Article From the Summer 2003 Issue of


The Journal of the New York Museum of Transportation


Our members help out in any way they can. Some volunteers practically live at the museum, while others can only spare a little time now and then. Still others make their contribution of time at home. And there are those who help from afar. We’d like you to meet a volunteer who has done a lot for NYMT, much of that from the west coast: Dave Johnston.

Unlike so many people who have migrated to California over the years, Dave was actually born there. Like so many of us, he remembers an interest in trains and transportation taking hold at an early age. His mother used to gather up the Johnston boys at home in Berkeley, and take them to Playland at the beach in San Francisco. As Dave no doubt reminded his mother en route, that meant taking the Key System’s F train to San Francisco and the Muni’s B car out Geary Street to the beach. Dave hasn’t told us much about the action at Playland…we suspect the rides to and from there were the best part of the outing!

In 1964, while still in high school, Dave was introduced to the Western Railway Museum at Rio Vista Junction. WRM was an early starter in the rail museum world, and their rural location on the former Sacramento Northern Railway line was an ideal place to grow. Vision, energy and proximity to a major city that still appreciated the value of rail transit had already led to an active museum with a good-sized collection of trolley equipment. Dave joined and has been an active member ever since.

A hitch in the Air Force found him stationed at Hanscom Field in the Boston area, and Dave began to spend his weekends at Seashore Trolley Museum in nearby Kennebunkport, Maine. He not only got to know that museum’s large collection of assorted trolley equipment, but also put in hours in their car shop under the tutelage of Donald Curry. Over the course of almost five months in the summer of 1974, Dave learned many skills applicable to trolley work and developed a deep respect for proper historical restoration.

Once back in California, Dave finished college, earning his degree in Mechanical Engineering. He took a job in Sacramento with the Western Pacific Railroad and began raising a family with his wife Patty. Their "two wonderful children", Brian and Debbie, of course are now grown and have embarked on their own careers. Brian has followed somewhat in his dad’s path, completing a Masters degree in Mechanical Engineering and starting his career in another part of the transportation business, Nissan, as a research engineer in their fuel cell program. Debbie is a microbiologist and in September will be returning to the University of California to complete a Masters degree in Public Health.

When Union Pacific Railroad took over the Western Pacific, the Johnston family moved to Omaha, Nebraska where Dave was a supervising engineer in the Car Department. Maybe the sun and surf beckoned, because in 1983 they moved back to the Bay Area and Dave signed on with the Bay Area Rapid Transit District. Dave’s worked there ever since, and he’s currently a Supervising Engineer in the New Car Department..

Needless to say, Dave was glad to get back to active service at the Western Railway Museum where he’s been a major contributor over the past twenty years. Soon, he found new outlets for his skills in trolley restoration when his job required him to travel. In the early 1990’s BART purchased 80 new type C cars for their system from Morrison Knudsen. These cars were partly built at the MK plant in Hornell, New York, and Dave spent time there, off and on, for a period of two years. During this time, in search of something to do on weekends, he discovered our museum and got involved with our restoration efforts.

Dave’s next project at BART was the rebuilding of the original 450 Rohr-built cars. The prime contractor on this huge effort was Adtranz whose engineering offices were in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. NYMT was a little farther away now, but he still managed to come by occasionally to offer help. At the same time, Pennsylvania Trolley Museum was close by and Dave was able to participate there too. "I still try to remain active with these four museums—WRM, Seashore, PTM, and NYMT", says Dave. All four places benefit from that involvement, although Western Railway Museum gets the majority of Dave’s time as it’s so close to home. At WRM, his volunteer positions include a seat on the Board of Directors, Superintendent of the Electric Car Department, and managing the restoration of Sacramento Northern interurban car 1005.

Dave’s help at NYMT over the years has been invaluable. During his Hornell days he spent weekends with us, primarily helping and advising Eric Norden on Rochester & Eastern interurban 157, including a check-out of its four electric motors. His most recent hands-on work was with Eric tacking down the new roof canvas on Philadelphia & Western car 161. As great as the helping hand was, however, the trans-fer of knowledge was even better. Whenever we had a question…sometimes a simple issue, but often a whole area of traction work we knew nothing about…the "oracle" would bestow nuggets of information we never could have learned on our own. Better yet were the things we didn’t know enough to even ask about. We zoomed up the learning curve as Dave explained how things work, how things are done, which items in our inventory of parts went with which other parts, what problems to avoid, little tricks to doing a task better and more easily, and always instilling a respect for the historically correct thing to do. His advice and assistance ranged from body restoration to brake systems to traction motors and on to operations.

Dave has also shared information from his large library of electric railway technology documents, and we’re gradually building a good base of written reference material from that. He has also hosted several NYMT volunteers participating in WRM’s annual maintenance week, giving our people some hands-on operating and maintenance experience to prepare us for our own electric operations.

Seeing NYMT’s electric cars in regular operation is what Dave hopes for our future. "Nothing keeps an electric car in better shape than some regular operation", he advises. The other important goal he sees is getting all the cars under cover.

"I am very happy to see the restoration effort going into the cars at NYMT", says Dave. "Hopefully, several of them will be running soon". With the training and education we’ve gotten thanks to Dave Johnston, we are confident that will happen.

Oh…and Dave reminds us that his favorite car in our collection is Batavia Traction Company 33, a wood, single-truck semi-convertible city car. How soon will you be retiring, Dave? We could fix up a cot for you in the caboose…