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February 3, 2012 > A train stops here

A train stops here

By William Marshak

A "new" train is about to make a permanent stop near the mouth of Niles Canyon in Fremont. Workmen are busy at the intersection of Mowry Avenue and Mission Boulevard installing a steam locomotive and railcar replica in front of the Niles Station Apartments. The steam train sculpture is the result of efforts between renowned artist Mario Chiodo and local resident/historian, Lila Bringhurst.

Rail transportation holds an extremely important place in the past and present history of the Tri-City area; Niles Canyon was an important link of the Transcontinental Railroad. Farm goods were transported throughout the Bay Area and beyond by a vast network of rails. The practical application of train traffic continues and for many, trains retain an undeniable romantic attraction. Mario says, "I grew up with trains. Trains brought people and opportunities. That is how people got here and moved about; trains are threaded into us and our history." As a youngster, he remembers building model trains with his brother and creating scenes for them. "I don't know anyone who doesn't like trains!"

Although Lila says she grew up far from trains, she remembers an aunt and uncle who lived between two train tracks. She has lived in Fremont, near trains, and says that this train appeared to her as a revelation. "I called Mario who I have known for a long time and told him of my idea." That was about six years ago. Mario replied enthusiastically, "Yeah, that's what we need to do!"

Planning and construction was an immense proposition, a challenge to the talented craftsmen and artists in Mario's facility. He says, "There are so many intricate things to incorporate into this type of sculpture." A visit to see the manufacturing process reveals extreme care and detail; "It looks like someone took a train from the turn of the century and sliced a side of it off and pasted up there. There are no straight lines in the wood, molding and trim; it's all edges and curves." Fiberglass covering is applied to create a sculptural unit - 50 percent scale of the real thing.

Researching trains to represent historical accuracy, Lila says they came across a picture of a train that traveled through Niles Canyon in 1907. The sculpture is based on that train but true to the Lila's vision. She remarks, "I had already seen it."

From a scale model of the sculpture including its surroundings, Mario and Lila worked out all the details. In the Chiodo Art Development workshop in Oakland, models of other projects abound offering exquisite artistry and detail of finished projects. The Niles Train required the same attention to detail and much thought about the process and what materials to use. "The level of detail and intricacy brought us to the conclusion that it had to be done the 'old fashioned' way by carving wood and including details to make it as authentic as possible," says Mario. After much deliberation, it was decided to build the train from the bottom up, just as if it was a real train with a final finish of polyester resin.

Lila was surprised by Mario's passion for trains and how it was shared by others in his studio as well as visitors. Many involved with other projects took a look at the train model in process and were stunned by the concept. Several whimsical touches were included in the final draft including an engineer that looks suspiciously like Charlie Chaplin who spent time in Niles performing for some of his most famous movies.

Finally settling on the site, photos of the model were overlaid on digital site photos to determine the proper size and angles. "This is breaking new ground although every project we do is new and has its own idiosyncrasies." Mario adds that although the rail cars will be mounted on a wall, the engine will ride on real rails. The scene will resemble a station including a water tower and track stop. "This is designed as a sculpture of a train rather than an exact replica; an art piece that is technically true to almost all details."

The "Bringhurst Special" is currently being assembled on site and should be completed by mid-February. Destined to be an icon of the area, it is a symbol of the growth, industry, value and spirit of pioneers - past and present. Lila's epiphany has become a marvelous reality. Watch for it!

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