Tiny trains pass in the forest with many parents and kids riding them by straddling the trains with their legs
Trains passing during the Sept. 10 open house at Golden Gate Live Steamers. Credit: Joanne Furio

There’s no official dress code for members of the Golden Gate Live Steamers, but 8-year-old Finley Maude of Oakland was outfitted as if he’d been working on the railroad all the livelong day — in a striped engineer’s cap, a pair of overalls, a red bandana and a pair of gloves, a practical accessory since engines tend to be dirty and greasy and steam engines tend to be hot.

Maude, who’s been interested in trains his “entire life,” said he is the club’s youngest active member.

“My brother is the youngest, but he never comes here,” he said.

Boy dressed in train engineer clothes straddles train car outdoors
Finley Maude, 8, the youngest member of the Golden Gate Live Steamers, with his custom box-cab electric engine he helped finance by selling ice cream from his bike. Credit: Joanne Furio

As Maude illustrated, members of the Golden Gate Live Steamers like to dress up in railroad attire while they build, play with, tinker with or ride their miniature trains and share their passion with the public. The club offers free rides atop its steam-powered trains from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. every Sunday (weather permitting) through a sun-dappled redwood grove, complete with vignettes of old-time storefronts. 

Not to be confused with the adjacent Redwood Valley Railway at Tilden Regional Park, a for–profit concession that features larger trains, the club occupies an adjacent 2.4-acre facility. It’s easy to miss the steamers: their property is connected by a short path below the Redwood railway property. 

The Golden Gate Live Steamers are a nonprofit that relies on donations to fund its public rides and the upkeep of its facility and maintenance of its public trains. Founded in 1936, the steamers claim to be the oldest continuously operated live steam train club in the U.S. 

Typically, their Sunday rides attract about 800 passengers, but on Sept. 10 that was up to about 1,000 visitors, who showed up for the club’s twice-yearly open house and checked out the history-filled clubhouse and exhibits by the Bay Area Engine Modelers Club

Tracking the club’s history

Old black and white photo of large group gathered around train tracks
The Golden Gate Live Steamers held a Golden Spike Ceremony to officially open the facility in 1975. Courtesy: Golden Gate Live Steamers

From its start, the club was based on the cooperation, collaboration and technical prowess of its members. 

“Guys might have a little track in their backyard. But to build something you can run on for any great length, you have to get together and build it,” said Rick Reaves, past president. “So they got together and created the live steam club.”

GGLS’s founder Victor Shattock grew up in Devonshire, England, the son of a stationmaster for the Great Western Railway. Shattock emigrated to the U.S. in 1923 and by the end of that decade began working for the Southern Pacific Railroad. During the 1930s, he moved to Fruitvale, where he dug a 32-by-45-foot basement under his home that he devoted to steam model railroading. 

News of the basement layout spread quickly among enthusiasts and soon Shattock’s basement could not accommodate so many live steamers. Unlike model railroaders who might have a Lionel setup in their basement with elaborate models of towns and scenery, live steamer hobbyists like Shattock often double as machinists who make their own engines, many of which are large enough to ride. 

Passengers riding train near a covered waiting area with the world Tilden
Passengers taking off from the depot at the Golden Gate Live Steamers’ Open House on Sept. 10. Credit: Joanne Furio

As interest in Shattock’s basement grew, “it became clear that an outdoor track, where larger, passenger hauling engines could run was a desirable goal,” according to the club’s 60th anniversary historical booklet. By the mid-1950s, the club rolled into Oakland’s Redwood Park (now Dr. Aurelia Reinhardt Redwood Regional Park), whose leaders were interested in providing “an entertaining spectacle for the public at large,” according to the booklet. 

By 1957, when everything was up and running, the club boasted of having the longest 2.5-inch gauge track in the world. The Redwood facility also had a 7.5-inch gauge track, a larger size that had “taken hold as the standard gauge on the West Coast,” according to the booklet. 

In 1963 the club approved the idea of moving to Tilden because Redwood had very little flat land for track expansion. By the late ’60s, the club started improving a site that had been a U.S. Army camp connected to the Nike missile base in Richmond’s Wildcat Canyon Regional Park. The club continued to operate in Redwood Park while the Tilden tracks were laid and its buildings raised by members. All of the club’s track, bridges, trestles, barns and switches have been engineered and crafted by volunteers and members, as well as their steam engines. 

In September 1975, the club held a Golden Spike Ceremony, mimicking the historic completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1869, to inaugurate the new facility. In attendance were several hundred people and more than 40 locomotives. Shattock never got to see it: He died in 1974. 

‘A Southern Pacific shop’

Inside the clubhouse children and parents mingle. There are posters, a video, and model trains
Visitors at the clubhouse during the Golden Gate Live Steamers’ Open House on Sept. 10. Credit: Joanne Furio

Today the club boasts a clubhouse, roundhouse and many small storage barns for 50 trains owned by members. All the buildings are painted in the brown and yellow of the Southern Pacific Railroad, making the compound a “Southern Pacific shop,” Reaves said.  

The club boasts 5,000 feet of 7.5-inch gauge track that run the largest trains, where passengers sit in individual seats or straddling long bench-like cars. According to the club’s president, Jon Sargent, 1 inch of a miniature train at the steamers equals 1 foot of a full-sized train. Another way of looking at it: Many of the trains running on the club’s 7.5-inch track are 2-3 feet tall. (Redwood Valley Railroad runs 12-inch gauge trains that can hold cars where people sit side-by-side).

The club also has 2,000 feet of 4.75-inch dual-gauge ground level track and a 1,100-foot track for smaller gauge trains that’s connected in a loop and raised 3 feet off the ground on wooden braces.

The club rents the Tilden property from the East Bay Regional Park District for $2,050 a year. Some of that is paid by membership fees, which range from $30 for an associate membership (for out-of-towners who come in periodically for meets); $50 for an individual and $60 for a family. The club also raises money by charging members rent for train storage.

Donations help to maintain the property, buildings, tracks, seven locomotives (four steam, two diesel and one electric) and numerous riding cars it owns to keep its Sunday rides going. Unlike full-sized steam engines that were typically powered by coal, the club’s steam locomotives run on propane.  

It turned out that being downhill — and connected by a short path — from the for-profit railway, which opened in 1952, does have a benefit. It means that visitors who finish one train ride can walk to another. The club’s gotten many donations that way.

“It has been very fortunate for the club,” Reaves said.  

Born into a train legacy

Group of white men and one boy indoors posing with model trains
A 1939 photo of the Golden Gate Live Steamers that includes founder Victor Shattock, second from left. Courtesy: Golden Gate Live Steamers

Pictures in the clubhouse tell part of the club’s story. Originally, the organization was made up of mostly white men. The club has diversified somewhat, especially in terms of gender, and today boasts about a dozen women, including three engineers. Like the club’s founder, many members grew up loving trains, usually because they or someone in their families loved trains as a hobby or a job. 

Most members in their 70s, 80s and 90s worked on the railroad, like the Southern Pacific, Santa Fe and Western Pacific, in various capacities. Sammy Tamez, director at large, worked in the water service department for 31 years, most of which was spent with the Southern Pacific. 

“A lot of the older guys grew up with steam engines and they remember them fondly,” Reaves said. “Steam engines were running all over the Bay Area.”

Because train legacies are passed on, several generations have been involved in the club and they come from all over the Bay Area. Charlie Buhre, 15, of Concord, the son of Sarah Buhre, an engineer, joined the club a couple of years ago. Lisa Kimberlin, the club’s ombudsman, is the daughter of a machinist, Jerry Kimberlin, who has built 17 model trains that are housed at the club. 

“It’s in her blood,” Sargent said. 

“Or the grease is in my blood,” she quipped. 

Most members are in their 60s. “This is a hobby to get into when you retire,” Reaves said. The trajectory for most involves returning to the hobby they loved as children but had to put on hold when they grew up. 

Cluster of buildings around a train track
The roundhouse at Golden Gate Live Steamers, one of many buildings where members store their trains. Credit: Joanne Furio

Matt Petach, the club’s secretary, rode trains as a child at the Los Angeles Live Steamers and as a teenager volunteered at the Orange Empire Railroad Museum. In January 2019 he retired from a career in tech at 48 and bought his first locomotive nine months later. His plan is to build an outdoor home railroad at a home he’s building in Milpitas, but figured he’d first need to learn everything he could by “listening to as many people as possible.” 

Learning from the pros

Man in overall rides train that says Golden Gate Live Steamers
GGLS engineer John Davis driving one of the trains for the public on Sept. 10. Credit: Joanne Furio

While members may have myriad reasons for joining, what keeps them chugging along as a group is what they’ve done from the beginning: sharing knowledge and resources. Like Jerry Kimberlin, several members are skilled machinists who build their own engines at home shops and offer help and suggestions when train owners run into technical obstacles.

Back at the open house, Finley Maude proudly showed a visitor his own box cab electric engine that a club member had made for him. Maude paid for it himself by asking relatives to give him cash gifts for birthday and Christmas and by selling ice cream from a cooler attached to his bike at parks last summer in Clovis, where his grandparents live. 

“One of my favorite things about the club is how helpful and knowledgeable all the members are,” said Simon Maude, Finley’s father. 

Father and two sons at front of train ride
Peter Wong of South San Francisco with two of his three sons, ages 4 and 3, on a train ride Sept. 10. Credit: Joanne Furio

“Whenever we’ve had problems with our engine — and we’ve had plenty, that’s half the fun — there has always been a large number of members who want to come offer advice and help,” he said. “Our train has been significantly improved over time through the kind work and expertise of members who wanted to help Finley. ”

Finley Maude spends every Sunday at the club, driving his train, accompanied by his father, hanging out with other members and, along the route, learning. He can’t get enough of trains, just like some of the visitors.

This was Peter Wong’s fifth visit to the park with his wife and four children, all under the age of 5. The children play with Thomas the Tank Engine wooden trains at home. 

“We like coming on Sundays,” said Wong, who lives in South San Francisco. “The kids love the train rides. And it’s nice to be in nature.” 

Even though the rides technically end at 3 p.m., the club’s public train crew will stay as long as there’s a line.

“As long as we have people, we keep running,” Petach said.

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Joanne Furio is a longtime journalist and writer of creative nonfiction. Originally from New York, she has been a staff writer, an editor and a freelance magazine writer. More recently, she was a contributing...