search   index   by subject   by year   biographies   books  SF Activities  shop museum   contact

From Panama to Poly; The Saga of the
Overfair Railway Pacifics

By Walter Rice Ph.D. and Karl Hovanitz

The earth shook. Buildings came tumbling down. The city was ablaze with fire. Pessimists argued that the great holocaust of April 18, 1906, would forever seal the doom of the west’s most important metropolis. San Francisco would have none of such wisdom. She would shout to the world she was back. This was the spirit that created The Panama-Pacific International Exposition of 1915.

trackage of the Overfair Railway runs though the Exposition GroundsTwo additional themes were to dominate the great Exposition that San Francisco “invited the world” to attend—the bounties of commerce and the marvels of the new “wonders” of invention. The Exposition was to honor the profits that the Panama Canal would bring to the shores of San Francisco Bay. Everywhere on the 635-acre Marina District (Harbor View) site were monuments to mankind’s industry.

A short ferry boat ride from San Francisco, in Oakland, resided the thirty-seven-year-old Louis MacDermot. “Mac” was caught up in society’s fascination with “progress.” What better symbol of “progress” than the great steam-hauled express trains pulled by the mighty Pacific locomotives? The Exposition would be incomplete without miniature steam-powered excursion trains saluting man’s greatest invention.

MacDermot combined this vision with native mechanical abilities and a wealthy indulgent parent. The family estate became a factory, complete with a design/pattern shop and machine shop. “Mac” soon made two pivotal decisions. His railway would be one-third scale, an unusual 19-inch gauge. The standard high-speed “flyer” engine was the 4-6-2 Pacific type. The once sluggish Pacifics had evolved into fast, powerful, economical locomotives (the Pacifics were destined to be further upgraded in the 1920s). “Mac’s” Pacifics were more modern and innovative in design than the locomotives which Southern Pacific was acquiring for its fleet! They were the answers to his quest for locomotive power that promoted the perfection of contemporary industrial design. Accordingly, the Pacifics drew the assignment to power The Panama-Pacific International Exposition’s Overfair Railway.

Soon, MacDermot’s Oakland work force was hard at work crafting five exact miniature steam locomotives. They built four superior-crafted Pacifics; however, No. 1912, No. 1913 and No. 1914 were the only engines ever to operate. The No. 1915 was destined never to have a fire lit in its firebox. The fifth locomotive, No. 1500, was an 0-6-0T switch engine, built primarily to construct the line at the Exposition site.

All locomotives reflected “Mac’s” passion for perfection. The current generation of locomotive mechanics continues the tradition of praising his attention to detail and quality machine work. The practice of attention to detail was, similarly, carried out in the construction of the sixty, four-axle, 20-foot-long, sixteen-seat passenger cars, two six-axle 24-foot passenger cars and the five freight cars assigned to the Overfair Railway.

On October 16, 1914, a ceremonial gold-plated spike was driven into a tie to mark the completion of the line. The Overfair Railway started from the eastern end of the Exposition grounds. It skirted the Machinery Palace, an edifice fashioned after the Roman baths of Caracalla, that claimed to be the largest steel and wood building in the world! Upon reaching San Francisco Bay the route turned west paralleling the Bay and the northern edge of the fairgrounds. After six stations, the Overfair Railway reached the race track. Where else could you ride behind a Pacific for a dime?

The Exposition was a triumph for San Francisco. Between February 20, 1915, when the gates opened and December 4, when the Exposition died, there was an incredible attendance of 18 million. On that first day, Mayor [James] “Sunny Jim” Rolph was so excited he literally ran part of the way to enter the grounds of the great Exposition. San Francisco’s Municipal Railway carried 265,000 riders to the Exposition grounds that day “without accident or discomfort and conveyed them to their destination without delay.” The Muni added 125 new cars to its 43-car fleet to meet the demand. Southern Pacific boasted that it was, “The Exposition Line—1915.” Philadelphia’s Liberty Bell arrived. Airplanes, motor vehicles, and the blessings of electricity were the centerpieces which captured the imagination of the public.

The success of the Great Fair was not transferred to the Overfair Railway. MacDermot’s project was neither a success nor a failure. The railway’s routing, bordering the northern edge of the grounds away from the centers of attraction, the ten-cent fare in an era when a nickel fare was the standard, and competition from B. F. Fageol’s Auto Trains all combined to hold down patronage. Despite innovative design of “Mac’s” Pacifics, to contemporary society, railroads were not worthy of excitement. The railroad industry would have to wait another twenty years, for the introduction of the streamliner, to truly excite the public.

Only occasionally were three trains required. Typically, two sets proved sufficient. Receipts barely covered MacDermot’s construction costs to build his dream. Adding to “Mac’s” fiscal woes was the fact that the Fair’s management inflated the construction costs. For example, they demanded that the one trestle built met the requirements of a class 1 standard-gauge railroad.

photo of crowds at the entrance to the amusement zone at PPIE“Mac” absorbed most of the railway’s costs out of his own pocket. The Overfair Railway earned only slightly more than $22,000 in revenues. By contrast, B. F. Fageol’s Auto trains earned over $307,000 in nickels and dimes. Some sly conductors did, however, gain personal profit. Exposition management claimed the Overfair’s buildings and right-of-way were a leasehold improvement. Accordingly, MacDermot received nothing for the scrapping of his railway plant. The phrase, “an engineer yes, a businessman no,” is an apt description of the man who created the Overfair Pacifics.

After the Fair, MacDermot became an eccentric recluse, quartered on the deteriorating grounds of the family’s Oakland mansion. Unfortunately, this fate was also shared by the Overfair Railway’s locomotives and wooden passenger and freight cars. The locomotives had the luxury of spending their “retirement” in sheds. Outdoors was the destiny of the wooden equipment, which “Mac” had randomly scattered around the estate. Curious riders of Southern Pacific’s “7th Street” East Bay electric line, peering out the windows, would be puzzled about the strange railway equipment scattered about the grounds of a once fashionable mansion. After a quarter century of such indifferent treatment the weather was victorious—the wooden equipment was mostly ruined.

Some people hoped that the miniature Pacifics would be used in the 1939-1940 Treasure Island World’s Fairs. This wish never came true.

Finally in November of 1940, MacDermot moved three engines and the twelve best passenger cars to the Alameda County Zoological Gardens (today’s Oakland Zoo). “Mac” had an agreement with the zoo to create what proved to be a nominal operation— “The Mountain Lion Railway.” Beginning on August 1, 1941, with two cars running behind a forlorn No. 1913, the operation started. The faithful Pacific had lost both its boiler jacket and its leading truck, relegating No. 1913 to the status of a 0-6-2. The Overfair equipment had substantially deteriorated. “Mac’s” increasingly erratic behavior soon forced the Zoo’s management to eject the railway.

All other plans by MacDermot to find a new home for the Overfair Railway never matured beyond speculation. The most notable of these was “Mac’s” hope to acquire a portion of the 78-mile recently abandoned three-foot-gauge North Pacific Coast Railway. The proposed line would run from Monte Rio, in the Russian River resort area of northern California, to Point Reyes on the coast. One rail would be shifted inward to create the required 19-inch gauge. True to his unusual behavior, MacDermot never approached the North Pacific Coast with his plans! As a direct result of “Mac’s” failures, in 1945, the entire Overfair locomotive roster was “dismantled” and placed into storage. During the war year of 1943, Billy Jones, a Southern Pacific railroad engineer, opened an 18-inch gauge railway in the southern San Francisco peninsular town of Los Gatos. The Billy Jones’ “Wildcat Railroad” featured a miniature live steamer from the Los Angeles area (Venice), the Ocean Park and Playa del Rey Railroad. Jones acquired some Overfair passenger cars and modified their trucks for the “Wildcat” operation.

February 22, 1948, Louis MacDermot died in poverty. His passion for perfection, like his health, had long since eroded. For the princely sum of $5,200, Billy Jones bought all the disassembled Overfair locomotives from MacDermot’s trustee in 1948. Jones’ purchase, undoubtedly, saved the miniatures from the junk pile. Under his guidance, the fleet was restored to its Exposition glory. The engines, however, were converted from coal to oil, a more practical fuel in California. Mechanical lubricators were added.

The “Wildcat” operation was not to be the fate of the Overfair Pacifics. Even after Billy Jones added an inch to his gauge, the long Exposition engines proved to be unsuited for the sharp curves. Only the tank engine, No. 1500, attempted Billy Jones’ pike. Accordingly, in the early 1960s, Jones sold No. 1914, No. 1915 and No. 1500 to a southern California buyer, whose amusement park never opened. Billy Jones died in 1968.

On January 5, 1969, Robert Maxfield, a “Piedmont real estate appraiser,” was attracted to an article in the Oakland Tribune, announcing the sale of Overfair Railway engines No. 1912 and No. 1913. Maxfield was quick to act. He soon acquired these engines and three Overfair passenger cars. In 1975, Maxfield’s rebuilt No. 1913 inaugurated the “Calistoga Steam Railroad.” This route offered the rider a two-mile journey through a picturesque section of the upper Napa Valley. It featured two trestles and a three percent grade as it scaled Mt. Washington to offer beautiful vistas of both vineyards and mountains. Within three years, the less than successful railway’s equipment was up for sale.

Louis MacDermot created and built the Overfair Pacifics. Billy Jones rescued them from the scrapper’s torch. Al Smith gave the Pacifics new and secure permanent homes. Smith, like Billy Jones, had worked for the Southern Pacific railroad. In 1944, while working in the San Luis Obispo yard, he lost a leg when a blast of steam knocked him off the top of a moving train. This incident altered his career path. He returned to Cal Poly State University, San Luis Obispo, to complete his undergraduate degree in Crop Science and earn a secondary teaching credential. Al became a High School Agriculture teacher and counselor obtaining a Master’s degree from Cal Poly in 1956. He remained in education until the family business—Orchard Supply Hardware [in San Jose]—required his undivided attention.

Under Al Smith’s vision and leadership, Orchard Supply Hardware Co. pioneered the business strategy of large-scale, self-service hardware operations. Smith’s reward was profits, expansion, and in 1979 the comfortable sale of the business. This legacy was destined to provide the Overfair Pacifics their future.

Sixty-four miles south of San Francisco and sixteen miles north of Santa Cruz, inland from the Pacific Ocean, is the small community of Swanton. From 1906 to 1920, Swanton was the north end of the southern division of the Ocean Shore Railway. At Swanton, passengers boarded a 10-seat Stanley Steamer bus that filled the twenty-six-mile trackless gap between Swanton and Tunitas. Here, they again boarded a steam train to continue their trip to San Francisco. Swanton was to provide the new home for the Overfair Railway.

With part of the compensation Smith received from the railroad for his accident, he purchased the first parcel of land at Swanton. This purchase formed the basis of the Swanton Pacific Ranch which ultimately reached 3,200 acres. Smith’s ranch stretched from the Pacific to interior meadows, redwoods, Douglas Fir and Tan Oak forests.

In 1979, Al bought from Bob Maxfield No. 1912 and No. 1913 and moved them to the Swanton Ranch. This was the start of the “Swanton Pacific Railroad”— the “Lazy Espee” (SP), after Al’s former employer, the Southern Pacific Railroad. Unlike the Southern Pacific’s “SP” the “Swanton Pacific’s” “SP” symbol has the “S” displayed in a horizonal position on its side.

Starting in 1979, from the townsite of Swanton, Al Smith started laying rail south with volunteer labor. The initial short segment is on the abandoned Ocean Shore Railway right-of-way. The Swanton Pacific railway has a five-stall round house, car storage, maintenance facilities, and a turntable which the Swanton Pacific obtained from the Calistoga Steam Railroad.

In March of 1983, the Public Administrator of Los Angeles County auctioned the two Pacifics which had migrated to Southern California. Al Smith was the successful bidder. He bought No. 1914 for $5,500 and the never used No. 1915 for $2,500. The fifth Overfair locomotive, tank engine No. 1500, went to another bidder, Neil Vodden, a good friend of Al Smith’s.

Al Smith had reunited the four Overfair Railway Pacifics under single ownership. This was not to be their permanent situation. Smith donated the unfinished No. 1915 to the California State Railway Museum at Sacramento. The longtime active preservation organization, the Pacific Coast Chapter, Railway and Locomotive Historical Society, paid for the transportation and part of the restoration cost of the No. 1915. Since 1991, it has been a centerpiece in the Museum’s lobby.

The first engine to steam-up on the Swanton Pacific, was Louis MacDermot’s favorite—the No. 1913. It, like its brethren, was more than equal to requirements of the Swanton Pacific. “Mac” had patterned his miniatures after Southern Pacific’s Brooks (The American Locomotive Works) built (1913) P-6 Pacific class locomotives (Nos. 2453 to 2458). MacDermot combined an extended smoke box, a slightly oversize boiler, 26” drivers with 9 X 10.5-inch cylinders to produce a tractive effort of 1,745 lbs. These diminutive locomotives weigh, with tender, 12 tons.

Until Al Smith’s death, in December of 1993, the Swanton Pacific Railroad was largely a partnership between Smith and Cal Poly’s College of Agriculture. Although volunteers came from “all walks of life,” to build, maintain and operate the railroad, the University has been central to the preservation and continued operation of the Overfair Railway.

Al Smith left to the University’s College of Agriculture both the Swanton Pacific Ranch and Railroad. Smith also created an endowment for the railroad to provide operating capital. Al Smith had secured the future of the Overfair Railway.

The Swanton Pacific Railroad Society (SPRS), a nonprofit corporation, was established to manage and operate the railroad. Workdays, railroad outings, construction, and preservation are the responsibilities of the SPRS. An annual highlight is the New Year’s Eve Celebration. Celebrants are afforded the opportunity to ride the last train of the old year and the first of the new year!

The preservation activity has been impressive. In January of 1987, No. 1912 was rebuilt by Al Smith and steamed up for the first time since the close of the Exposition in 1915. Al also rebuilt the No. 1914. It has been in service since 1990.

Currently, SPRS is reconstructing No. 1913 at Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo. In March 1995, the SPRS purchased the tank engine, No. 1500, from the Wildcat Railroad. Like the No. 1913, the No. 1500 is currently being rebuilt. “New” passenger cars have been fashioned out of Overfair Railway parts at Cal Poly for the “Lazy Espee.” In addition, a brand-new crane has been built by the Poly work force. The crane is designed to provide the same capabilities as its standard gauge counterparts. It is required to service the Swanton Pacific’s isolated scenic right-of-way.

MacDermot designed his railway with the utmost realistic detail. Included was the installation of a small version of the commercially produced latest Westinghouse air brakes on all the passenger cars and the Pacifics. However, the air brake system was only operational on the Pacifics. Now, the Swanton Pacific plans to use this feature as they extend the trackage another mile along the redwood tree-lined Scott Creek. The railway also operates a 19-inch gauge miniature General Electric U25B diesel engine, built commercially for a Pennsylvania amusement park.

“Mac’s” Overfair locomotives have an optimistic future. They have traveled “from Panama to Poly.”

Specs of the Overfair Railway Pacifics

The Overfair Railway Pacifics were designed after Southern Pacific’s Brooks (The American Locomotive Works) built (1913) P-6 Pacific class locomotives (Nos. 2453 to 2458). About 6,800 of the Pacific 4-6-2 type engines were built in the United States from 1902 or 1903 until approximately 1930. Although the Pacific class was originally built for passenger service, it was readily adopted for high speed freight service. The Pacific was the logical development of both the 4-4-2 and 2-6-2 steam engines. It retained the riding stability of the 4-4-2 class, the driver adhesion of the 2-6-2 class, and the desirable firebox characteristics of both types. Soon the Pacific became the standard American high-speed locomotive. This was a position the Pacific was to hold for many years, only to be dethroned when greater horsepower output was obtained from newer locomotive types which featured additional driving axles.

Louis MacDermot modeled his Overfair miniatures after these “great” locomotives. The basic Overfair Railway Pacific locomotive specifications are:

Locomotive: length 17 feet, 3 feet 6-inches width over cab.
Locomotive Frame: 1 7/8-inch-thick steel plate.
Boiler: 12 feet long Wagontop boiler with a 30-inch diameter at the smokebox.
Boiler Pressure: 180 pounds per square inch as set now, 200 when new.
Firebox: approximately 9 square feet, with 162 1-inch tubes.
Fuel: currently oil, coal when built.
Wheels/Drivers: lead truck wheels 10.5 inches, wheelbase 25.5 inches, drivers 26 inches, 14 inch diameter trailing axle.
Cylinders: 9 X 10.5 inches
Tender: length 8 feet, 375-gallon water capacity, approximately 60 gallons oil (diesel), with a three-inch steel channel and wooden frame.
Weight: 12 tons dry


The authors would like to extend a special “thank you” to the Swanton Pacific Railroad Society for its help in the development of this article. In particular, the comments and suggestions of Ed Carnegie, Randy Jones, Lou Haughney, and Jim Matheny are very much appreciated.

See: “San Francisco—Fairs-Expositions” for more about the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition.

Return to top of page