16 July 2009
Henry Luna, Father of the Niles Canyon Railway
Ask Henry Luna about trains and you'll see the same look in his eyes.
Luna is the founder and president of the Niles Canyon Railway, the classic steam railroad that links the East Bay communities of Niles and Sunol.
His passion for trains started at a young age when he would meet his dad coming home from work at the railroad tracks two blocks away from where he grew up in Burlingame.
Luna became enthralled with steam engines and wasn't just content observing them from afar. In high school, he decided to get together with some friends to search out steam locomotives as a hobby.
In 1961, Luna and five of his friends formed the Pacific Locomotive Association (PLA) to keep steam locomotives alive for future generations. At the time, the only other running steam locomotives in California were at Disneyland and Knott's Berry Farm.
In 1987, the group began restoring the 140-year-old Niles Canyon operation. Though Luna has had several other occupations, working with trains has been his life-long passion. Eventually, this passion for steam locomotives that started as a hobby turned into a career.
The only railroad he was involved with before the Niles Canyon Railway was the Sierra Railroad, which can be seen in many popular television shows and movies like "Little House on the Prairie", "Petticoat Junction", " High Noon", and "Bonanza".
Luna wanted to show the public that when you put fire into "the big pieces of cold, black metal," steam locomotives become "the closest thing to a human machine man has made. It's so much more fascinating to see the trains operating," he said.
"You can see the same equipment they used years ago in action, instead of [being] just static and rusty. Seeing history in operating condition is something very few people in the United States can say they've experienced."
Luna said of the trains: "Each locomotive has it's own personality. One will love you and one will hate you."
After a publishing company expressed interest in putting together a book, Luna wrote and published "Niles Canyon Railways" in 2005. When asked about the experience, Luna said he worked on the book about a year, though he thought it would take a month.
"It was a lot of fun," he said. "I met a lot of interesting people and heard a lot of interesting stories."
The Niles Canyon Railway has a rich history, but if Luna has any say, it will have an even brighter future: one idea that is in planning stages is to work with the East Bay Regional Park District to lay track from the valley floor to the top of the Sunol Ridge.
This extension would allow passengers to have magnificent views of the entire Bay Area, and would also be handicap accessible.
"It could very easily become one of the most popular tourist destinations in America," said Luna. "The idea has been discussed with government officials. Everybody thinks it's a terrific idea."
Another project that Luna and his Pacific Locomotion Association colleagues are putting the finishing touches on is a vintage 1927 railroad dining car. They have spent the last eight years restoring the car, which will run on Saturday nights and will serve "traditional railway meals served in a traditional railway setting."
The dining experience will be modeled after deluxe dining trains from the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s.
Luna feels that his success with the railroad is due to persistence, patience, and a good sense of humor.
"All of those things are necessary to make any progress. The progress is slow," he said with a widening smile, "but continuing."
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