Located in the Sierra Nevada Mountains of northern California’s Tuolumne County, the West Side Lumber Company
operated a narrow gauge railroad from 1898 to 1961 to haul logs from the forest to its mill in Tuolumne. The West Side was the last of the many narrow gauge logging railroads that once operated in the western United States, and its longevity insured that much of its equipment would outlast the railroad and continue to exist. Today, former West Side Shay locomotives can be found powering tourist trains in California and Colorado, and former West Side cars are in collections throughout the west. In 2011, I was able to acquire a piece of the West Side’s legacy in the form of 24’ flatcar #297.
Like many things on a logging railroad, the West Side’s fleet of 24’ flat cars began as a variegated lot, constantly being built and rebuilt over the years. The cars followed the basic design established by the first cars built by Carter Brothers of Newark, California in 1899. Between 1899 and 1901, Carter Brothers delivered 16 cars to the West Side. Beginning in 1902, similar cars were built by J.S Hammond’s California Car Works as well as the West Side’s own shops. Over the years the cars built by the West Side evolved into a standardized and specialized design, well adapted to the task of hauling large pine logs from the forest to the sawmill. As the West Side was an industrial railroad and not subject to ICC regulations, the flatcars retained link and pin couplers to the end and are completely devoid of “Safety Appliances” such as stirrup steps and grabirons.
In all there were 313 24’ flatcars on the West Side’s roster. The cars were numbered 1-313, essentially sequentially as they were built. The 24’ flatcars were the backbone of the West Side’s operations until they were displaced by the arrival of longer, larger capacity, skeleton log cars that the West Side had purchased from the Swayne Lumber Company in 1940. Relegated to secondary status, many of the 24’ cars survived to the end of the West Side’s rail operations in 1961 and quite a few exist today at various tourist railroads, museums and private collections.
West Side flatcar #297 is one of those survivors. Now located in northeast Kansas, #297 was built by the West Side’s Tuolumne Car Shop in 1940. Sometime after the end of operations, #297 was involved in a wreck that did considerable damage to the “A” end truck and body bolster. Following the wreck, #297 was set aside until it was sold to Charles Bovey of Montana around 1963.
Bovey was, among other things, a Montana state senator, and with his wife Sue, prolific collector of Montana’s heritage. Starting in the late 1930’s he began collecting old buildings from around Montana as well as the items to fill them. In the 1940’s, the Bovey’s began to purchase land in Virginia City, site of Montana’s first gold rush in the 1860’s and a former territorial capital. The Boveys also purchased the former town site of Nevada City, about a mile down Alder Gulch from Virginia City, and began to rebuild the town using the buildings they had saved from other locations. By the 1950’s the collection had grown into a tourist attraction that would eventually include hotels, restaurants, an acting company and a railroad connecting the towns. The Bovey family continued to operate the property until 1997, when it was sold to the state of Montana, which continues to run it today.
The railroad, known as the Alder Gulch Shortline, included a large collection of equipment displayed in Nevada City. Among the equipment were four West Side Lumber flatcars, including #297. The cars were placed alongside the Nevada City engine house behind a standard gauge 0-4-0 tank locomotive as a display of a construction train. Displayed on the cars were horse drawn scrapers and other equipment used in early railroad construction.
The West Side cars remained largely unchanged until 1991 when two thieves, attempting to steal gasoline, set the engine house on fire. Along with burning the engine house to the ground, the fire caused varying degrees of damage to the West Side flatcars. No repairs were attempted on the cars after the fire. They continued to sit and deteriorate until 2010, when the Montana Heritage Commission decided to sell some of the railroad equipment in Nevada City.
Among the railroad cars included in the sale were the four West Side flatcars, which were purchased by the Oregon-based Western Railroad Preservation Society. When I was a child, my father worked for Charles Bovey and my family spent our summers in Virginia City. Much of my time was spent around the railroad and in the Nevada City yard display. I jumped at a chance to own a part of this past when the Society offered to sell one of the West Side cars to me, especially given that the price included transporting the car from Montana to its new home in Kansas.
Moving time came in the late summer of 2010. As #297 was at the end of the line, it would be the first to move. The original plan was for #297 to be winched up onto a trailer and then the next car pulled up on top of it. Both cars would move to Oregon, and then #297 would be taken to Kansas. On the way back from Kansas, the other two cars would be picked up and brought to Oregon.
As with many plans, all went well until reality kicked in. Reality in this case was the car’s physical condition. After almost 60 years of outside storage, no maintenance and being burned in a fire, it became apparent that stacking one car atop the other would result in the collapse of both cars. Thus #297 went to Oregon and spent the winter vacationing in the Sumpter Valley Railroad’s yards before coming to Kansas in the summer of 2011.