If you are driving along Highway 67 any time over the holidays and you see that “lo!,” there appears a bright light, shining in the north around Hope Street, then grab the kids and follow it to find lots of fun, free train rides, snacks and toys, and a ton of sparkling young eyes.
And you’ll find reindeer and bears and Santa, oh my!
And a one-third scale working railroad to ride, more than 60 illuminated animals and displays, 28,000 lights and an $800 electricity bill—all contributed to Ramona’s Christmas joy by John and Mary Ann Rodarte.
The Rodartes’ home, at 119 Sawday St. two blocks west of Hope Street, has always been brightly decorated for the Christmas season, but last year they went an extra step in fulfilling their passion for trains: They bought one and made it a part of their annual display, offering free rides into the bargain.
“Mary Ann and I have always loved trains,” said John. “We went up to Ely, Nev., at one time where you can drive a full-sized steam engine—old number 40, a Baldwin steam engine. Learn a few driving skills and pay the right price, and you can drive it for about 14 miles. It was a blast and we both loved it. It was that experience that led us to thinking about getting a small train for our yard, but we were just thinking about one of those that you see in stores.”
“I was wandering around the Internet when I stumbled on this guy in Joplin, Mo., who was selling a one-third scale railroad engine and cars. He used to make them for zoos and the like, and was now semi-retired with this one for sale,” said John, who, fortuitously, is an electrical engineer.
He said that he and Mary Ann “saved our pennies” to buy it—$16,000 worth of pennies—and had it trucked out from Missouri to Ramona—all 27,000 pounds of it.
“This was not a cheap adventure,” John observed.
Most of the track was straight, but with a hydraulic press and his tractor, he got the necessary curves made for it to run around the yard.
The train has a gas-powered, hydraulically driven locomotive rated for 11,000 pounds tractive force. Two gondolas seat six people each and are each 11 feet long and weigh 2,500 pounds empty. The caboose can seat two and is 10 feet long, giving the entire train an overall length of 43 feet.
“Though we have decorated the house for years, last year was the first time with the train, and we only invited friends and people from work, so that we could iron out any challenges,” said John. “But this year, we are opening it up to the general public and all are welcome.”
There are no sponsors. It is a labor of love by the Rodartes, taking 200 hours to assemble and 100 hours to uninstall it all.
Everything is free, including snacks and hot cider, and each child gets a toy.
“We didn’t give out many toys last year because the kids were so sweet—they said they wanted to leave the toy behind for the next child to come along. We had lots, and I promise you, there will be enough for everyone this year as well,” said John.
A Rodarte family friend, Joel Gordillo, will be driving the train as Santa from 6 to 8 p.m. on Sunday Dec. 6, and Saturday and Sunday, Dec. 12 and 13. There will be signs at the end of Hope Street pointing the way to the Rodarte home, and the lights are turned on at dusk each evening from Thanksgiving Day until New Year’s Day.
“Joel is a really great Santa. He is about 350 pounds with a genuine, white flowing beard, and a wonderful way with kids,” said John. “Now, those are the times that Santa will be driving the train. If anyone comes around at any other time, I will be more than happy to take them for a ride myself.”