Dunsmuir is a railroad town and what better place to spend the night in Dunsmuir than a caboose?
The resort was first envisioned as a railway museum with a collection of rolling sock. The museum idea fell through. In 1968, the original owners, Bill and Delberta Murphy opened the Railroad Park Resort as a railroad-themed hotel with accommodations being in cabooses.
The resort now has 28 different cabooses to stay in and is a rail fan’s paradise. One prominent feature is the 1927 Willamette three-truck Shay logging locomotive on static display. There are only six of these Willamette locomotives in existence.The Shay rests besides a wooden water tower.
The resort also features a restaurant that is housed in three passenger coaches. Dining was closed due to the pandemic but was open for take out with caboose-delivery. I was treated with a tasty ravioli and a Caesar salad.
To represent the Railroad Park Resort in my journal I decided to paint the Shay and the water tower near the entrance to the park (featured sketch). For this approach I pulled up a sketching chair near the soothing water fountain and I decided to block in the shapes of the locomotive and water tower in loose, broad paint strokes. I was not so concerned with fitting the entire locomotive on the page, nor was I interested in rendering every detail. This is the sort of painting that if a bystander where to look over my shoulder, would think I have the artistic talent of a brown trout. But out this spattered chaos, you slowly form the image with pen work, once the paint has dried.
The challenge of drawing a Shay is the complexities of it gears. It you look at it as a whole it is daunting but if you break it down to small, manageable shapes, it is doable.
I headed north out of my caboose digs in Dunsmuir to Highway 88 and the town of McCloud.
McCloud was the epicenter for the logging railroad, the McLoud River Railroad (later to become the McCloud Railroad). Much of the ninety miles of track has now been removed and the railroad bed is slowly being converted into a hiking and biking trail called the Great Shasta Rail Trail.
I wanted to get out on the trail and to see what was left of the railroad; quite a bit as I was soon to find out. One section of the trail that I wanted to visit was east of McCloud near the small collection of buildings at Bartle.
It was here that there was once a 25,000 gallon water tower built in 1933. This tower served as a watering stop for the McCloud’s steam locomotives. The water tower was filmed in a beautiful crane shot in the 1986 film, Stand By Me. In the scene, the four boys are walking east down the railroad and the leaky Bartle water tower is on the left.
The film’s director, Rob Reiner, called this shot “one of my favorites in the whole film.”
In 2020, the large water tower is gone, it collapsed in July of 2011. Half of the stand that the tower stood on is still by the side of the former railroad bed. I pulled out my sketching stool and stretched what was left of the tower.
After sketching the remains of the Bartle Water Tower, I headed back along Highway 88 to McCloud. I wanted to see what was left of the McCloud Railroad. The company had abandoned most of it’s tracks by 2006. I had a vague idea that the rail yard was in the northern part of town.
After a search, I came upon a railroad grade crossing. I pulled over and hiked up the tracks and I was unprepared for what I was about to discover.
This was any rail fans’s dream: having an abandoned rail yard all to yourself!
A special thanks to railroad author Jeff Moore who helped give me information about the past and present of the McCloud Railroads. I highly recommend his Acadia Publishing book Rails Around McCloud. His website about the McCloud is: http://mccloudriverrailroad.com/index.htm
It was long after dark when we got to Johnson’s Ranch, so the first time I saw it was early in the morning. The weather was fine, the ground was covered with green grass, the birds were singing from the tops of trees, and the journey was over. I could scarcely believe that I was alive.
The scene I saw that morning seems to be photographed on my mind. Most of the incidents are gone from memory, but I can always see the camp near Johnson’s Ranch.
~John Breen, April 24, 1847
John Breen wrote this letter once he had crossed the Sierra Nevada Mountains into the foothills of California as a member of the emigrant group now known as the Donner Party.
Out of the 87 members of this doomed party only 48 survived. Most of the 48 survivors where women and children. Breen and his family were lucky. All of their family members survived.
It is unclear where Breen wrote this well known letter but is was either at Sutter’s Fort (in present day Sacramento) or at Johnson’s Ranch (near Wheatland).
Johnson’s Ranch was the first settlement the emigrants encounter once they entered California on the California Trail. They often paused here after the grueling passage over Donner Summit before heading down to Sutter’s Fort in present day Sacramento. They would camp near the banks of the Bear River.
Once the Breens came into California at Johnson’s Ranch and then Sutter’s Fort, they relocated to the mission town of San Juan Bautista.
Johnson’s Ranch was a Mexican Land Grant that eventually ended up in the hands of Willian Johnson. In 1846 be built a humble adobe house that became known as Johnson’s Rancho.
During the winter of 1847, the seven surviving members of the Forlorn Hope staggered into Johnson’s Ranch. They were a party that set out from Truckee Lake in order to get help for the ill fated Donner Party. The party got lost and of the 17, only seven made it to the ranch. The survivors that made it to included it’s leader William Eddy, and sisters Sarah Fosdick, and Mary Ann Graves.
All of the relief parties that took the remaining survivors from the Lake and Alder Creek Camps back into California, staged and departed from Johnson’s Ranch.
Today the town of Wheatland is near the location of the ranch. Nothing remains of the original ranch. Just California Registered Historical Landmark No. 493. The plaque sits in the town’s park near the railroad tracks. It reads:
The first settlement reached in California by emigrant trains using the Emigrant (‘Donner’) Trail, this was an original part of the 1844 Don Pablo Gutiérrez land grant. It was sold at auction to William Johnson in 1845, and in 1849 part of the ranch was set aside as a government reserve-Camp Far West. In 1866, the town of Wheatland was laid out on a portion of the grant.
One benefit of sheltering in pace and the global pandemic is that it has forced me to walk around my neighborhood (for sanity’s sake).
When you get out in the neighborhood you start to notice details you haven’t seen before. You noticed the little details of houses that before seemed all the same. Details are the route newly noticed.
One thing that I have noticed on my walks of San Francisco’s Outer Sunset District is the proliferation of little boxes on wooden poles. These are the little libraries.
The box on top of the pole contains one or two selves lined with books. These boxes are used to take a book or leave a book and they are all free. It seems odd in a city there is actually something free! Well not exactly free. I donated three books:
The Road to Little Dribbling by Bill Bryson (Good but not as good as Notes From a Small Island.)
The Lost City of the Monkey God by Douglas Preston
The Devil’s Highway by Luis Alberto Urrea
The nonprofit company behind these boxes is Little Free Library, a Wisconsin based company that inspired 100,000 boxes (and counting) in 100 countries (and counting).
People can either build their own library of have one pre-made. Once it is installed, usually in the front yard, facing the sidewalk, the library is registered and added to a map so reading in the community know where to find a Little Free Library.
O Mary I have not wrote you half the trouble we have had but I have Wrote you enough to let you know what trouble is. . . Don’t let this letter dishearten anybody never take no cutoffs and hurry along as fast as you can.
-Virginia Reed, letter to her cousin Mary Keyes, May 16, 1847
Once the survivors of the Donner Party made it out of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, they dispersed into the state of California.
One can barely imagine how the horrors of their experience in the Sierra Nevada Mountains stayed with them as then conducted their lives, starting businesses, had families, lived their lives, and died far away from the mountains, settling in to the coastal region of the Golden State.
I headed down to the county of my birth, Santa Clara County, to visit California’s oldest secular cemetery, founded before the Gold Rush in 1847. This is Oak Hill Funeral Home and Memorial Park, southeast of downtown San Jose.
This is the final resting place for ten survivors of the Donner Party. About 20% of the 48 survivors are buried here.
The year 1847 was an important one for the Donner Party. This is the year that the survivors, in five groups, made it out of the jaws of death from the campsites on Donner Lake and Alder Creek to the salvation of the Central Valley at Johnson’s Ranch and then on to Sutter’s Fort.
Near the core of the old cemetery is the plot of the Reed and Lewis families in Section D which is now named the “Pioneer” section. Here lies the patriarch of the family James F. Reed and his wife Margaret.
James Reed was one of the leaders of the party and if it hadn’t been for the moment of rage that caused the death of a teamster, stabbed to death by Reed and his subsequent banishment from the party on October 6, 1846, the group might have gone done in history as the Reed Party.
The Reed and the Donner families are like a tale of two clans with two different outcomes from their ordeal in the winter of 1846-47. All of the members of the Reed family survived while the Donner family suffered the most out of any family group. All four adults and four children perished.
After visiting the graves of the Reeds and Donners I crossed the street into Section C looking for the grave of another Donner Party survivor. I looked at my map and his grave was marked as Historical Points of Interest Number 2.
Who knew finding a grave could to so difficult (I was really about to find out a little later in the morning)? There are 15,000 souls interred here, so it could be like finding the proverbial needle in the haystack. I wanted to find the grave of William Henry Eddy, the “leader” of the third attempt to escape from Donner Lake to get help from Sutter’s Fort. This party of 15 was later called “The Forlorn Hope”.
On December 16, 1846 the Forlorn Hope set out from Truckee Lake (now named Donner Lake) and headed toward the summit (now named Donner Summit). The party started off as 15 and when they made it to Johnson’s Ranch there were just seven of them alive. Willian Eddy was one of two male surviors.
After an exhausted search I finally found Eddy’s unique gate, which was almost eclipsed by a larger headstone. Eddy’s grave is unique because it consists of a rock and a round, coin-like relief portrait of Eddy. A small plaque under the portrait reads: “HE LED THE FORLORN HOPE OF THE DONNER PARTY. DEDICATED MEMORIAL DAY 1949 BY THE ANCIENT & HONORABLE ORDER OF E CLAMPUS VITUS”.
I set up my sketching stool and put down the line work of Eddy’s grave. I then added some watercolor.
I had one more Donner Party grave to find and this one proved to be the most elusive. This is the grave of Virginia Reed, James Reed’s oldest stepdaughter (she was Margaret Reed’s daughter from her first marriage). She was 13 in 1846. She was at the dedication of the Pioneer Monument with her stepsister and she had written a recollection of her experience as a member of the Donner Party and had written the very well known and often quoted letter that is quoted at the top of the blog.
I had the location of her grave: Section D, Block 26, Lot 2, Grave 2. I thought this would be easy as I walked up the road. There was a buddhist funeral ceremony going on in Section B. The chimes that rang out and the chanting reminding me that this was still very much an active cemetery.
Section D had a lot of newer graves that were opulent and ostentatious, unlike the simple markers I had seen of the members of the Donner Party. I searched Section D until it turned into Section N. Then I checked my map and headed back toward Section D. In the middle of this section five guys in lawn chairs seemed to be having a tailgate party. This was very much an active and alive cemetery.
I retraced my steps again with no luck. I must have looked lost as I wandered with frustrated intent, map in hand, that I attracted a groundskeeper who pulled up in his truck and asked if I needed help.
I told him I was looking for Section D, Block 26, Lot 2, Grave 2. Her name was Virginia Reed Murphy. He told me it was back the other way near the corner. He would drive around and meet me there.
I guess he assumed I was a member of the family looking for a great great great grandmother. I walked with intent back the way I came, the chimes and chants to my left and turned right on Observatory Avenue. The groundskeeper had just pulled up in his work truck.
He pointed to a plot. To the left was a humble marker for Murphy and to the right was a fallen headstone. In between was green grass. Virginia Reed’s grave was nowhere to be seen. My search had ended in a dead end (pun intended).
“Sometimes the markers get covered up,” the groundskeeper remarked as he headed to the truck and returned with a shovel! He started poking around with the tip of the spade and he he hit upon resistance. “Here it is.” And he dug in. I advised, half jokingly, not to dig too deep.
What followed was one of those moments of miracle and wonder. A moment that is stranger that fiction.
Under five to six inches of sod and grass emerged a marker. Through the thin layers of dirt I could read the markers simple inscription: VIRGINIA REED MURPHY.
No one was here to care for her grave. All her children and grandchildren were long gone and buried. But then came along a fourth grade teacher with a passion for California history.
Here was my small gift to those who cared to look for the grave of a Donner Party survivor. Her grave must have been covered up for years and I wondered about those who had searched in vain for Virginia Reed’s grave, eventually giving up. Now, as if a historical treasure had been unearthed, as indeed it had, it was here again to be seen; To help along what Patty Reed started, that the struggles and tragedies but also the resilience and successes of the Donner Party be remembered for all generations.
A used book. Lunch at a fast food joint. A six pack (of root beer), Coffee and a bagel. Maybe a movie ticket. A pair of socks. Some laundry detergent. A used CD or DVD.
Ten bucks can also pay for your admission to one of the most incredible waterfalls in the United States. This falls is not the highest or largest falls in California but you perhaps it is the most beautiful.
This is the 129 foot Burney Falls.
After I visited and sketched the cinematic Lake Britton Railroad Bridge I returned on Highway 89 and on an impulse, I turned right into McArthur-Burney Falls State Park. When I found out that the “hike” to the falls was only a quarter mile, I happily paid my ten bucks and proceeded to the parking lot! (I was not so concerned about the length of the hike but about timing because I was going to meet my mom and Steve for dinner in Penn Valley).
There were a lot of cars in the parking lot and once I opened my car door I could her the roar of the falls. The paved trail down to the falls is a switch back and as you head down to water level, you are given different views of the falls like a giant amphitheater.
Waters seemed to be appearing everywhere along the basalt rock face almost transporting you back to some tropical waterfall on Kauai. But the cooler temps brought me right back to Northern California in October!
The reason the water is pouring through the rock like an extremely leak dam is that the falls are fed by an underground springs. Burney Falls has a regular flow of 379 million litres a day.
I ambled off the popular path, found a boulder as a seat, and sketched the falls with a brush pen.
President Theodore Roosevelt was so amazing at the sight of Burney Falls he proclaimed it “the Eighth Wonder of the World”.
On my last day in Lassen, I headed north through the National Park to sketch a cinematic railroad bridge. This bridge is called the Lake Britton Bridge and spans a finger of Lake Britton near Burney, California.
This bridge is featured in one of the most famous scenes in the 1986 film Stand By Me, directed by Rob Reiner (of All in the Family and Spinal Tap fame). Stand by Me was the third film he directed and was based on the Stephen King novella “The Body”. Reiner has also stated that Stand By Me is his favorite film. (I’m going with This is Spinal Tap.)
The plot is a “coming of age” story about four boys that go on an adventure along a railroad to look for a dead body (this is a Stephen King story after all). It featured young actors Wil Wheaton, River Phoenix, Corey Feldman, Jerry O’Connell (in his acting debut), and Kiefer Sutherland.
The bridge was built in 1955 on the McCloud River Railroad, primarily a logging railroad. The steel bridge is 450 feet long and is about 75 feet above the waters of Lake Britton. The bridge has now been stripped of rails and is no long in use. This part of the Burney branch was operational until 2005.
The bridge plays a prominent role in one of the most famous sequences of the film. It was one of the few sequences, according to Reiner, that was actually storyboarded.
In the scene, the four boys come to the edge of the bridge. And they wonder when the next train is coming. They contemplate taking another route that will take much longer but will be safer. (Safer never works in cinema). Two of the boys, Chris Chambers and Teddy Duchamp, start across the bridge. The two other boys, Gordie Lachance and Vern Tessio are reluctant to start across. Well I bet you can guess where this is going.
Gordie nervously looks down the rails. No train. He stoops and places his hand on the rail, he feels no vibrations. He stands up and slowly makes his way across the bridge. Vern is crawling on his hands and knees.
Gordie again stoops to feel the rail, gripping it tightly. He looks down the bridge and sees steam exhaust billowing above the trees. He stands and in slow motion, exclaims the famous line, “TRAIN!!!!”
And you will just have to watch the movie to see if they survived the ultimate train dodge.
I pulled off Highway 89, just after crossing Lake Britton, on a dirt road heading down toward the Dusty Campground. To my right was the red dirt graded roadbed that was the former McCloud River Railroad right-away. I parked on the former railroad and headed out to the bridge.
I picked my spot, right near the camera position in Stand By Me and I started to sketch. It was a beautiful day and the scene before was wonderful to add to my sketchbook.
August 2, 2016 8:50 AM
On an Oregon coastal drive on Highway 101 from Astoria to Florence, I came to the small town of Garibaldi (Population 779). To my surprise, this coastal town was home to a tourist railway, the Oregon Coast Scenic Railroad.
It was in the morning and I was exciting to see an engine under steam, getting ready for the day. I took a few pictures of the 2-6-2 “Prairie” Type steam locomotive as is got ready to meet it’s consist of passenger cars for it’s days work.
It was only when I looked back at these images that I realized that this steam locomotive, the former McCloud River Railroad No. 25, was the same locomotive featured in the famous Stand By Me scene filmed at the Lake Britton Bridge.
This well know locomotive was brought in an out of service over the years and headed up many railfan excursions. One such exclusion was in 1955, to celebration the opening of the Burney line. Number 25 was on point of the Golden Spike excursion from McCloud to Burney. We could surmise that No. 25 was the first steam locomotive to cross the Lake Britton Bridge.
No. 25 was sold and in 2011 she was moved from McLoud, Ca to Tillamook, Or. She is currently running on the Oregon Coast Scenic Railroad in Garibaldi.
To think that this minor piece of cinema history, built in 1925, had not been scraped or put on static display in some park but was still a living and breathing locomotive that pulls a trainloads of passengers up the coast of Oregon really puts a smile on my face.