Charles Kirkman seated on his left at the controls on the Visalia Electic Railroad # 1213. The 1213 is an Alco (American Locomotive Works) S-6 turbocharged 6 cylinder diesel electric locomotive rated at 900 hp. Photo courtesy of Don Bowen.

Saturday, July 27, 2002

Historic railroad just faded away

EXETER -- Charles Kirkman, 80, once had a strip of scenery from Exeter to Visalia memorized. The same was true for other routes the Visalia Electric Railroad took.

"You never got tired of seeing the changing of the seasons," said Kirkman, who worked 29 years for the small railroad until he retired in 1987. He's the man featured in a downtown mural depicting the railroad.

Only a small stretch, about half a mile, of the original railroad still exists in Exeter, Kirkman said.

Only the memories -- through history books and people like Kirkman -- remain.

The Visalia Electric Railroad was a 33-mile line built by the Southern Pacific Railroad in 1905. At that time it was part of a vision Southern Pacific had to electrify railroad lines from Lemoore to Lemoncove.

The plan was never brought to fruition, but the stretch between Lemoncove and Visalia was powered by electricity on March 10, 1908. The first passenger train carried four cars.

Although the railroad was similar to electrified lines in other cities, reports say, it was the only line in North America to use 15-cycle alternating current to power its trains.

The Visalia Electric Railroad stopped in Exeter about six times a day, often taking workers into town and back as well as transporting grapes and citrus. The railroad extended from Visalia to Exeter, through Merryman, Lemoncove, Woodlake and Elderwood. A special train would occasionally take visitors to Terminus Beach, a turn-of-the-century Tulare County Coney Island on Lake Kaweah.

Passenger business started to decline in the 1920s when roads in Tulare County improved, and in 1924 the railroad stopped running passenger trains, opting to ship only freight.

In 1945, technology again changed the railroad, when the Southern Pacific replaced the electric-powered cars with diesel engines.

In 1958, Kirkman came to the railroad. By 1963, he was an engineer on the locomotive.

"At certain times of the year, the job was very pleasant," he said.

But in the extreme heat of summer, being trapped in the "iron monsters" wasn't so pleasant, Kirkman said.

By the late 1980s, the railroad would run freight a maximum of twice a week. Highways and trucks were making the railroad virtually obsolete. By the 1990s, the Visalia Electric had taken its last trip.

"The trucks could deliver door-to-door, whereas the railroads couldn't," Kirkman said.

The dying of the railroad made Kirkman a little sad, he said.

"You hate to see the railroads dwindle," Kirkman said. "They were very important."

Note: Charles was also in the8th Air Force 401 Bombardment Group (Heavey) R.D. McCord Crew 612th Bomb Squadron in the 8th air force during WWII as a radio operator gunner. Combat Missions.

Note: Charles Kirkman is the great grandson of John Kirkman.
Exeter Mural of Charles Kirkman | R. D. McCord B-17 Crew Photo | Combat Missions
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