SCV Railroad Historical Society’s Rail Fest 2013
Story and photos by Bob Crum

If you were one of the hundreds who attended the Santa Clara Valley Railroad Historical Society's Rail Fest... you had a blast! If not... you missed a toot... er... hoot! Actually both! Speeder rides, the Frontier Gun Fighters, scrumptious barbie, entertaining music, arts & crafts, pony rides and of course...train rides by the Fillmore & Western Railway... featuring the star of the show... #14, the awesome 1913 Baldwin steam locomotive.

Indisputably... railroad aficionados are born train chasers. I know this because I'm one. It's addictive. There's something about the massive machines called locomotives... especially steam engines... that is indescribably fascinating. My high school yearbook states my career goal: Railroad engineer. Yep. But that didn't happen. Happenstance... the military draft... stepped in with a different idea. Or was that destiny. At any rate... with #14 Tresa Jean running... of course off I go... camera in tow... chasing to and fro. But I digress.

On the first day of the festival... besides all the usual activities...I noticed something unusual... and interesting. It was #14's first run of the day... from Central Station down to the fish hatchery... charge back up the hill... and stop at the west end of the Disney tunnel west of Hwy 126. Everyone would disembark... the train would back through the tunnel... and then come charging through the tunnel... billowing a huge cloud of black smoke... steam whistle blaring... yes... that's a photo op complete with goose bumps! So far... that's all normal. What was not normal was that in the engineer's seat was 86-year-young Vincent Cipolla.

Back at Central Station, prompted by a glimpse of his storied history... I captured a photo of visiting engineer Luke Johnson and engineer Vincent Cipolla shaking hands with his protegé Andy Wilkinson of the Fillmore & Western Railway. Afterward I learned of Cipolla's enduring and fascinating railroading life.

First a little historical background. The railroad seed was planted in Cipolla about the age of 8 when he was at a railroad yard with his father. He was invited into the cab of a steam locomotive and instantly fascinated with the firebox, the myriad controls, the sounds and smells. Perhaps that's when destiny took control. Later, at the age of fifteen, being a big guy for his age... he was successful at passing himself off as 18 when he approached a yardman and asked for a job. For whatever reason, Southern Pacific bought his story and the rest... well you know... is history.

At the Taylor roundhouse... he started out learning about locomotive electrical systems and such. But back during the war years, Cipolla explained you did everything in the yard to keep the locomotives running. And everybody backed up everybody else. Get the job done was priority #1 and he was the big kid eager to learn... and learn a lot he did... fast!

Later on, Cipolla became a fireman on Southern Pacific trains running to various points north. After thirteen long years as a fireman... the big day! Cipolla was awarded his railroad engineer's license on June 13, 1951.

Beginning ranked 389 on the Southern Pacific's seniority list... by 1984 he worked his way up to #1. With a higher ranking came the more... ahem... plush runs. Eventually... diesel locomotives came along and he was transferred to engineering coastal trains running from L.A. up to San Louis Obispo. Ah yes... the banker's run he declared... leave L.A. 8:30 a.m... arrive in SLB 2:30 p.m.... spend the night... leave SLB 2:30 and arrive back in L.A. 5:30 p.m. the next day.

Through all the years... Cipolla was always mindful of his beginnings... at a very young age... and all those that came along and helped guide his career. Accordingly, one day the usual run became unusual. He was engineering a train south and got word about a young boy eager to ride a train. At the stop in Oxnard, Cipolla met the lad and his mother. When asked if the boy would like to run the train... the boy beamed. Up in the cab he went. After showing the boy the throttle, the horn, whistle etc... he had him push the throttle forward and the big engine roared to life. Getting the highball... off they went... the boy blowing the horn at all the appropriate times. After dropping off passengers in Glendale, with the young boy again at the controls... they took the train at track speed to the yard in Burbank where they met the boys mother. As they pulled into the yard... all the tower operator could only see the boy at the controls... Cipolla behind him unseen. Surprised... the tower operator notified the higher authorities... and the yard superintendent, and assistant superintendent and others were there to meet them. Upon handing the boy off to his mother, Cipolla asked him his name. Henry Kaiser Jr. the boy proudly proclaimed. No one fussed about the boy being at the controls.

In 1982, Cipolla explained, Amtrak came along taking over passenger trains. Because Amtrak needed engineers, Cipolla rounded out his long railroading career as an engineer instructor, retiring in 1989.

So he thought. After retirement... the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) came calling. He went back to work for the FRA... again as an instructor through the late 90's. In the meantime, he was also running short lines part time.

As an extraboarder, Cipolla sometimes engineered a train to Fillmore... leaving the L.A. area, going over the hill to Saugus, and then into Fillmore. Most times spending a night or two in town in the area of Santa Clara Street and Central. After swapping around some freight cars... he headed back to the L.A. yard where the fruit was chilled for the long ride back east. So Fillmore was not strange territory when the line was an active branch connected to the big world.

Then one day not too long ago... in the Fillmore & Western yard... Cipolla noticed a young man... Andy Wilkinson... idling passing time. Remember, Cipolla readily concedes that a lot of good people played a big hand in guiding his career. They were all there... always... to teach him and help him at every opportunity. A facet of his life that he's never forgotten... or taken lightly... to this very day he told me. So... as his character dictates... Cipolla wasted no time planting the seed... so to speak. Let me show you something, urged Cipolla, teaching young Andy a thing or two. And the training began. Over the years... Cipolla taught the eager-to-learn Andy much about steam locomotives, diesel locomotives, their electrical systems, mechanical operating systems, rules-of-the-road and all other things a competent railroad man needs to know. To this day, Cipolla remains Andy's mentor for all things associated with railroading.

As Andy explained: “My parents (Dave and Tresa Wilkinson) own the Fillmore & Western so I'd come out here to the yard. One day Vince came by and said... 'hey, get your hands out of your pockets and get to work.' And that's how I met him. I was seventeen at that time. From then on, he came out on weekends and taught me how to run engines. He (Cipolla) took a hold of me and showed me everything and I'd began to love doing it. Because of his dedication and encouragement, I was rewarded with my engineer's license on my 18th birthday.” But he stated that it wasn't a cakewalk. Vince, Andy explained, was a very stern teacher... “it was his way or no way.” But along the way... “a lot of life's memories made right there that I won't forget. I still talk to him to this day. You're always learning (doing this work) and I still have questions so I call him and say... 'hey... I had this happen and what can I change about it' and he'll tell me ways about doing it. Now... I enjoy everyday doing this work... the kind of job where I look forward to going to work.”

After a railroad career spanning many decades.. Vincent Cipolla proclaims that he's seen it all... done it all... and enjoyed every minute of it. Railroading has been a wonderful life he states. Cipolla may not be on an active payroll but this engineer remains active. Don't be surprised to seem him beaming in the engineer's seat next year.

After high school, before Cipolla came along, Andy thought he was going to work on offshore ole rigs. Was Vince and Andy's chance meeting in the railroad yard happenstance... or destiny? Hmmm.