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Train buff keeps dream on track

By: Gloria Young, Home & Garden
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Auburn’s Grant Shaw has always loved trains. “I had a grandfather and uncle who worked for the railroad,” he said Monday. “My father, who worked for Shell Oil and then became a Realtor, always had an affection for trains. I’m sure some of that wore off on me.” Growing up, Shaw and his father built a track in the backyard of the family home in Martinez. As an adult, he built another one during his years in San Jose. Then, when he was ready to retire, he and his wife, Patricia, found the perfect location in Auburn — a home on three acres of land, much of it level ground — perfect for installing a train track. And that’s what he did. Shaw did all the work himself, preparing the land and then putting down 3,000 railroad ties. “I moved all the dirt by hand and I used a wheelbarrow instead of tractor,” he said. “I’d rather dig a ditch than go to a gym.” Shaw designed the track so that it makes a loop through the side of the property. “You can ride it forever without stopping or backing up,” he said. The whole project — train and track — is built to a one-eighth scale. “If you look at my train, you can multiply it by eight to have the full size,” he said. In fact, the one-eighth scale is the most popular size among train buffs, he explained. “It’s not cheap but not prohibitively expensive,” he said. “You go much bigger and it gets really expensive.” It has been an enjoyable — but lengthy — project. “You don’t do much work during the winter,” he said. “It took me three summers (to build).” The first summer was a lot of preparation, earth moving and drainage, and building the playhouse/ storage shed. Later, as he put down the ties, Shaw ran a couple of tracks into the shed, which allows him to easily bring in the locomotive for storage. The first phase is now completed, but the work is, by no means, finished. “There are a couple of switches that don’t go anywhere,” he said. “My wife asked where the switches would go and I said, ‘Colfax.’” The locomotive Shaw chose is electric and runs on a deep-cycle-marine battery. It was a logical choice over fuel-run models, he said. “It doesn’t make noise and doesn’t get hot to the touch,” he said. With the electric engine, he can run the train for miles and miles without a need for servicing the parts. There’s also a flat car, a gondola car and a hopper. Designed and built by Shaw, they’re made of wood, reflecting the style of the 1870s. He named the train the Dry Gulch & Last Chance R.R. The numbers on the cars all have a special significance as do the signs along the track, which are all family names. The gondola car has seats that can accommodate a couple of adults as well as kids. But the main passengers are the grandchildren. The Shaws have seven children and 16 grandchildren, so there are plenty of potential riders. “The grandchildren aren’t here very long before they ask if they can ride the train,” Shaw said. As the engineer, he handles the air brake controls in the gondola car. The locomotive weighs about 60 or 70 pounds and the cars weigh 40 to 50 pounds. That’s light enough so that when the cars derail, which happens occasionally, Shaw can easily lift them back onto the track. At full speed on level ground, the train can probably reach six or seven miles an hour, he said. The train circles a play area with a swing set and other toys. As it heads toward the wildflower-filled open space, there’s a small bridge. Shaw attends train club events occasionally, but says his focus is on using the train at his home. “I spend more time on track then most people do,” he said. “Others spend more time on locomotives and cars and they take them to various club tracks.” But he has visited Train Mountain Railroad Museum in Chiloquin, Ore. “I’ve taken my train up there,” he said. “They have a meeting there every other year. People come from all over the world with their trains. I rode (my train) around on the 20 miles of track there. It’s all forest and trees.” Shaw’s passion for trains doesn’t stop with his own track and locomotive. One of the big selling points when they bought their Auburn home was that it is only about 500 feet from the Union Pacific track. For him, that train whistle is a welcoming sound. The interest also extends to vacations, which frequently involve train travel. On an upcoming trip, they plan to take a train to Seattle where they’ll board a ship for a cruise up the coast. Then they’re hopping a narrow-gauge train that goes into the Yukon territory, he said. Back at home, after the big push to get the initial phase of his rail project done, Shaw is now taking a more leisurely approach. “I don’t care if I ever get done,” he said. “When I feel like doing it, I’ll work on it.” On Monday, two grandkids were looking forward to a train ride. It’s always a treat for Levi Packard, 5, who was visiting from Roseville. Levi particularly likes the bridge. “And I like to sit in the front seat,” he said. For Shaw, it is a continuing journey. “With something like this, as long as you’ve got property, you’re not finished,” he said. Reach Gloria Young @gloriay@goldcountrymedia .com.