by Jim Mulligan
It’s full steam ahead for the Hillcrest & Wahtoke Railroad in Reedley, opened to the public along with the Hillcrest Pumpkin Patch on September 28 for the 2019 fall season. Most people don’t realize how much work goes into keeping the railroad in tip-top shape, ready to welcome passengers. While the locomotives, train cars, and track are all just a fraction of the size of a standard railroad, it is a real railroad. It takes a team of live steam train enthusiasts working all year long to keep all of the equipment and rolling stock ready to transport excited passengers, young and old, on a nostalgic journey that winds through the pines of Hillcrest Farms. Couplers need to be greased, bearings need to be packed, boilers need to be tested, and track needs to be checked. A love of the majestic old-fashioned technology brings the team from all over the Valley each Wednesday evening to put in all this prep work. Certified engineers will travel from all over California and from as far away as Utah to lend their expertise at the helm of the mighty locomotives, providing a real-life steam powered voyage for all who visit the farm.
The volunteers that come to be a part of the railroad team range in age from ten to sixty-plus. Madera Ranchos resident, Art Trejo, brings his ten-year-old son Tao to Reedley each Wednesday to help with train maintenance and learn the intricacies of railroading. When asked why they make the drive each week to volunteer their time, Art said, “We visited the farm a few years ago and found out that Tao could come out when he turned ten. He loves trains and wants to learn as much as he can. The guys out here are so good with him, and he’s learning so much.” Seventeen-year-old Lemoore High School student Mitch Bonham makes the drive to Reedley each week for exactly the same reason. “I came out to the farm one season and found out I could volunteer. I enjoy working on these trains.”
As if the railroad was not enough excitement, the fall season means pumpkin harvest. The Hillcrest Farms Pumpkin Patch will be bursting with orange squash, and everyone will be able to choose just the right one to take home for decorating. In addition to their farm-grown pumpkins, Hillcrest brings in high quality pumpkins from other patches in California, providing a variety of sizes and types perfect for all fall decorating needs.
Whether it’s your first time out or you are continuing a family tradition, mark your calendars and plan on making a day out of a trip to Hillcrest Farms. A ride on the steam train will be the pinnacle of your visit, but make sure you take advantage of all of the fun opportunities for visitors. Also available for the pleasure of kids both big and small: hay rides, hillside play area, nature trail, and vendors with hot food and snow cones.
From September 28 until October 27 Hillcrest Farms will be open, and the trains will be running every Saturday and Sunday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. The entry fee to the farm will be $5 per car load on the first two weekends and $10 per car load thereafter. So as their website states, “Pack everyone into fewer cars!” A ride on the steam train costs $4 per person and a hayride is $3 per person. You’ll be hard pressed to find entertainment value like this anywhere else in the Valley.
Plan ahead for the Christmas season at Hillcrest which begins November 30. Tickets for their ever popular Pajama Night will go on sale October 1. They sell out quick; don’t miss out. You can learn more on their website.