From an article on the Marin Independent Journal website
Posted: 04/06/2010 04:13:55 PM PDT
It wouldn't be entirely accurate to call Gordon Adams' favorite hobby a backyard train layout.
For one thing, there's the size of the project. The 7.5-inch-gauge railroad that winds over bridges, through tunnels and along San Anselmo Creek for a fifth of a mile in Fairfax's Cascade neighborhood is closer to a miniature amusement park than a model railroader's dream.
And then there's the fact that Adams, a retired railroad engineer, technically didn't build the Raccoon Gulch Express in his backyard.
"My uncle purchased the property in the late '50s, and built the tracks before he built the house," said Adams' niece, Mary Stompe of Novato. "It's been a love of his for many, many years, and it became a neighborhood icon. Everybody knows the train man from Fairfax."
For more than 40 years, Adams' private railroad at 475 Cascade Drive served as the setting for birthday parties, neighborhood gatherings and crowds of excited children hoping to ride the train. Last week, the Adams family placed the property on the market with an asking price of $995,000.
"Back in the '80s, kids lined up around the corner to ride on the train," said next-door neighbor Mike Hazel. "He had quite an elaborate setup there: tunnels, bridges, and about an acre or two of tracks traversing all of that."
Adams' family hopes that someone will purchase the house and trains together, and will restore the now-defunct Raccoon Gulch railway to its former glory.
"My hope is someone will acquire the property who wants to carry on his legacy, and that kids can continue to enjoy coming by for a ride on the train," Stompe said. "We'll just have to wait and see."
Adams, 92, who is in ill health in a nursing home, began his love affair with trains while growing up in Birmingham, England. He worked as a mechanical engineer for the London Midland and Scottish Railway and the London subway system until World War II, when he became a locomotive engineer in a railroad operating division in France.
After France fell to Nazi invaders, Adams undertook secret operations for the British Army's Special Services until he was wounded. He continued to work for the merchant navy until the end of the war, when he returned to the London subway. In 1947, he moved to the United States, working first for the Northwestern Pacific Railroad at the Tiburon roundhouse and later for the Southern Pacific Railroad in San Francisco.
Adams' Fairfax train project began when he and wife Pauline found a pair of old steam engine cylinders in a Marin junkyard. He purchased the cylinders for $2, and began turning them into a railroad after buying his Fairfax property in 1960. He recycled rails from small mining railroads throughout California, and built his engines - about one-fifth the size of a commercial train - from spare parts and casings.
Throughout the next four decades, Adams continued to improve his railroad, whose expanding tracks passed through a workroom at the back of his house and into a storeroom beneath his porch, where rows of well-oiled cars waited for neighborhood children.
"He put a sign on his fence, saying 'Train Rides Today' or 'No Train Rides Today,' " said Stompe, who remembers children and adults coming from throughout the Bay Area to ride the train.
By the beginning of the 21st century, age and health concerns prompted George and Pauline Adams to hire a series of in-home caregivers. One of those caregivers, Jane Macam McClellan, was convicted of embezzling more than $80,000 from the couple, using their credit cards and hiring her own family members for housekeeping work. In January, McClellan was sentenced to three years in state prison and ordered to pay $83,099 in restitution to the couple.
"I think that had a significant impact," Stompe said. "They had both been doing well together, but it just wasn't possible for them to live independently any more."
Family members hired Frank Howard Allen Realtors to clean up and sell the property.
"The track is intact, as is everything to do with the train," said Realtor Fred Kusin. "These trains are embedded into the concrete and asphalt, and to take out the track would be quite a task."
Kusin said he's been approached by train enthusiasts who are interested in acquiring the Raccoon Gulch layout separately from the property. But he and the Adams family hope the trains can remain a part of Fairfax, as does Mayor Lew Tremaine.
"One of the coolest things in town for as long as I can remember was Gordon's train," Tremaine said. "My kids were thrilled every time they saw it. It's one of those 'only in Fairfax' kind of things, and for the Cascade neighborhood, it's a huge part of the neighborhood character."
Mike Hazel would love to hear the steam whistle on the Raccoon Gulch Express blow one more time. But he's less optimistic about the railroad's chances.
"I can't imagine that happening," Hazel said. "Someone who would purchase the place would probably not be able to maintain the hand-built machinery. It would take a lot of expertise, a lot of passion and a lot of money to keep it going."
Contact Rob Rogers via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org
In 1961, engineer Gordon Adams gives children a ride on his Raccoon Gulch Express, a scale railroad line he built on his Fairfax property. While the train is now out of service, Adams home and the line are up for sale. (IJ archive/Dick Steinheimer)