Railtown 1897 is perhaps best known today as the home of Sierra No. 3, often thought to be Hollywood’s favorite old-time steam locomotive. The No. 3 has appeared in over 100 motion pictures, television shows, commercials and documentaries in the past century and was most often dressed up with an assortment of false smokestacks and oil headlamps to make the locomotive appear to fit the time frame of whatever motion picture was being made.
In May of 1929, a Paramount Pictures film crew ventured to the Sierra Railway and requested locomotive No. 3 and four old fashioned coaches for use in their upcoming feature, “The Virginian”, starring Gary Cooper, Mary Brian and Richard Arlen. Sierra No. 3 had been used in at least one Hollywood film before its appearance in The Virginian, but was not altered significantly from its normal “general service” attire. However, the Paramount crews wanted the locomotive to look a little older, so the Sierra Railway shop crews set to work building a false smokestack shroud designed to represent an early “Balloon” type smokestack. This Balloon stack was built using steel sheets and small quarter-inch and half-inch rivets, which records show were all purchased from the Hales & Symons general store near the Sierra Railway’s depot in Sonora.
The railroad then pulled an old oil burning “box” headlight from storage in the Jamestown Shops and installed it on the locomotive. The new Balloon stack and vintage box headlight became the signature look for Sierra No. 3 over the next sixty years, appearing on the locomotive in such productions as “High Noon”, “Kansas Pacific”, “The Lone Ranger”, “Tales of Wells Fargo”, “Rawhide”, “The Iron Horse”, “Little House on the Prairie”, and “Petticoat Junction”; the list goes on and on.
Fast forward ninety years; the original Balloon stack has long been retired to the movie prop exhibit that is housed in the old lumber storage building behind the roundhouse. Its last recorded use was in the early 1980s, during the productions of the “Little House on the Prairie” television series and “The Long Riders”. The original Balloon Stack has seen better days. According to Movie Railroad Historian Larry Jensen, the stack has been dropped or otherwise damaged and repaired several times over the years. The poor old thing is in very tired shape and has been cataloged as an historical artifact. It is likely that this movie stack will never be used on a locomotive again.
In recent years, Railtown has received several requests from various charter groups regarding the possibility of using one of the old movie smokestacks and headlights on Sierra No. 3. Unfortunately, like the 1929 Balloon stack itself, most of the other movie stacks are either in poor condition or are otherwise deemed too historic for continued use on a locomotive.
However, it is our belief that the occasional use of these kinds of decorations on Sierra No. 3 can provide lucrative interpretive and promotional opportunities for our visitors and for the park. To this end, a local sheet metal fabricator was contacted about the feasibility of building a replica smokestack and box headlight. The company quoted the work in the range of roughly $6,500 dollars, which was considered too high an amount for an accessory that may only be used occasionally. After a few conversations with Railtown’s Supervising Ranger Jackie Olavarria, volunteers Mike Ninneman, Garrett Franklin and Michael Bispo began preparations to construct an exact replica of the famous Balloon stack in August of 2019, which was to be built primarily in the historic Sierra Railway Jamestown shops, as was the original.
Over several weekends, the original 1929 Balloon stack was measured and notes were made of key details, such as the number of rivets, the size of the rivets, how the seams overlapped, and the various joinery. The design of the original smokestack is very straightforward; there are no internal structures or fittings for securing the stack while it is on the locomotive, it is simply held in place by its own weight. Our intention was to recreate the original as faithfully as possible so that it would be virtually indistinguishable from the outside. Rivets would be used for historical appearance, while the internal seams were welded for strength and durability, as was done with the new boiler and recreated tender cistern for Sierra No. 3 during the locomotive’s restoration in 2009-2010.
Work began in the restoration shop building at the Western Railway Museum at Rio Vista Junction, where project lead Mike Ninneman has worked as a volunteer for a number of years. The first task was to create a jig, or a “core” as we called it, to facilitate the construction of the smokestack. In November 2019, an order was placed with Merit USA in Pittsburg, California for several 4′ x 10′ sheets of 22-gauge steel. The sheet metal was pre-cut and drilled at the WRM shop before it was fitted to the core back at Railtown. This was necessary due to the size of the steel sheets and the limitations of space around the various machinery in the Tri-Dam shop at Railtown. The sheets were riveted together and then tacked onto the core with screws, which were removed prior to final assembly.
This project was an excellent learning experience for our volunteers, as it required the development of various skills needed to complete it, including calculating the geometry of the stack, welding, pattern-making, and several months of problem solving before it could be finished. Before the smokestack could be fully assembled, the three main sections (the funnel, the “bonnet”, and the throat) had to be riveted independently of one another so that the core could be removed. The seams of each part of the stack were welded individually, and then joined together for final welding. This process also took a few weeks to complete, due in part to its size and the tight confines of the stack’s interior.
By early March 2020, the replica smokestack was nearing completion and being prepped for paint when Railtown was temporarily shut down due to the Coronavirus pandemic. Work on the smokestack was halted for several months before volunteers were allowed to return to the park. Work resumed in August with the completion of the welding and riveting. Several weeks prepping the smokestack for paint were required. (It is worth mentioning that volunteer projects at Railtown are completed on “Museum time”, which means on a 2-3 days a week basis)
In addition to work on the replica smokestack, our volunteers also fabricated a false headlight shroud using the leftover material from the smokestack, which would allow the No. 3 to be made up in its movie guise without the need to remove the electric headlight. This project was nearly as difficult as construction of the smokestack, due to the complexity of recreating the vent on top. After more than a year of work, both the new replica smokestack and headlight casing were finished in time for use on the No. 3 over Halloween weekend in 2020.
While the original smokestack was lifted into place on the No. 3 using block and tackle in the roundhouse, the replica smokestack was built with internal mounting brackets so it could be lifted onto the locomotive with chains via forklift, which would minimize handling the smokestack thereby reducing wear and tear on the paint. This also allowed the smokestack to be moved around the park much more easily for convenient installation on the locomotive.
One final touch to the replica headlight casing was a wooden number board, which was attached to the headlight of Sierra No. 3 during productions of “The Virginian” (1929), “The Texan” (1930), “The Border Legion” (1931), “The Conquerors” (1932), and “Laughter in Hell” (1933). The new smokestack and headlight were successfully installed on Sierra No. 3 for the first time on Saturday, October 30th, 2020.
This project was an excellent learning experience for our team. While finding solutions was sometimes difficult, the result was well worth it. The trials and tribulations experienced by our volunteers building these components is not unlike what our predecessors may have faced in decades past, and it is projects like this that evoke what this place is all about: no matter the obstacles in your path, engineer a solution and find a way to make it work. That is the spirit of Railtown.
The Balloon stack is an important part of Sierra No. 3’s history and has been a major contributing factor to the locomotive’s long and successful career as a movie engine. The construction of this replica, which was built using many of the same methods and in the original Sierra Railway shop buildings, will continue to preserve the legacy of movie making on the Sierra Railway that began over 100 years ago.