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For generations, Bay Area families have grown with us and our special history has become a part of San Francisco lore.
For hundreds of thousands of people who rode the Fleishhacker Playfield Limited, affectionately known as "Little Puffer", the return in 1998 of this historic miniature steam train was a cause for joy.
When you see the Little Puffer today, you'd never guess that this fully functional, pristine miniature steam train is pushing 100 years of age, a throwback to a time when a movie cost a quarter and bottle of Coke was only five cents. It is one of only three remaining 22-inch gauge engines left in the world. Little Puffer is an integral part of the San Francisco Zoo’s history and an important part of the Zoo today.
The History of Little Puffer
Around the turn of the century, the Cagney Brothers' Miniature Railroad Company, based in New York City, manufactured a few 22-inch gauge "Class E" miniature steam locomotives. One of these won the Grand Prize for Freight and Passenger Locomotives at the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition. It is believed that only six or seven of these remarkable trains were built. Though some were sold for mining operations, mills and amusement rides, the Zoo train may indeed have actually operated at the Louisiana Purchase Exposition 98 years ago.
Don Micheletti of the Golden Gate Railroad Museum (GGRM) analyzed old photos of the train taken at Santa Cruz in 1908 and 1910 and found that this particular train was most likely built around 1904. He based this on evidence that an unusual bent coupler, seen in one photo, is the same as the train has now. "There was no definitive proof that this is the exact train, but close examination of old photos strongly suggests that this was the same train," said Micheletti.
Records indicate that the train was in service along a sandy beach in Santa Cruz from 1907 to 1915. After this, it is believed that the train was almost destroyed in a warehouse fire.
In the 1920's, Joseph Cornelius Hayes, a Ford car dealer, purportedly purchased the train. It had been sold for scrap by the operation in Santa Cruz when Hayes and a partner discovered the train in a scrap yard near Third and Brannan Streets in San Francisco. The story has it that they purchased the train as scrap metal in exchange for three cases of gin and an old Oldsmobile. "This could be lore as well," said Micheletti. "There are a lot of theories, but really nothing concrete."
Around that time the train was probably restored and was to be relocated to San Francisco's Ocean Beach. However, Fire Commissioners would not issue a permit because the locomotive was a coal burner and consequently a fire hazard. A more promising site was an amusement park in San Mateo called Pacific City. But Pacific City closed due to financial woes soon after it opened in 1924. Rather than have the train impounded, it was removed and hidden for two years in an old abandoned livery stable in Burlingame.
Herbert Fleishhacker purchased the train in 1925 and installed it at the new Herbert Fleishhacker Zoo, where it remained for 53 years. In 1935, newspapers touted the Fleishhacker Playfield Limited as the only train in San Francisco to make daily runs with full passenger loads every trip. The operating costs consisted of the coal burned by the locomotive and the salary of one man who served as engineer, conductor, fireman, oiler and shop man.
Although much of Little Puffer’s early history at the Zoo is unavailable, it is known that the little steam train carried about 100,000 visitors a year during its heyday, running a capacity of 42 passengers in three cars around a third-of-a-mile track for about three minutes.
Little Puffer was renamed “The California Zephyr” in 1965 when the Western Pacific Railroad sponsored a restoration of the train and its tracks. According to a newspaper article in 1971, plans were made to retire the train and replace it with a larger train on a bigger, longer track, powered by a Ford tractor engine. The new train and tracks were to cost $300,000, but plans fell through. Although it had then been scheduled to retire in 1971, it wasn't until 1978 that the train was finally packed away to make room for Gorilla World, an exhibit that opened in 1980.
Back in Service
The little train had languished in storage for 20 years when Zoo staff dusted off the tired and dilapidated steamer. It had been stored in The Pachyderm House with two Asian elephants, a grey seal and a pygmy hippo. Time had not been kind to Little Puffer. She was in a sad state of disrepair, with parts missing and splintered and chipped wood in the passenger cars.
In 1997, with the generous support of the Richard and Rhoda Goldman Fund, California Federal Bank and the GGRM, the Zoo had what it needed to bring Little Puffer back to life. San Francisco’s GGRM, a nationally recognized organization dedicated to the preservation and exhibition of historic railroad equipment, went to work to restore the historic steam train.
Working with outside contractors, such as PG&E, track architects, bodywork and boiler specialists, the reconstruction team took the challenge, and breathed life back into the Little Puffer. GGRM members disassembled, reassembled, painted, welded, sandblasted, fitted and created train gears, parts and pieces to recreate the miniature train. They also retrofitted it to run on cleaner-burning natural gas. Meanwhile, the Zoo was at work laying track for the new route. The cost to renovate the train, which sold for just $15,000 in a 1905 Cagney catalog, was approximately $75,000. The addition of the new depot, plaza area, track layout, landscaping and storage barn facility, brought the cost to $700,000.