Billy Jones Biography
edited from an article by Albert vonDamm
Billy Jones was born in 1884 at Ben Lomond, California, son
of a lumberjack and ox team driver. His parents had come west
from Missouri with the Donner party branch that went to Oregon.
He completed his formal education at age 13 so he could work
to help support his struggling family. His only employer was
the Southern Pacific Railroad where he started as a roustabout,
and then at 17 (in 1901), boarded a locomotive as a fireman.
At 21 he advanced to engineer, a position he worked until his
retirement in 1950. He ran "helper" engines over Cuesta
Grade near San Luis Obispo, work trains, the "Daylight"
and "Lark" passenger trains and commuter trains up
the San Francisco Peninsula.
In 1917 he purchased "The Ranch", a nine acre prune
orchard at Daves Avenue and Winchester Road in Los Gatos. The
following year he married Geraldine McGrady, the school teacher
at Wrights Station. They had four children, two sons and two
One day in 1939 he had a layover in San Francisco between
commuter runs and was walking around the docks. It was there
he found and bought the little locomotive that was to become
the start of the Billy Jones Wildcat Railroad, just hours before
it was to be loaded as scrap metal on a ship bound for Japan.
After this purchase, most of his layover time was spent in the
Southern Pacific shops where, with the help of other employees,
he repaired the locomotive and made other component parts for
his home railroad.
In 1943, his son Robert, an Air Force pilot crashed in the
Aleutians and was killed. His only other son was also killed
in the war. Billy, finding solace in the company of children,
began to run his railroad on an irregular schedule for their
benefit. There wasn't much track at the time, just a short straight
stretch along which the train went back and forth.
On the night of March 22, 1956 a fire gutted the wood structure
housing the engine, which was seriously damaged. The railroad
had become such a part of the community's life that the response
was immediate. The next day's edition of the local newspaper
announcing the fire was also able to announce an overwhelming
number of spontaneous offers to assist in restoration. As a result,
an outpouring of people and tradesmen made the repairs without
charge for their time. Local banks accepted donations to cover
the cost of materials. Children donated over $2000 in small amounts
of a few cents to 50 cents or more each. The southern Pacific
donated parts and assisted in repairing the engine. As a result,
the train was running again in one month instead of the four
to six months as originally estimated.
In 1950, having retired and having more time on his hands,
Billy began to take an interest in civic matters. He was elected
to the Board of Directors of the Prune and Apricot Growers Association,
the Orchard City Grange and the First Presbyterian Church. Because
of the outstanding quality of his efforts in these fields and
because of his railroad, on January 11, 1952 the Chamber of Commerce
designated him Los Gatos "Man of the Year". In December
of that year his wife passed away.
It was then that Billy devoted himself earnestly to operating
his railroad on a regular schedule. Some of the donations for
rides were used as gifts for children in a local hospital, and
towards refurbishing the children's ward.
Billy died in 1968, having lived pretty much in harmony with
nature and with the world in general. He sincerely liked people,
loved to participate in their activities, and being full of enthusiasm,
was willing to try anything. He loved nature and enjoyed camping
as well as being outdoors in general. He started with very little,
asked for very little, and yet in a rich lifetime achieved quite
a measure of success in many ways.