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The Vanishing Train

I’ve been a railroad buff for a long time. Since I was a teenager, I have always enjoyed seeing working steam trains running, especially when I lived in the Portland area, where there was a group who restored and ran classic steam locomotives. Every time they ran one of their units, people came from all over to watch. It was always a big event.

Photo by Guiseppe Ruco.

One afternoon I was traveling south on US 395 just north of Alturas, California. My mother and I had just turned a corner on the highway when the town came into view, including an extensive set of railroad tracks. The tracks emptied out into a small rail yard near the middle of town, where they mostly dead-ended. Often there were old railroad cars parked alongside the yard.

On this summer afternoon in 2003, I was surprised to see a Southern Pacific steam locomotive headed for Alturas along the railroad tracks. The locomotive hauled several old fashioned passenger cars behind it and I assumed it was some sort of steam train excursion event. However, I was surprised to see it running here. Usually such events were announced on the websites and news groups that my father regularly visited, and there was no such event listed. If I had known of one, I would’ve planned to be there to watch and get some pictures and film.

There were a few strange things about that train. It clearly bore the Southern Pacific logo and title, but there was no color to it. The whole locomotive had a grayscale paint job that I’d never seen before. In fact, nothing about the scene had any color, just shades of gray. The whole train also moved along inside a large cloud of steam, such as a train usually only produces when braking or starting up. In this case, the steam cloud surrounded the train, especially the locomotive, and puffed out on all sides as if the train were pushing through a foggy day, but it was a clear, clean summer afternoon.

Mom and I didn’t think much of it as we hurried into Alturas to try to meet the train to get some pictures. We figured it was going to stop at the old depot near the rail yard, so that’s where we went. I was expecting to see the usual crowds that gathered along the tracks as rail fans photograph and film a classic steam train. There were none. In fact, no one seemed to be acting in any unusual manner. It was just another afternoon in downtown Alturas.

I was a little baffled by this, but that didn’t stop me from waiting. We could see the train for some distance as we came into town and knew that we would get there first. But it never appeared. In fact, there were no signs of a steam train anywhere. They have a distinctive odor that was not present. We saw no clouds of steam, nor did we hear the loud rumble that always accompanies such a heavy locomotive when it rushes past. It was as if the thing simply dematerialized somewhere along the tracks.

After a while I wondered if the train had somehow pulled off on a side track somewhere. We searched the rail yard for any sign of it, but there was none. Nor did we see any indication of it anywhere near the museum. In fact, there were no tracks leading to the museum. The old steam locomotive they had on display in front was still there and obviously hadn’t been touched in a long time. There were also no signs of the train on any of the rails leading outside of town.

But how does a fully-fired steam locomotive and its tender just vanish into thin air? I wondered if it had slipped onto some side route that I didn’t know about it. However, when I later explored the area on maps and Google Earth, there was no indication that it would’ve gone anywhere. Most of the tracks dead end near the wetlands outside of Alturas. A spur heads north toward Lakeview, but no train could pass in that direction without being seen by us. There are also no places where it could’ve turned around or backed away.

The next thing I explored were steam train runs and events that could’ve occurred in the Alturas area in that time period. An extensive internet exploration found nothing. A search for a similar grayscale paint job for old Southern Pacific locomotives also came up blank. I couldn’t even find evidence that passenger trains ever came to Alturas, nor did I find any information concerning train wrecks that may have occurred in the same area.

I know what I saw. Mom knows what she saw. There was a fully loaded Southern Pacific steam locomotive headed for Alturas that afternoon. It came from west of town on the tracks coming in from Klamath Falls (as traced by following said tracks on Google Earth) and headed straight toward the rail yard and old depot, but it never arrived.

I have no answers for this experience. To this day I still remember the way that train looked as it sped determinedly down those tracks toward a small California town with that strange grayscale paint job and the odd misting steam clouds around it. Was there really a steam train that day that I somehow missed? Did my mother and I suffer some weird collective hallucination? Or did we somehow get a glimpse of some echo of the past? We may never know the truth.

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