The saga of a locomotive: Old No. 5 returns home |

The saga of a locomotive: Old No. 5 returns home

EVERYONE’S FAVORITE, “the little teakettle on wheels,” locomotive No. 5 of the Nevada County Narrow Gauge Railroad, is now the permanent centerpiece of Nevada City’s railroad museum.

The little engine enjoyed two long and successful careers before returning triumphantly home from her forced exile in Hollywood. No. 5 has embarked on her third, and probably her last, career to be viewed and admired as a 129-year-old relic from an easier, more relaxed era in our nation’s transportation history. Her return to Nevada County almost 20 years ago is a legend and a story in itself.

For many years groups and individuals, including the late railroad historian Gerald M. Best, whose Nevada County Narrow Gauge is the standard reference, tried without success to get Universal Studios to return old No. 5 to its last working home, Nevada County, but to no avail. Studio officials said they needed the old girl for “realistic back-lot steam.”

Through the years, all efforts were met with a smile and a very polite, but firm “no.”

Then, suddenly and without warning, a major miracle! Back-lot steam was seemingly no longer a studio essential.

On a trip to Universal in 1984, Nevada City resident John Christensen ran across old No. 5 sitting silent on a back lot amid the rubble of a fake western movie town.

A dialogue was opened with studio officials and with some help from local, state and national politicians, success!

Universal lent the Nevada County Historical Society some narrow gauge rolling stock, together with extra wheels, and the piece de resistance, old No. 5 herself! Today, the locomotive is on display as a museum loan.

Engine No. 5 is a Baldwin Locomotive Works 2-6-0 mogul. For the layman that means two pilot wheels ahead of the cylinders, one on each side (2); six drive wheels, three on each side (6); and no trailing wheels under the cab on either side (0). With this configuration, two drive wheels, one on either side, end up under the cab. Mogul means “a great personage,” hence a “great locomotive.”

Built in 1875, she first saw service as engine No. 1 for the Carson & Tahoe Lumber and Flume Co.

The loco was sold to the Nevada County Narrow Gauge in June 1899, where she was used mainly as a road engine until 1940, when she was sold to Frank Lloyd Productions, Universal City.

No. 5 was the oldest engine to run on the line. She was a few months older than either of the two originals, the Grass Valley, No. 1, a 4-4-0, or the Nevada, No. 2, a 2-6-0. Both were also Baldwins and both were scrapped in 1936. In 1961, while in studio service, No. 5 was fitted with a new boiler.

The locomotive shared starring roles in many movie and television productions. A few of her credits include the TV series “The Virginian,” “Heck Ramsey” and “Alias Smith and Jones.” Her most difficult role was in the John Wayne and Marlene Dietrich movie, “The Spoilers.”

On May 10, 1985, amid much hoopla, shouting, music and general celebration, No. 5 returned to Nevada County aboard a Robinson Timber Co. low boy truck. The little engine was paraded through the streets of Grass Valley and Nevada City, posed for a thousand and one photographers, and was “oohhed” and “aahhed” over by residents and visitors alike. Small children, who had only seen steam engines on TV, self-conscientiously touched the cold black metal and climbed awe-struck onto the pilot.

Old No. 5 was the personal favorite of John Nolan, the railroad’s last master mechanic. Nolan often said that she required less maintenance than any of the other locos and was always ready to give 110 percent. Nolan did not live to see his beloved engine return home; he died in 1970 at age 78.

Among the honored guest that afternoon were five of the surviving employees of the Narrow Gauge, who smiled their approval as shutters continued to click.


Bob Wyckoff is a retired newspaper editor, author of local and California history and a longtime Nevada County resident. You can reach him by e-mail at: or by U. S. mail at P.O. Box 216, Nevada City.

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