"This actually is one of the steepest rails incline railroads in America," says Mark Demler of the Amador Central Railroad. (Courtesy of Mike Cozad)
Ione is a small Gold Rush town in Amador County, 30 miles east of Sacramento. Tourists come here for the wineries and casinos, but on the second Saturday of most months, you can take a trip back in time.
For $10, anyone can ride a 3-mile stretch of the Amador Central Railroad. In 1904, the railroad was the only way to bring supplies up the hills of California’s Mother Lode. Today, a burly crew of railroad enthusiasts help keep it alive.
I meet some of the railroaders at 6:45 a.m. one Saturday at Ione's Rich Bryant Station, where the crew starts preparing for the day's excursion.
“They say, inside every man’s breast beats the heart of a steam locomotive," says Larry Bowler, Vice President of the Recreational Railroad Coalition Historical Society (RRCHS), which works to preserve the Amador Central Railroad for educational and recreational activities.
After retirement, Bowler was on the hunt for a new hobby and opted to join his family's lineage of railroaders. Bowler and RRCHS initially began leasing the railroad from Sierra Pacific Industries as a way to explore and preserve the tracks. But in 2010, RRCHS joined forces with the Amador County Historical Society to buy a 10-mile stretch of tracks for $1.
"Everybody that’s a member [of the RRCHS] becomes an owner of the railroad," says Bowler. "That gives you bragging rights."
The group's members are also bonded by their love of restoring vintage motorcars, small rail cars that seat just four passengers during public rides.
"The noble part of it is that we are preserving history," says Bowler. "Not only the railroad tracks, but these cars are historical. They don’t make these anymore."
Many of the railroaders own their very own motorcars, which they've brought to the yard from their homes. They start the day's preparation by unloading their cars onto the tracks, manually aligning the older ones using giant metal turning skis, called a "turntable."
“Little more, little more," they call out while working together to adjust the cars. "That’s good.”
Then, the railroaders test the breaks, load the cars with fuel, and check the radios.
“Other than the radios this car is 100 percent original," says Mark Demler, the Amador Central's excursion coordinator.
Once preparations are complete, I hop aboard Demler's motorcar — one of six he owns. Demler spent part of his college days living in a caboose during a railroad restoration program. A fan of anything that "flies, floats or rolls," he ultimately calls the railroad his "touchstone."
As we drive to pick up passengers at Lane's Station, Demler explains that we're surrounded by clay quarries, which the city of Ione mined to make bricks during the Gold Rush. He also points out patches of tracks that the group restored themselves, explaining how they even built railroad crossings with the support of the local community. He says the town sees the Amador Central as a piece of the town's local history worth preserving.
"We’re not your normal railroad buffs," says Demler. "We’re historians. Keepers of the history."
The sun is already blazing by the time we arrive at at Lane's Station, but that doesn’t stop the line of people snaking around a shaded tent to buy their tickets. Demler explains that regular passengers arrive an hourly early to reserve their seats, since it's common for rides to sell out.
"Many of the views you see today can only be seen from the rails here," Demler explains. "It’s the idea of doing something exclusive, seeing a little piece of history you can’t see any other way. It's a down in the weeds experience riding close to the rails with the smell, the sounds, the noise, the vibrations of a real working railroad."
After a quick safety demo, Demler welcomes the passengers with a brief history of the railroad.
"We want to welcome you to the Amador Central Railroad," Demler announces. "We are the owners, and operators, and volunteers that make this operation occur. And we do it solely for you."
The passengers hop aboard the the motorcars, riding at a steady 10 mph. Along the way, Demler explains our surroundings with boyish enthusiasm.
"This is anything but a straight line railroad," says Demler. "We're snaking through curves constantly. You don't like the view. Wait a minute we'll see something else."
As we twist and turn upward, the landscape alternates sun-drenched open valleys and patches of shade where horses can lounge. Demler points out some sites that the 49ers would have seen.
"That's the original water ditch [from the 1870s] bringing water down to the city of Ione from the lakes up in the mountains," he yells over the sound of the motorcar. "Interesting old barn down there," he continues. "That round top goes back to the 1920s. One of the older buildings left out here."
Then, we turn into Bovine Meadow, where cattle stare us down as they block our path.
"And they don’t always clear, they just keep running," Demler says.
Red-tailed hawks fly above us and gold-speckled quartz, elderberry plants, and oak trees dot the terrain. In the spring, I’m told these meadows become a sea of red, yellow and purple flowers. But today, golden thistle plants wave around in the wind, which grows stronger as the train rides higher.
"We're about twelve hundred feet up the hillside," explains Demler. "We're about fourteen hundred feet above sea level. And as we snake around through these hills we occasionally get glimpses of the Sacramento Valley. We can see Lodi from here."
Once we reach the top of the hill, we spot Mount Diablo, more than 100 miles away.
For Demler, it’s not just about the views or the history. It’s about the people he gets to share it with.
"When the railroad was just us, it wasn’t nearly as fun as the last couple of years when we opened it up to the public," says Demler. "To know you’re bringing an adventure to somebody’s day is really what it’s all about."
A half hour after the ride began, we hop off so the railroaders can turn the cars around, using the same turntables they used at the start of the day.
“Breaks on," they call out, aligning the cars once again. "Clockwise.”
"Guys, this is exactly the way it was done on the railroad," Demler explains to the crowd of passengers.
When the railroaders finish turning the cars, we begin our journey back to Lane’s Station, where operators will get ready for the next ride of the day.