So what's not to like about electric trains, elaborate model railroad layouts, a big crowd of enthusiastic rail-fans, small boys standing on tip-toe to see the realistic gee-whiz train displays and all the rest at the annual "Railroad Days" show at the Columbia Pacific Heritage Museum in Ilwaco?
For acknowledged and long-time railroad fans like me, there's really nothing at all not to like about our own Railroad Days, a unique event that mirrors the historic heritage that "our own" steam-powered railroad left behind decades ago, puffing along the mid-section of this narrow strip of sand in far Southwesterly Washington state.
It all began more than 120 years ago, way back in the spring of 1889, when a far-sighted entrepreneur named Lewis Alfred Loomis started a horse-drawn stage line northward up the Peninsula with his brother, Edwin.
As the need for better transportation and more services became apparent, Loomis took on more partners and made a far-reaching decision. He and his partners made the "big leap" into the railroad business, founding the Ilwaco Railway & Navigation Company.
His company laid the first rails in 1888 and the first railroad train to serve our Peninsula started in Ilwaco almost exactly a year later, reaching the end of the line at Nahcotta on May 29, 1889. That trip required three hours by train in the days before good roads and reliable automobiles.
Construction of the railroad began in Ilwaco from the same dockside wharf that first served the stagecoach line. The shallow water in the bay meant that steam ships could only dock at Ilwaco at high tide to make connections with the train, so the tidal levels dictated the railroad's timetable every day. And that oddity was likely the reason for the nickname "Clamshell Railroad." More about that later.
In 1900 the Oregon Railway & Navigation Company (OR&N), a subsidiary of the Union Pacific, purchased the railroad, and it operated until 1930. It carried freight and passengers from Ilwaco, its originating point on the Columbia, and thence northward to Seaview, Long Beach and on up the Peninsula to Nahcotta and Oysterville. In 1910 the company name became the Oregon-Washington Railroad and Navigation Company, or OWRR&N. The railroad owners, unhappy with an operating schedule dictated by the tide tables, soon looked eastward toward deeper water on the Columbia, where the trains could make better connections with the steamboat trade. Narrow-gauge tracks were extended to the community of Chinook and, in 1908, eastward from there to the busy steamboat landing at Megler along the Columbia River.
That was where the so-called "Daddy Trains" met the "Daddy Boats" steaming down the river from Portland, bringing working dads to the Peninsula to spend a weekend with their vacationing families. Later on, Megler became the primary landing place for the ferries with service to Astoria. The first OR&N train met a steamer at Megler on June 1, 1908, starting a long and profitable relationship.
The train service supplied a veritable lifeline for this isolated peninsula, bringing people, precious freight and other goods, and providing transportation for oyster workers, ship builders and mariners, Ilwaco High School students, locals "going to town" to shop and summer visitors enjoying a quiet vacation at their favorite beach.
As a dedicated railroad fan, I am almost ashamed to admit that the latest observance of Railroad Days at the Ilwaco museum, which attracted crowds on a mid-July weekend, was the first time I had attended.
However, I have written feature stories about Railroad Days on these pages several times before, and I am proud to have grown up in a railroad family and call myself a railroad fan. My favorite of these railroad stories I've written for the Chinook Observer was published in September 2003, over the headline: "Foamers among us? Resurgence in interest in Peninsula's Clamshell Railroad brings out devoted fans."
That headline requires some explanation. The word "foamers" alludes to the informal term describing ultimate obsessive railroad fans - and I mean really obsessive. Coined by railroad workers and now used by some of the obsessives themselves, the word is "foamers" - as in foaming at the mouth when it comes to railroad matters. So, if the shoe fits ...
Incidentally, that 2003 story featured photographs of two of my favorite people - Charlotte Davis, formerly of Ilwaco, who now lives near Tacoma, and Warner Williams of Portland, who grew up in Seaview. As a youngster. Charlotte Davis rode the Clamshell train with her family to Oysterville, where her father worked on the oyster dredges.
Warner Williams has to be one of the only - if probably the only - first-grader who actually rode the train home from school in Ilwaco. That unique arrangement, which Warner still chuckles about, was arranged by his mother, who was a super-arranger who knew just how to arrange things. One thing she didn't want was to have her son to wait for the high school bus that left an hour after his grade school class was dismissed.
And that calls for another explanation: Just where did the unusual tag-line "Clamshell Train" originate? You've probably heard about the name and wondered about it. As with many such names, its true origin may never be known. One story, as related above, told how the train's tracks were laid near the Ilwaco waterfront, so that tides determined the train's schedule - "a railroad that ran by the tide." So the name "Clamshell Train" was born. Maybe so.
Other versions of just how the clamshell name originated are in vogue and have been off-repeated over the years. These stories include the off-hand comment by a new superintendent sent to inspect the line after the sale to the larger OR&N company. "Humph!" the grumpy official is supposed to have said. "It's just a clamshell railroad." No shells were used in the roadbed, of course, but some say the nickname stuck nonetheless.
The story line I was seeking for today's feature was more detailed: I was after factual information about the history of "Railroad Days". When did it start and who were some of the organizers? I also was interested in any other pertinent information I could dig up about its early days.
I asked the folks at the Ilwaco museum who I should talk to, and they suggested Hobe Kytr, former executive director of the museum, and Mark Clemmens, a railroad fan who lives near Ocean Park who has been involved with the Railroad Days event for several years.
The Clemmens name sounded familiar, and sure enough, I had met Mark Clemmens back in the fall of 2007, when I was gathering information for a story published in the Chinook Observer. That story, entitled "A Tale of Two Zephyrs," told about two railroad buffs - Clemmens and myself- who had models named after famous trains of yesteryear, the Burlington Zephyr and the California Zephyr.
I will delve into the historical aspects of Railroad Days shortly, but first, won't you please join us for a visit to a most interesting railroad show.
When the time for this year's edition of "Railroad Days" rolled around in mid-July, we were having guests at our Seaview beach house - old and dear friends we had known for years. The ladies had other plans that day, but our gentleman guest was also a railroad fan, so the two of us headed for the Columbia Pacific Heritage Museum on opening day of the train show. We were not disappointed.
After paying a modest $5 admission fee and receiving a souvenir badge in return, we entered the first exhibit room. Like the other model train exhibits at the show, layouts here were elaborate beyond description.
The builders had put in uncounted hours. Grafting realistic miniature towns, roads, mountains, tunnels, switch yards, crossings and other background structures along the right-of-way, providing a lifelike backdrop for the equally realistic model trains zooming around the tracks.
My friend had never seen the museum's beautifully restored passenger car from the original OR&N railroad, so that was our next stop. The car is only open to visitors once each year, so we took advantage and toured the car, with its plush upholstered seats and elegant fixtures.
A large number of youngsters attended the railroad show, and cries of "Hey, Dad, come look at this" echoed in every room. Special exhibits for the young set included a train set made entirely of Legos, and a Kids Craft Caboose where the youngsters could put together their own train car.
All in all, it was a memorable trip through model railroad land for my friend and I, and we were suitably impressed.
So to return to the effort to pin down some of the history of Ilwaco's Railroad Days celebration, I talked first with Mark Clemmens, the model railroad fan who has been involved in Railroad Days for several years.
"We had quite a discussion when we were trying to decide just when the Railroad Days show started," Clemmens said. "We finally figured that the first show was held just after the museum acquired the restored railroad passenger car - and that happened in 2003," he said.
But there's much more to the story, as Kytr pointed out when I talked to him a few days later. Kytr said the latest series of seven Railroad Days events is comparable to the second act in a play, because there had been earlier Railroad Days shows in the 1980s, then a hiatus of several years in between, as the original volunteers grew older and waited for younger newcomers to take over the reins.
Kytr credited Noreen Robinson, the founding director of the Ilwaco Heritage Museum, with the foresight and interest that eventually led to the founding of Railroad Days and the acquisition of the restored rail passenger car used on the original railroad.
"Noreen had a dream of reconstituting the history and memory of the Ilwaco railroad, and she believed that the museum should play a key role in that effort," Kytr said. But the museum had to come first. After the Pacific Telecom phone company deeded its building to the city, Noreen Robinson, as a member of the Ilwaco city council, got this assignment from Mayor Les Peterson:
"Noreen, do something with it (the building)," the mayor said.
"To make a long story short, that's how the Ilwaco museum got its start," Kytr related. And so the first seeds of the Railroad Days celebration were sown.
As it turned out, the Ilwaco museum staged its first Railroad Days show sometime in the 1980s, with several others to follow. Then, after an interval of several years. Railroad Days resumed in 2003 after museum officials asked local model railroad club members to combine their expertise and model layouts to form the groundwork for restarting the show.
So that means this year's show was the seventh annual of the latest series of the show, and that seems to be the consensus. Another local consensus is that Railroad Days has taken its place as one of the premier events on the Long Beach Peninsula, drawing tourists and locals every year and ranking right up there with the Kite Festival and the Sand Castle sculptural efforts out on the beach.