When Hollywood Came Calling - The 2004 Golden Spike Reenactment at the Nevada State Railroad Museum

on Thursday, April 25, 2019

Visitors to the Nevada State Railroad Museum's May 9th and 10th Golden Spike sesquicentennial festivities will see two 4-4-0s with prior experience recreating 1869's Golden Spike event at Promontory Point. This is the behind-the-scenes story of the General Electric Evolution Series locomotive commercial and how the Museum saved the day for the production.

 On a brisk December day in 2004, the Dayton and Inyo perform flawlessly for the cameras of legendary commercial director Joe Pitka. Pitka is standing on a stool in the top photo, wearing blue jeans, a black jacket, and sporting his trademark long gray hair.

An A-list LA production crew quickly turned the Museum and an adjacent parking lot into a sound stage. The NSRM crew was, in Joe Pitka's words, "Fabulous, just fabulous!"

Before the arrival of the platoon of extras, the 4-4-0's got final mechanical adjustments and checks on their temporary decorations.

Photos by the author.


          “We need to film a reenactment of the Golden Spike ceremony as an historical lead-in to a General Electric locomotive commercial.” The assignment described in the mid-November 2004 phone call from Joe Pitka’s LA production company seemed simple enough. The client – General Electric Transportation Systems – wanted to showcase its new Evolution Series locomotives, the bat-winged ES44DC and ES44AC units then undergoing road tests around the country.

            For a production industry Railroad Coordinator, this looked like it was going to be a slam-dunk 4-day shoot. This was to be a commercial shoot schedule I’d used a score of times previously.  

            Looking ahead, in mid February, we’d book a special Golden Spike reenactment at the Promontory Point National Historic Site (NHS) on a Monday or Tuesday in early May when the Site is operating but closed to the public.  The rest of the schedule also looked easy -- bring in an experienced LA camera crew on Day 1 to do a final “tech scout” at the site and set-up equipment, and rehearse the on-camera extras.  Roll cameras on Day 2.  Shoot extra closeups and background “plate stills” on the morning of Day 3, and then head for the Salt Lake City airport that afternoon.  Day 4, strike any equipment decorations.

            There would be a week of “hard prep” activities at Promontory before the camera crew arrived – recruit and rehearse extras; apply a washable “dullcoat” to the locomotives to cut down on their spit-and-polish shines; and remove the Site’s interpretive signage and information displays.

            Piece of cake.  Or so I hoped.

            I congratulated Pitka’s Production Designer for planning railroad scenes so early. We agreed to reconnect in mid-January.

            Two weeks later, just before noon on November 29th, I was walking through Pike’s Market in Seattle, sampling truffle oils and watching the thrown fish show, on a needed break from grueling contract engineer work on the Meridian & Bigbee. 

            An 818 area code call popped up on my cell phone.  It was Pitka Productions.

            The client wanted to have the commercials ready a week before Christmas! GE was sponsoring a number of TV specials and the commercials were needed for those shows.

            Understand, Joe Pitka is a busy legendary commercial and music video creator…real A List talent…a regular Director’s Guild commercial and video nominee and winner. He was available on December 8th, 9th, and 10th.  And GE was a huge account.

            “Drop everything and get this set up in 9 days” was the order from the Production Designer. Visions of an easy shoot vanished.

            In the film production business, no one ever says, “I can’t make that happen.” Uttering that sentence is a quick way to ensure “you’ll never work in this town again.” 

            At 4:08 that afternoon, I was on a Delta 757 to Salt Lake City. The next morning, I was in the Promontory Point NHS administrative office, outlining the project and its head-over-kettle timetable.

            But as much as they wanted to, the National Park Service folks couldn’t help out.  The beautiful 4-4-0 replicas were stored for the Winter and under repair.  The steam crew was scheduled for vacations. No amount of money – and I offered them "some serious coin" – could change this schedule. 

            For Film Folk, particularly those who work “below-the-line” in Locations and as Coordinators, always have a backup.  For this project, my backup was Nevada State Railroad Museum and its two classic 4-4-0s, the Dayton and Inyo.

            Three rapid phone calls later, I was on another Delta flight, this one to Reno. Incredibly, Peter Barton, then NSRM’s Director had said he might be able to help out. I’m sure Barton had to be wondering, “Doesn’t Hollywood ever plan anything in advance?”

            While I was traveling, the Pitka crew was jumping through high and tight fiery hoops. A 20-person film crew had to be engaged; 30 extras recruited; hotels and flights booked; catering arranged; contracts and Railroad Protective Insurance policies negotiated and executed.

            Perhaps the biggest challenge was preparing re-decorating plans and materials for the two locomotives. While the locomotives were not perfect replicas of the real Jupiter and No. 119, they were deemed a roughly 95% match.

            Barton and Chris de Witt, then and now the Museums’ shop superintendent, were insistent that no damage be done to the Inyo and Dayton paint jobs. Pitka recruited top-notch decorators and painters; to a man (and woman), all professed -- and demonstrated –  love and respect for the 4-4-0s..

            De Witt and his staff saw their workload roughly double.  After all, the Museum’s special Christmas events still had to go on. 

            Early on the morning of December 10th, the production team of Museum and Pitka personnel stepped out smartly. The two locomotives fired up quickly, and operated flawlessly throughout the day.

            The 30 extras, with complex make-up in place, hit their cues.  The removable plastic “skins” on the locomotives stayed in place, even though challenged by a heavy early morning dew and in-the-sun temperatures that went up by 55F during the day.

            Production work that was expected to take all day was done by 3:00 PM. The locomotives went back to storage. Lights and cameras were struck, cables coiled and loaded onto trucks. Caterers tore down their tables and closed up their cook trailer. 

            By sunset, it was tough to tell that a Hollywood production company had been on the site. The entire film crew and their 30+ boxes of media equipment were on the Big Iron Bird back to LA the next morning.  The next day, the decorators and painters removed the “skins” and made a few touchups to the two beautiful 4-4-0s.


Lessons Learned

            Every production is a learning experience. The biggest lesson was the value to the film production industry of the nation’s professionally-run railroad museums and historic railroads and their professional skilled staffs.  

            Regrettably, in recent years, Class 1 railroads, big regionals and most short lines have increasingly avoided working with productions. Even the smallest railroads have strict customer service requirements and don’t have extra crews and managers available to dedicate to a production.

            Additionally, the Sarah Jones/Midnight Rider tragedy – with one dead, six injured, and the Director in jail – caused grievous harm to the railroad-production industry relationship. The rail industry’s safety and risk managers all took note of the 2014 event and its legal ramifications. Indeed, the Jones’ family lawsuit with CSX was just settled in January of this year.

            Bottom line – railroad museums and tourist railroads are prime locations for film and video tape productions.

Nevada State Golden Spike Events

            Next month, the Nevada State Railroad Museum will host a series of events marking the sesquicentennial of the Golden Spike ceremony.  If you can’t make it to Utah and Wyoming, consider heading to Carson City for a Golden Spike ceremony reenactment at noon on May 10th.  A new expansive exhibit explaining the first transcontinental railroad premiers the afternoon of May 9th.

            You will be able to see the Dayton and Inyo on display. And you can thank the Museum staff for saving the day when General Electric needed to make a locomotive commercial.

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