This year’s Railroad Days Grand Marshal, Ken Roller, rides with an entourage in the 35th annual Portola Railroad Days Golden Spike parade, driven in Steve Clark’s restored classic 1965 Oldsmobile 4-4-2 on Saturday, Aug. 26. Photo by Michael Clawson

For the love of locomotives

Kenneth Roller graced the 2017 Railroad Days as Grand Marshal, and the experience was a culmination of his love of locomotives. Roller “met” — as he likes to refer to it — his first steam locomotive in Thailand, while serving in the armed forces in Vietnam in 1968.

In 1970, Roller worked for the Forest Service in the Trinity National Forest, west of Red Bluff. Thus, the “two Ts” became prominent in his life — trains and trees.

Roller attended Feather River College with an interest in forestry in 1971-72, and then went on to become a firefighter in the 1980s in the El Dorado National Forest. A few years later, he moved to Quincy where he met Norman Holmes.

Holmes invited Roller to his home to discuss artwork for the cover of one of his many books on railroading, as Ken had begun depicting his beloved steam engines in paint and vivid color by this time. Holmes took Roller for a “wild ride on excursion track speeders.”

In 1983, Rollers’ love of Portola Railroad Days began. At the Plumas-Sierra County Fairgrounds, a posted sign with a train on display jumped out at him. Of course, Roller knew all about the engine — Clover Valley Engine No. 8 — and he noticed the munitions car and an old caboose.

There was an announcement on the caboose for the first — ultimately the first of 35 — Railroad Days in Portola, and it drew Roller like a bright, blinking neon sign.

Intrigued, Roller hitchhiked to Portola to view the parade, model trains at the high school and railroad displays at the middle school. At Portola Park, Roller met up with Holmes, who revealed some exciting and life-changing news about plans for the Portola Railroad Museum, and as they say, the rest is history.

Roller has attended each and every Railroad Days celebration since 1983 and even made plans to join the “Rail Society.” The Society obtained the old diesel shops at what is now the Western Pacific Railroad Museum.

Roller pulled up stakes, as he was anxious to move to Portola and assist the Rail Society in building the railroad museum, and once built, Roller was willing to do anything that allowed him to “meet and greet” his beloved trains, from window repair and setting up model train displays to working as a “gandy dancer” while repairing train tracks.

Roller started painting locomotives in 1975, with his favorite subject the beloved steam engines and at WPRM, he started creating mural paintings — an art gallery of steam engines displayed in the lunchroom and gift shop — that is still available for viewing by the public.

Roller was also asked to paint murals to decorate the windows of a pizza parlor owned by John Steffanic, with scenes of the Portola Roundhouse and the Portola train station prominent.

Later, Roller was asked to join the Railroad Days committee, and began painting murals to display in the windows in town as Portola decorated for Railroad Days. Many other of his paintings were displayed at the bowling alley, and his work now appears at The Café in Truckee, Portola City Hall, Plumas Bank in Portola, WPRM and in the Loyalton Museum at the old middle school.

With a spotless Railroad Days attendance record since the inception of this annual event, Roller’s love for the event and for trains lives on.