Submitted by Ellen Braunstein
New female member stands out as restorer and operator at Orange Empire Railway Museum
Train restoration and operations are male-dominated avocations at the volunteer-run Orange Empire Railway Museum. But don’t tell that to Heather Garcia. This 24-year-old prospective biology teacher from El Monte is one of the hardest working volunteers who run and preserve the locomotives, trolleys and streetcars.
As a child, Heather would count the freight cars chugging, squeaking and rumbling by while her grandfather regaled her with stories about railroad experiences. Her parents took her to science museums, airports and train stations, all the while exposing her to transportation history and development in Southern California.
In April 2013, this University of La Verne graduate and sorority girl visited OERM and became hooked on the museum’s collection. “They are real and a snapshot of our history,” she said.
At the museum, Garcia has helped sand, grind and paint parts for the restoration of Santa Fe Railway 98 to its original appearance as ATSF 108. She has ground the caboose couplers of the Southern Pacific 020 and put grater grease on the trucks. Garcia has also learned some track and machine shop work and spends time working in customer service.
Garcia took the museum’s motormen’s class so she could operate the restored vehicles. Now she is driving any of the Presidents’ Conference Committee (PCC) street cars, the Los Angeles Railway (LARy) 1201 and other streetcars. Under supervision, she has operated the 2954, the SP 3100, 41, and the Pacific Electric 418 and plans to become certified. In October, she will take the brakeman’s class and work her way up to be an OERM engineer. Ultimately, she hopes to operate a diesel engine with passengers on the main line.
Jeff Williams, Diesel Locomotive Superintendent and Restoration Project Manager for ATSF 108, says he can count on Garcia to put in long and hard hours as a volunteer. “I like her work ethic,” he said. “She’s not afraid to get her hands dirty.”
Garcia said the operators and restorers have embraced her as a crew member. “Even though I hardly understood what they were saying when they spoke ‘train’, they were welcoming and took the time to break things down and explain everything in great detail.”
Ken Schwartz, head of operations, said that Garcia has also made her mark as an operations crew member. “We’re really starting to attract a lot of younger people who are training alongside our many skilled older volunteers and technicians. I’m always happy when I see young people like Heather getting involved and enjoying the artifacts of history that some people might think irrelevant.”