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April 11, 2006 > Short line, narrow gauge; local railroad history

Short line, narrow gauge; local railroad history

by Philip Holmes

The Birth of California Narrow Gauge, by Bruce MacGregor, recalls the local history of the Carter Brothers and the rise to fame of the South Pacific Coast Railroad- a narrow gauge short line famous for declaring war on the large, powerful Southern Pacific during California's turbulent 1870's.

MacGregor had already written two books on local railroading (South Pacific Coast and Narrow Gauge Portrait, South Pacific Coast) when he wrote The Centennial History of Newark in 1976. The Centennial book was the result of an initiative by the citizens of Newark to publish a book of their early history, in honor of our nation's 200th anniversary and the 100th birthday of Newark. With the help of Newark teacher Marjorie Callow, a noted authority on the city's history, MacGregor's book became the first half of a work to record the city's rich history, from the time of the Ohlone to the present. The second half, a book entitled Newark: A City at Fifty, is due to be published during the coming year and will cover the city's history since incorporation.

MacGregor is the son of John I. "Jack" MacGregor and Frances Gleason MacGregor, who met when they were teachers at San Juan Bautista. They were married in 1939 and moved to the Newark area where Jack was a teacher and principal. He served as head of the Newark School District and became the first Superintendent of the Newark Unified School District. Jack served in the U.S. Army Air Corps during World War II. After the war, the MacGregors started a family and settled in Fremont where Frances was an active member of the Country Club of Washington Township and a founding member, first violinist, and life long supporter of the Fremont Philharmonic Orchestra. The MacGregor sons, Bruce and William, grew up in Fremont.

The 720 page Birth of California Narrow Gauge, published by Stanford University Press in 2003, describes "the conception, construction and early operation of the first six narrow gauge railroads in California". In particular, it is a regional study of the contracting firm of Thomas and Martin Carter who helped build all six railroads. The book is lavishly illustrated with some 600 photos, many published for the first time. Credit is given to Susanne Todd for her research contributions, and to Curtis Ferrington for his illustrations, along with hundreds of other collectors and historians. Credit is also given to Ardenwood Historic Farm's own railroad museum, which contributed to the book. In the late 1970's, MacGregor was one of the founders of the railroad museum at Ardenwood.

Several of the railroads described in the book were local-- like the South Pacific Coast. Some tapped the northern redwoods of Marin and Sonoma counties, while others helped develop California's mother lode. What they all had in common was Carter Brothers' ability to engineer light, flexible, low-cost narrow gauge cars, allowing small, start-up short lines to compete against California's notorious railroad monopoly- the Southern Pacific. Carter helped support a small revolution in narrow gauge technology that gave birth to six scrappy short lines including the local South Pacific Coast Railroad. Equipment from some of the six railroads including the South Pacific Coast is preserved today at Ardenwood Historic Farm.

Railroad buffs will enjoy the entire book, describing in scholarly detail the construction of Carter cars and their use on narrow gauge lines. No book has ever presented such accurate, detailed descriptions of our area's narrow gauge rolling stock, and no book has ever chronicled the history of the Carter family as this book does.

Local residents who claim that they are not railroad enthusiasts will enjoy sections of the book that refer to or take place in the Tri-City area. The Introduction has fascinating details about the life of the Carter family in Newark and on the Nutwood Stock Farm in Irvington. Chapter 10, titled "Re-engineering: the South Pacific Coast," contains many interesting details about the narrow gauge lines in the Newark area. The most interesting section of the book for many local people will be Chapter 11, "Newark: the Basis of Business" that describes the development of the railroad town and the production of railroad cars in the Carter factory.

The Birth of California Narrow Guage is available through Stanford University Press web site, or through

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