Sierra County’s future might lie in the hiss of steam.

There are few things in this world more romantic than a steam locomotive. The gentle chu-chu-chu of the engine, the ballet of steel as the drivers whirl and piston blurs, the image of people at ease in the gently rocking cars as outside barns and cattle and farmers on tractors and rising flocks of birds pass in an endlessly changing panorama.

We want that here, that image of plenty and peace; with No. 8 pulling people in such pleasure past our fields and pastures, how can prosperity not follow the train to the station?

The Ocho
But, those who stayed sober at the Short Line Railroad meeting before the BOS the other day noticed something: zeros, lots and lots of zeros. What would its first night in the county cost us? How much to transport, secure and prepare a building, get permits and so on? The dollars would fly in tens and hundreds of thousands. And, any train lover will tell you, a train is a living thing, it needs to move to stay in health, even John Tyson was quick to say, "this is not a static display, it is a working locomotive." It’s a complicated piece of iron, fast to become a rusty piece of iron.

Read More interesting information on Number 8 HERE
How much to go the first mile of track across the valley? Track is expensive to maintain, and equipment and expertise are needed. There are agreements to be completed, and the ever present permits we brave Americans need to do anything in the Land of the Free.

John Tyson was quick to say, "the railroad will never make money" but he wove a dream: prosperity follows it. But, what does Tyson know about it? About the railroad not making money, we agree, he’s an expert. But, where is his evidence that our location would be a natural draw? Where is our evidence that growth, the "G word" as Tyson said, would follow?

Consider the V&T, which with John is familiar. It runs from Carson City to Gold Hill, is within an hour of Reno, Lake Tahoe and Gardnerville-Minden and not much more than an hour from Sacramento. It is literally in a triangle of casinos and brothels. It is located in a world famous ghost town and tourist trap. It has been in steady development for 35 years and goes 16 miles. There have been millions and millions of dollars poured into the V&T, there is a state commission overseeing it. There are hundreds of volunteers scraping rust and oiling metal. Most of it was accomplished by the well-to-do bending elbows and shaking hands, and it happened at a time of prosperity.


Photo: the well-heeled play choo choo. Maybe, if we all chipped in, we could afford 12 new fiberglass handled shovels.

In fairness, the V&T line is built from scratch, over virgin ground, and includes rebuilding tunnels and a bridge over Highway 50; none of those impediments face the Feather River Short Line.

Finally, did Carson City grow because of the project? Is Gold Hill (a famous ghost town next to a more famous ghost town, Virginia City) enjoying growth?

Now, consider Loyalton, where it is, and who lives here. Where is our draw, Portola, who already has a railroad draw the Loyalton line would be in competition with? Partner with the Plumas group? Why would they do that? They’re a Western Pacific Railroad endeavor, and they state they are interested only in that line. They’ve spent years developing their funding sources, what does Loyalton have to offer besides a rapidly rusting locomotive? The Plumas group already has a project, and they run diesel locomotives, no one in her right mind would run a steam locomotive, they rust while you’re watching.

As far as grants, look around! There aren’t many grants left, and those that are left are going to social service and economic development projects, because it isn’t only in Loyalton nobody can get a job.

How many jobs will the Short Line create? Do we really believe the hills around Loyalton will fill up with houses because of a short line railroad?

Nobody is saying the Loyalton Short Line couldn’t go, if we all put our backs to it, if, as Pat Whitley said, the community gets behind it, and if, as Lee Adams said, the stars line up. With super human effort, literally all 3000 of us in the county working, we might make our 16 miles in 35 years.

Now, let’s consider the other steam that should be grabbing our attention.

The SPI cogen plant shut down. It burned biomass to make steam to create electricity. Our woods are full of biomass that will eventually burn, probably in wildfire, but perhaps to create steam.

To create a thriving biomass industry in Sierra County will take millions of dollars. It will require the effort of the community, the "yes is my back yard" YIMBY attitude.

There actually are grants to help with our economic development, and we’re using some right now to take biomass to the cogen plant, which is quiet, but not dead. Peter Huebner and Dave Goicoechea have been pouring sweat and hours into biomass.

Our task for this steam is not to build a railroad, but to learn how to handle biomass, to make each truckload more carbon dense, to find ways to harvest the excess carbon from the steep slopes of the canyons without destroying the fragile soil. Harvesting slash from timber harvests is not enough, we must learn to mine the steep slopes for brush and under story.

Locomotive of the woods; John Deere 1490D  Link
Our biomass is not easy to harvest, has long shipping distances and has high processing costs; these are the significant problems we’ll have to learn to overcome. We’ll have to compete with biomass producers on the flatlands, who have easy harvest and short transportation. We have to learn to work with the Forest Service to more actively direct when and where the carbon is removed; our communities, particularly those in the Canyon, come first. Biomass won’t create the commercial development that timber did, at least not for years, but it’s what we have plenty of, it needs to come out, and if we were smart, we’d work together to develop our biomass potential.

As No. 8 would cause us to pour our efforts into logging’s past, biomass forces our attention to the future. If we don’t develop the railroad, not much will happen; if we don’t develop our biomass industry our hills and the houses and towns in them will burn.

Our biomass effort has no eloquent and debonair John Tyson to speak for it. It has a handful of local people working their butts off, learning as quickly as they can, talking to people, trying to get feet under the table to get grants and focus efforts. Most of the technology for this isn’t here, it’s in the East of the U.S. or in Sweden, which makes much of the biomass handling machinery used in the world.

Even so, harvesting the fire hazard biomass from the woods will be labor intensive; our young people might work in the woods again, and stay in the county and build homes.

And that last bit, our children building homes here, that’s the "G word" we want: Generations. The growth we seek is the natural growth of our children having children and staying here.

As a final thought, maybe we could combine the two projects. It’s probably not what the dashing John Tyson had in mind, but The Ocho, No. 8 might burn chips. Maybe we could convert it to what it was intended to do: help turn forest products into gold. We put some 22 inch tires on it and burn slash in it and use it to haul biomass to the cogen plant. Now, that’s the kind of help we really need from a train.

Chooooo! All aboard!


More on biomass/small wood utilization.


Small diameter wood utilization

More on biomass utilization:

Here Biomass desk guide

Here  Fuel Value Calculator

Here  small wood








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