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Early Years 6 - Early Member Gerald Best

By Harlan Hiney - Santa Monica, CA

Jerry, as his friends called him, was a member of the Southern California Live Steamers during the early 1950’s.

This photograph shows the “Olomana” under steam on the Waimanalo Sugar Company track at the southeast part of Oahu, doing what she was built to do. She hauled cars of sugar cane from 1883 to 1948. Photograph provided from the Dick Jackson collection.

Gerald M. Best (1895 – 1985) grew up in Port Jervis, New York, and was a Cornell Graduate in Electrical Engineering. He worked for Warner Brothers as a sound engineer beginning his career just as talking movies were being introduced.

Jerry, as his friends called him, was a member of the Southern California Live Steamers during the early 1950’s. A resident of Beverly Hills, he and his wife, Harriet, lived 7 blocks east of his good friend Dick Jackson. Besides the fact that both of these men were involved with railroad history, they both shared an interest in collecting steam locomotive builder’s plates. Their collections were extensive and were finished to museum quality. Although Jerry did build some miniature railroad equipment, most people were more familiar with his full size sugar cane locomotive, the “Olomana”.

In 1948, Jerry and fellow club member Ward Kimball purchased two 3 foot gauge, nine ton, tank locomotives from the Waimanalo Sugar Company in Oahu when the Hawaiian sugar plantation stopped using steam engines. Both were built by Baldwin in 1883 to the same specifications. Jerry’s engine was construction number 6753. They had 24 inch drivers, 7 by 10 inch cylinders and were 0-4-2T Saddle Tank Engines with no rear bunkers for fuel. With only short distances to run, the fuel was stored on the fireman’s side of the cab. Ward’s locomotive was Number 2, the “Pokaa” (Poh-kah-ah), while Jerry’s was Number 3. The name “Olomana” means “The Big Noise” in Hawaiian.


Friend Chad O’Connor helped to rebuild Jerry’s engine and he kept it at Ward’s Grizzly Flats Railroad engine shed in San Gabriel, California. He would fire up the “Olomana” on Grizzly Flats run days, filling the air with the smell of wood smoke. Ward’s “Pokaa” underwent a more drastic change in appearance than Jerry’s, with the removal of the saddle tank and being painted in 1880’s red and fancy polished brass, while “Olomana” sported a more conservative dark green color. Ward’s locomotive became the “Chloe”, named after his youngest daughter.

Jerry Best Walks behind “Olomana” after pulling her out of Ward Kimball’s engine house for a run day in 1969. A tarp covers the cupola on Ward’s caboose in background. Photograph taken by Harlan Hiney.

 


Jerry was one of the foremost railroad photographers and helped many authors compile steam locomotive rosters for their books and magazine articles. Also an author, Jerry wrote eleven books on railroad history and Harlan Hiney was fortunate to do artwork for four of them. The first was in 1963 and was a pencil drawing for “Ships and Narrow Gauge Rails”, about the Pacific Coast Railroad and Steamship Company. In 1969 Harlan did a casein painting of the “Jupiter” for the cover of his book Iron Horses to Promontory, portraying Stanford’s train enroute to the Golden Spike celebration. Jerry was considered by many to be the foremost authority regarding the color scheme of the Gold Spike Locomotives, enabling the creation of an historically accurate painting.

A year later Jerry suggested that Harlan create a painting of the Union Pacific Number 119 to make a pair of lithographs to sell. By 1970, Harlan’s 24 by 36 inch oil painting of the Number 119 along with the painting of the Jupiter were made into 12 by 16 prints. They were sold though out the United States in the 1970’s and at the new Museum in Promontory, Utah.

Gerald M. Best is a name well known in the Blue Book of Railroad Historians. On the basis of his locomotive research, books and personal participation in the great tradition of steam railroading. Best has long been considered one of the nations leading authorities on the steam locomotive.
Gerald Best holds a replica of the Golden Spike in front of the ex V and T locomotive “Inyo” that was painted to portray the “Jupiter”, as part of Union Pacific’s exposition train in May of 1969. This photograph was used on his book jacket, Iron Horses to Promontory. Photograph provided by Golden West Books.

In the early 1970’s, men from Disney’s mechanical department took measurements of “Olomana” for a new railroad to run at Disney World’s Fort Wilderness Campground Resort. While the new locomotive would be somewhat different than Jerry’s, the cylinders and running gear would be identical. As Jerry told Harlan, they just sliced six inches out of the center and made them to run on 30 inch gauge track. By 1973, Disney had completed four 2-4-2T locomotives with a squared off saddle tank for more water capacity. Each engine would pull a 5 car train of 4 wheel open sided cars over a 3 ½ mile line. Unfortunately this venture had too many problems, and after only four years was discontinued in 1977.

During the same year, Jerry, then 82, decided to donate “Olomana” to a museum. Her home is now the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C. Before Jerry’s death in 1985, his extensive collection of photographs, which included over 40,000 negatives, was donated to the California State Railroad Museum in Sacramento.

Photograph from the Smithsonian Museum’s account of Moving Olomana located at: americanhistory.si.edu/collections/locomove/locomo.htm

 


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About the Author:
Harlan Hiney is the son of SCLS Charter member Laurence Hiney.

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