The S.P.engine shop in Sparks

30074 CabForward

Report from the Rail City

We’ve all left the family SUV idling while we stopped at the mailbox, and then turned to see the ol’ Explorer bucking inexorably off through the boxwood hedge then into the tree beyond.  Picture in your mind’s eye one of S.P.’s legendary cab-forward locomotives walking itself slowly off the track into the roundhouse pit, or crashing through the brick walls of the big railroad shop east of the Sparks Nugget – after a drowsy engineer left the behemoth “in gear” with the boiler fire down, yet slowly building up steam and finally creeping unattended in the wee small hours of the morning when Sparks was fast asleep.  Ugly spectres indeed, but they’ve both occurred.

                Tom Swart entered the world in 1912 in his family’s home on B Street behind the livery stable we all remember between 11th and 12th Streets and now the Silver Club’s parking lot.  He attended Mary Ann Nichols, Robert Mitchell, and Sparks High Schools, Procter Hug Sr. his bookkeeping teacher; he then took a job with the mighty Southern Pacific Railroad in the locomotive shop for eighteen and a half cents an hour.

One of his shop duties was as a chainman – placing lengths of chains between the driver wheels of the big malleys and the track, to keep them where they belonged in the yard (malley, eponymous with Swiss mechanical engineer Anatole Mallet, a descriptor of the cab-forward locos accurate only through the 1920s but surviving to this day as a term of endearment.)  Tom’s recollections of life in the SP roundhouse and shops could make a book – or a chapter in one coming out later this year.  He speaks of the massive overhead-rolling crane in the shop – lifting the boilers and fireboxes off the axles and cylinders, all to go in different directions for maintenance, then be rejoined and repainted.  The flue box area, airbrake shop, the huge vat of boiling water laced with carbolic acid that locomotive parts and the employees’ tools could be lowered into for cleaning, then cooled and drained periodically to retrieve the stuff.  (Maybe we don’t even want to know where the wastewater wound up.)  Tom recalls a mechanic falling into the vat and arriving instantly at the Great Beyond, his soul and bibb overalls cleansed.  The flue rattler?  All 2,500 residents of Sparks knew when the flue rattler was running – the giant vibrator the only way to shake the built-up crud out of the locomotives’ fireboxes and flues.

                Tom recalls life in Sparks vividly – in his early youth an Indian reservation occupied the area now the site of City Hall on 4th and Prater Way.  The U. S. Air Mail’s deHavilland biplane pilots that navigated by following SP trackage from Elko enroute to their daily arrival at Blanch Field on the site of the present Washoe Golf Course, rocking their wings to the railyard workers below.  Conductor Heights south of B Street and west of the train yard (near then-17th Street, now Rock Boulevard), the preferred lair of railroaders and their families.

                A gnarly railroad strike broke out in 1922 that would continue for two years, pitting S.P.’s management against the train operations and maintenance employees.  Tom, as a ten-year old, recalls a powerful spotlight, placed on the roof of the roundhouse by management to ensure security in the yard, but also finding use as a tool of harassment, its powerful beam trained at union members’ homes and into bedrooms through the night.  And railroad timekeeping?  Once a pride and priority with the S.P., less so in the Amtrak days, time was set by the yard whistle sounded precisely at 8 a.m., noon, and 4 p.m., or available in the railroad’s clock in the window of W. R. Adams & Son Jewelers on B Street to set your Hamilton pocket watch with a railroad dial to.


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The Pacific Fruit Express Icehouse in Sparks

A haunting reminder of the heyday of Bill Harrah’s reign on the local scene remains visible – albeit fading, like its memory – high on the wall of a fairly substantial brick building south of the train yard in Sparks. Harrah’s Automobile Collection the fading white block letters read. Many of us remember fondly the acres of painstakingly-restored cars in that building and the warehouses adjoining it, the Ford Tri-motor airliner stored there, the most comprehensive automotive library in the land, vintage wooden speedboats, and the streetcars that Harrah acquired to eventually rim the collection. (When the collection was first moved there from its original location on Lake Street in 1961, the admission was a buck and a business card.) Sadly, in the [26] years since he passed away [1978] the heart of the collection has been decimated, and the building’s one-time incredible lore is lost on many Homefinders and tourists as they view it from John Ascuaga’s Nugget. I’ll save recollections of the HAC for another day, and I have many. This morning the test following the column will be about the building itself.
To weave this tale about the building, necessity requires reciting several givens: California, the late 19th century, was the produce supplier to the nation. The predominant rail carriers were the Union Pacific and Central, later Southern Pacific Railroads. And produce, to be taken anywhere once it’s plucked, must be refrigerated. But this column is not about railroads or veggies.
Produce grows in the summer, while ice, much to the consternation of the Pacific Fruit Express, a conglomerate owned by the two railroads, forms in the winter. Others have explored the great heritage of our neighboring town of Truckee, and its confluence of ungodly freezing temperatures, its proximity to the Truckee River, and to sawmills, which produced sawdust as a byproduct, which is dandy for storing ice in once it’s been harvested from lakes like Boca Reservoir. Properly stored, ice survived frozen well into the summer months. But this column is not about Truckee’s rich heritage either.
The growing volume of produce being moved by the PFE and the lengthening of the growing season due to improving irrigation management began to deplete the harvested ice ‘way too early in the season to allow safe shipment. Ice production became a mandate. The PFE elected to build thick-walled buildings to manufacture and store ice in along the waypoints of their rail route. The granddaddy of PFE icehouses was in Roseville, California on the west threshold of the Sierra, and a smaller facility was planned adjoining the SP’s railyard in Sparks. And here I better mention, just to keep Curt Risley happy, that the PFE, which operated autonomously apart from the Southern Pacific, bought ranch land from Curt’s grandfather, along Glendale Road at Stanford Way (named for railroad magnate Leland Stanford, natch.)
The main building was erected by PFE in 1920; additions to the compressor and tank rooms were made in 1924, along with a bunkhouse, blacksmith shop, cookhouse, dining room and a well house. The plant could manufacture 330 tons of ice daily in the sub-freezing building (I recall reading once that when the facility was operating full-bore it was Sierra Pacific Power’s largest electric customer.) Peak storage was 19,500 tons of ice, but the typical daily storage was 150 tons, with another 150 tons stored at the dock.
Old-timers can remember a roofed white wooden platform extending 1,800 feet in both directions from the icehouse, which could accommodate 86 produce cars on either side – 172 cars could be iced at once. The ice was delivered to the long icing platform by conveyor and then along its length by a conveyor chain. The conveyor delivered 37 300-pound blocks a minute (an ice-forming mold is on display in the Sparks Heritage Museum.)
When the trains were spotted, the men – all PFE employees – would slide the blocks off the delivery conveyor onto a hinged section of planking that could be dropped onto the edge of the hatch on the boxcar being iced. (The cars had bunkers in both ends.) The icing crew was usually 20 men, two men working on each car.
In the early 1950s small-scale diesel engines and refrigeration equipment had reached a point of cost and reliability that made it realistic to equip produce cars with individual refrigeration units, and boxcar icing began to go by the boards. By 1958 the yellow PFE rolling stock had been converted to mechanized refrigeration, the Sparks PFE icehouse was closed, and the long icing platforms were dismantled.
And in downtown Reno, Bill Harrah, whose auto collection was growing by Maxwells and Reos, struck a deal with the Southern Pacific/PFE and created the best all-afternoon two-dollar show in town for families and auto collectors alike, a civic treasure that would endure for two decades.
Many thanks to the late Reno railroad historian Dale Darney, for his help and research on this yarn…
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