Going to see the elephant! That’s one popular saying of Gold Rush miners heading for California and the mines. Off for excitement, something big! Modern folks have a few elephants of our own to see. Here in Northern California, things like the Sundial Bridge, Shasta Dam or maybe even the historic Ide Adobe. Up in the High Desert, there are elephants, too, including a miniature railroad that Stephen and Cheryl Baker built on 10 acres near Alturas.
Baker is a retired special education resources teacher. His wife, Cheryl, is the Modoc County librarian.
Now, if you are going to build a railroad in your backyard, it sure helps to have your wife’s permission. Cheryl’s OK came in the form of a rock, engraved with a saying that she gave her husband. The rock said, “The journey is found along the way. Not at the end of the road.” Just the focus needed to keep the mind—and body—on track, and it kept Stephen going for the six years it took to grade the road bed, set down ties, lay the tracks and spike them.
“In 2004, I drove the last spike. Then I put that hammer away!” Baker said.
The Bakers are representative of a kind of people living today in Modoc County. He’s the former resident—growing up in the Surprise Valley on the other side of the mountain—and she is a transplanted Bay Area resident. Their relocation to the high desert was typical of many. It was gradual. They bought an old Victorian house in Alturas for vacationing; then they bought a hotel in town, and Cheryl came up to run it fulltime, while for a number of years Stephen taught in in Marin County.
Obviously, the Bakers don’t scare easily. Big projects have been part of their marriage. With a family of two boys and at middle age, they both went back to school to get master’s degrees so they could explore new careers. And then there’s the Niles Hotel that Baker purchased over the phone in 1976, and the couple spent nearly 20 years remodeling.
“Cheryl liked running it, and I liked restoring it,” Baker said of the century-old Alturas landmark that served as the social center of town in its heyday. Cheryl’s hat was that of chef and bartender. Her favorite dish: scampi for guests who traveled from Redding and Reno for a quick weekend getaway in the California Outback.
They decorated the hotel with antiques collected over the years. When they sold the hotel, that collection needed a new home, so Baker didn’t build just that railroad, he also constructed a small village, “The Mining Town of High Grade,” an homage to a turn-of-the-century settlement that struck up in the Warner Mountains, north of Alturas, near New Pine Creek. They decorated the buildings with their antique collection. Among the replica mining industry antiques like a stamp mill and mine hoist , the Bakers’ town has an assay office, barber shop, blacksmith shop, jail, miner’s cabin—and finally, a cemetery: With headstones. A spikey iron fence, and, not to be too macabre, just one body—a beloved family dog.
The train is a so-called “park model,” 18-inch gauge that ran as a visitor attraction at the Argo Gold Mine National Historic Site in Idaho springs. Rolling stock includes a custom-built Pullman replica combine, an actual car that transported miners, several hopper cars and a caboose—all with seats for passengers. Under the hood, the train engine is actually a Chevrolet, but the body is replica of a Porter steam engine.
The town and the train are open to the public just once a year, during the Modoc County Friends of the Library’s annual fundraiser held at the end of June. This year, more than 300 showed up to roam through the garden, peek inside the replica buildings of a Gold Rush town—and take a train ride.
The day unrolled as visitors panned for gold, got held up by a bandit on the train and watched demonstrations, including that of pottery making by local artist and farmer Dick Mackey, plein air painting by Marie Neer and fabric arts by the Modoc Spinners. Meanwhile, Stephen Baker drove the train, while at a propane grill, Cheryl Baker flipped burgers—scampi doesn’t work well for picnics.
Photos by H.A. Silliman.
© 2016 H.A. SILLIMAN ALL RIGHTS RESERVED