Friday, June 10, 2016

Miniature Railroads: Billy Jones Wildcat Railroad

William “Billy” Jones was a San Lorenzo Valley native who began his career working for the Southern Pacific Railroad at the age of 13 in 1897. For the next 54 years, he became a mainstay of the local railroad industry, running engines all along the California coast. It was late in his career, in 1939, when he found a one-third scale, 18- inch-gauged steam locomotive in a shipping warehouse.1 It had been originally built for the Venice Miniature Railway by the Johnson Machine Works of Los Angeles in 1905, but had been abandoned with the closure of the miniature railroad in February 1925. Its history for the next fourteen years is mostly unknown, with it eventually falling into the hands of a local machinist who purchased and relocated the locomotive from Los Angeles to San Francisco.2 Jones bought the small locomotive and brought it to his Los Gatos prune ranch on Daves Avenue where he spent the next four years restoring the engine.3 His intention was to rebuild the locomotive with the help of his two sons as a family project, but both sons tragically died while fighting in World War II. Jones decided to continue the restoration as a memorial for his sons. Over the years, he partnered with Louis MacDermot to build miniature passenger cars to support the burgeoning railroad.

BJW #2 on the track at the Jones Ranch, 2 May 1951 [Charles Givens]
In 1943, Jones opened up the Wildcat Railroad on his property, free of charge to the public. The trains could hold up to 90 passengers at a time.4 Jones retired from the Southern Pacific in 1949, after which he devoted himself full-time to his miniature railroad. Walt Disney, another miniature railroad fan, became an acquaintance of Jones around 1948 and Jones visited Disneyland frequently, even running the Santa Fe & Disneyland Railroad during its first week of operations in 1955. Jones's railroad was immensely popular with the Los Gatos community, and Jones himself was a well-known philanthropist, donating money to children’s hospitals and local non-profits.5 Jones eventually died of leukemia on January 10, 1968.6

Opening day of the Billy Jones Wildcat Railroad at Oak Meadow Park, 1970. [Robert Turner]
Fortunately, Jones’s family and a lot of locals wished to preserve the miniature railroad for future generations of Los Gatans. They founded Billy Jones Wildcat Railroad, Inc., a non-profit charity focused on family entertainment and education. The train and facilities were moved from Jones’s ranch to Oak Meadow Park beside Vasona Park where an engine house and passenger depot were built for the train. Over a mile of track would be built in the following years to support the train, including two bridges over Los Gatos Creek, one of which was constructed from a disused Southern Pacific flatcar.7 Most of the trackage is within the adjacent Vasona Park, though the depot and maintenance facilities are in Oak Meadow Park. The railroad began operations at its new location on July 26, 1970.8 The attraction is now one of the most popular tourist features in Los Gatos, bringing in over 100,000 riders each year.

BJW #2 at the depot fuelling up for a day around the track at Oak Meadow Park. [Ed Kelley]
The original railroad was expanded in 1993 by the addition of a miniature diesel locomotive numbered 2502. It was built by Custom Locomotive Works of Chicago and donated to the railroad by Al Smith, founder of Orchard Supply Hardware and operator of the miniature Swanton Pacific Railroad north of Davenport.9 It now acts as the pinch hitter for the original steam locomotive, numbered 2. Another diesel, #3502, joined the Billy Jones fleet in 2005, while a custom-built electric engine went into service at around the same time to assist with track maintenance. Finally, a fifth engine and second steam engine joined in April 2013.10

BJW Diesel #2502 running along the track in Vasona Park. [Marcel Marchon]
Bill Mason Carousel at Oak Meadow Park. 
For additional entertainment, the Town of Los Gatos added a carousel to Oak Meadow Park in 1991 following a decade of restoration work. The carousel dated to 1915 and was built for the Panama-Pacific Exposition in San Francisco. The restoration work became a community affair with dozens of local artists assisting in painting the wooden horses and the decorations on and around the carousel. A Wurlitzer band organ was installed, as well, to provide music for the ride.11 The carousel was dedicated to the memory of William E. Mason, a civic-minded man who ran the non-profit Wildcat Railroad for many years after Jones’s death.12

The Railroad Today:

BJW Diesel #3502 in Vasona Park.
The Billy Jones Wildcat Railroad runs year-round with weekly service in the summer and on weekends during the remainder of the year. The surrounding Oak Meadow Park was established by the Town of Los Gatos in 1958 to replace Memorial Park which was
demolished to create State Route 17.13 When it first opened, the park sat on the eastern edge of the Southern Pacific Railroad right-of-way which became soon after University Avenue. The Southern Pacific Railroad tracks were removed in 1959, but the railroad’s legacy lives on today through Billy Jones and the miniature railroad that he built.

Citations & Credits:

  1. Billy Jones Wildcat Railroad and W.E. ‘Bill’ Mason Carousel,” Billy Jones Wildcat Railroad.
  2. Panacy, Peter, “Venice Miniature Railway: A Brief History and Its Influence on the Billy JonesWildcat Railroad,” 10.
  3. “Billy Jones."
  4. Bruntz, George G., The History of Los Gatos: Gem of the Foothills (Fresno, CA: Valley Publishers, 1971), 149.
  5. “Billy Jones."
  6. Kelley, Edward and Peggy Conaway, Images of Rail: Railroads of Los Gatos (Mount Pleasant, SC: Arcadia, 2006), 68. 
  7. “Billy Jones."
  8. Kelley & Conaway, 110.
  9. “Billy Jones”; Kelley & Conaway, 123.
  10. "Billy Jones."
  11. “Billy Jones."
  12. Bergtold, Peggy Conaway, and Stephanie Ross Mathews, Legendary Locals of Los Gatos (Mount Pleasant, SC: Arcadia, 2014), 74.
  13. Oak Meadow Park," Town of Los Gatos, California.
  • Whaley, Whaley. Santa Cruz Trains: Railroads of the Santa Cruz MountainsSanta Cruz, CA: 2015: 191-193.


  1. Thanks so much for this web site and the story and pictures. I remember when the railroad was moved from Daves Avenue to Oak Meadow, and how much it meant to continue a completely unique and wonderful tradition. Love it!

  2. I received mistaken information about the railroad. I was told it was taken over to Swanton. I was glad to find out it is still in Los Gatos. My grandfather, Charlie Glass, was an old South Pacific Coast and Espee engineer, also a San Lorenzo Valley native, born in Felton in 1871, died in Santa Cruz in 1943. He was a good friend of Billy Jones, so when we visited the Wildcat Railroad in its original location, I got to ride in the cab with old Billy.


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