Saturday, November 25, 2023

Sierra No. 3-The Movie Star Locomotive by Zina Abbott


Although built to transport agricultural products from the valley to the foothills, and lumber and mining ore from the mountains to the connecting rail lines in California’s Central Valley, the Sierra Railway line is probably best known for being featured in multiple Western movies and television shows.

The Sierra Railroad was a Hollywood favorite location for almost eighty years, beginning in 1919. From big-budget Westerns to television commercials, Sierra’s trains have been featured in over two hundred productions.

Among the dozens of motion pictures filmed on this line were The Virginian in 1929, 

Gary Cooper in High Noon

High Noon in 1952, for which Gary Cooper won the Academy Award for Best Actor, Bound for Glory in 1976, Back to the Future III in 1990, and 

Clint Eastwood

Unforgiven, starring and directed by Clint Eastwood, which won the Academy Award for Best Picture in 1992.

Television series include “Gunsmoke,” “Petticoat Junction,” “Bonanza,” and “Little House on the Prairie.” Also known at the “three-spot,” possibly its best-known role was as the “Hooterville Cannonball” in the 1960s television series, “Petticoat Junction.”

Although several Sierra locomotives have been used in films over the years, it is No. 3 that became the big star. It has appeared in more pictures than any other engine in the world.

Its design allowed it to be easily adapted to various eras through swapping out smokestacks and headlights. 

Back to the Future III stack

Also, changes in paint design and lettering was used. Although converted from a wood-burning steam engine to an oil-burning engine, often the oil tanker was covered by a wood pile to help it appear from an older, wood-burning steam engine.

No. 3 was built in 1891 and purchased by the Sierra in 1897. No. 3 is a 4-6-0 Ten-Wheeler steam locomotive built by the Rogers Locomotive and Machine Works of Paterson, New Jersey. Construction of the locomotive was completed on March 26, 1891, and was given Rogers construction number 4493. 

It was built for the Prescott & Arizona Central Railway (P&AC) as their locomotive #3 and named W.N. Kelley after the company's treasurer.

The P&AC went bankrupt in 1893 and its chief promoter, Thomas S. Bullock, relocated much of its equipment and hardware to California, including the No. 3. He then entered into a partnership with Prince André Poniatowski and William H. Crocker. In 1897 they incorporated the Sierra Railway Company of California to connect Oakdale, California with the mining and timber producing regions of Tuolumne County and Calaveras County. (See my earlier post by CLICKING HERE.)

The locomotive became Sierra No. 3 (dropping the W. N. Kelley name) and played a key role in the construction of the railroad to Jamestown, California in 1897, Sonora, California in 1899 and the city of Tuolumne, California in 1900. It was the primary locomotive pulling freight trains on the railroad until 1906. The Sierra No. 3 made her first known Hollywood film appearance, in a silent film, The Terror, starring Tom Mix in 1921.


Because in 1886, the Sierra Railway was three years away from arriving in Sonora, the characters in my latest release, A Watchman for Willow, still arrived by stagecoach. To find the book description and purchase options, please CLICK HERE







Railtown 1897 State Historic Park

1 comment:

Julie Lence said...

I loved this train in Petticoat Junction, just chugging down the tracks. I never realized how many other shows and movies it was in. thank you for sharing the history, Zina!