Calaveras Enterprise

Tuolumne Talk: Stories shine among the locomotives

Nancy Johnson reads stories at Railtown 1897 State Historic Park in Jamestown.Photo by Patricia Harrelson

Nancy Johnson reads stories at Railtown 1897 State Historic Park in Jamestown.Photo by Patricia Harrelson

Every summer when Nancy Johnson was a little girl, her mother put her on the train in Tucson, Ariz., to ride to her grandmother’s in San Simon, Ariz.

“My mom paid the conductor $1 to keep an eye on me,” Johnson explained. “He made sure I got off in San Simon, which was just a mailstop.”

“My grandmother lived across the street from the roundhouse. On the first night at her house, the roar of the train going by and the sound of the whistle kept me awake, but after that I got used to it.”

That early experience with trains fostered a lifelong interest. These days, Johnson, a retired teacher, volunteers at Railtown 1897 State Historic Park in Jamestown. She is one of two readers at Story Time, weekly summer events at the popular park where people come to ride the historic trains.

“In the summer, we add weekday train rides for vacationers on Wednesdays,” Johnson explained. “And about three years ago, we started doing Story Time before the train departures.”

Kids hear stories inside a caboose through Aug. 31.

Kids hear stories inside a caboose through Aug. 31.

Story Times take place in refurbished caboose No. 7. Johnson starts the half-hours reading from a handmade book about the caboose. “Trains don’t have cabooses anymore,” Johnson stated. “They aren’t needed because of the high-speed railroads.”

The book, which was created by another volunteer, illustrates how crews once lived in the caboose when trains traveled much slower and it took many days for them to get to their destinations. The caboose had beds, a table and a wood-burning cook stove inside. There was also a desk that folded down from a wall, at which the conductor took care of ticketing paperwork. A cupola rises above the roof of the caboose that provided a place for lookouts to keep their eyes on the trains as they traveled.

“The crew needed to watch behind the train for fires that may have started from sparks flying off the tracks,” Johnson said. “They could also pull this board down,” she said, pointing to a shelf, “and create another sleeping spot up here.”



The former beds of the caboose have been replaced with benches for children to sit on during story time sessions, but they can still climb into the cupola afterward. Johnson says kids love that part of the experience.

When the caboose fills with children and parents, Johnson sits before a door that’s opened to the railroad track behind her. After she reads the short book about the caboose, she reads a classic, “The Little Engine That Could.” She gets the children to chant, “I think I can; I think I can,” with her, and after the story, she tells them to listen for that sound when they ride the train. Johnson has a bag full of train-related books to choose from, but she usually concludes the half hour with “I Saw an Ant on the Railroad Track,” a story about a switchman trying to change tracks to redirect a train to save an ant.

“The concept of the track switching is hard for little ones to understand,” said Johnson, who shows youngsters a switch at the park, but she wishes she had a model to demonstrate what happens when the switchman performs his job. “Someday one of the volunteers will make one,” Johnson proclaimed. I know she’s right, for the Railtown volunteers are a committed bunch of people who love trains.

All kinds of people bring their youngsters to Railtown Story Time.

“We’ve had visitors from China, Australia and Germany. The Germans particularly love trains,” Johnson declared. Area residents enjoy Story Time, too. “There is one Jamestown family who comes back every year.”

Perhaps the haunting sound of the lonesome locomotive calls the family to the depot. That warbling whistle and Story Time at Railtown just might create lovers of trains among the little ones who hear a gentle introduction to the rails by a veteran like Nancy Johnson.

Send word on your Tuolumne County event to

WHEN: 10 a.m. and 12 p.m. Wednesdays through Aug. 31

WHERE: Railtown 1897 State Historic Park, 5th Avenue and Reservoir Road, Jamestown

COST: Free; train rides are $15 for adults, $10 for ages 6 to 17 and free for 5 and under

MORE INFO: 984-3953 or

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *