in the shop and all along the line can be found on the California Steam Stories DVD, along with features about Railtown 1897 State Historic Park and Roaring Camp & Big Trees Narrow Gauge Railroad. More information and a preview of California Steam Stories can be found here.
And if you enjoy Grand Scale railroading, you may like to click on these links:
Thanks for reading!
Steve Mitchell, Yard Goat Images