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Black Irish Band performing railroad ballads during Portola Railroad Days

Diana Jorgenson
Staff Writer

The 29th occurrence of Railroad Days, Portola’s big hurrah, is just around the corner. As in years past, traditions like the softball tournament and the horseshoe tournament and the Willie Tate Memorial Run will provide the community with some good-natured competition.

The Lucky Duck Race is returning, where the competition is zanier, but winners end up with real money. And the Mountain Madness Car Show, which has grown every year for the past four or five years, promises to be the biggest yet.


The Golden Spike Parade is the highlight of the four-day event, which will be immediately followed by the Spike Driving Contest, a fairly new tradition to Railroad Days that has proved popular.

Last year, the Railroad Days event expanded its territory and this year’s events build on that history.

From Aug. 18 until Sunday, Aug. 21, inside Portola, Railroad Days’ activities can be found along Commercial Street, at City Park, at the Western Pacific Railroad Museum and along the Feather River.

Outside Portola, the Blairsden Barn will feature performances of “Spirit” and Nakoma will hold its second Railroad Days wine tasting at Gold Mountain.

A second excursion train, Domes to Railroad Days, is also returning this year and again offers locals one-way excursions Friday and Sunday, with buses carting excursioners back to their cars for a one-day trip featuring the Feather River Canyon’s spectacular scenery.

This year, the Feather River Express is adding music to the train trip up and down the Feather River Canyon.

The Black Irish Band will entertain train travelers on their way to and from Railroad Days and at the same time, release their 21st CD, “Lonesome Whistle,” which features 14 ballads in honor of America’s railroad history.

The release covers over 150 years of songs that focus on the workers that toiled endless hours creating a national rail network. The CD includes songs about the Chinese and Irish, who competed to create the first transcontinental railroad.

According to band member Patrick Michael Karnahan, railroad ballads did not catch on until the beginning of the 20th century. Popular ballads such as “Casey Jones” were written around 1910, and what followed were many songs featuring railroad men as heroes.

The new Black Irish CD details that history through original songwriting and traditional railroad favorites. The album also features a song, “Train to Utah,” in honor of the modern railroad engineer on the long haul.

The new CD will be available during Portola Railroad Days directly from the band.

The Black Irish Band has gained much national attention over their 20-year history. For more information about the band, visit

In addition to serenading the train riding folk, the group is scheduled to play Saturday from 4 to 7 p.m. at Center Stage in Portola. And that’s just part of the musical entertainment lining up for Railroad Days.

The local group Rock Bottom Band is returning to Railroad Days and performs Friday from 8 p.m. to midnight at Center Stage.

Saturday night features local favorites The Alternators. DJ music will entertain at other times.

This year’s theme honors the gandy dancer, the worker that built the railroads, and the Railroad Days committee has added historical information to the event program. Organizers plan for it to be a collectible item, and are offering posters and Railroad Days buttons featuring the gandy dancer as fundraising items to support Railroad Days. The buttons are also an automatic entry into a prize drawing featuring the numbers printed on the back of the button.

History buffs can also look for a book by Bill Talbitzer called “The Gandy Dancer: History of Building the Western Pacific Railroad through the Feather River Canyon.”

Although the Nevada Gunfighters will be missed this year, they will be amply replaced by an encampment of mountain men.

The Eagle Valley Muzzleloaders will set up a living history encampment featuring the life of mountain men, who roamed western mountains from 1800 until the 1850s, trapping beaver for the men’s hat industry.

The re-enactors will demonstrate muzzle-loading their rifles, tomahawk throwing and how to start a fire with flint. They will talk about how to tan hides, about the life of mountain men and share a story about Jim Beckwourth, a local mountain man who found passage through the Sierras on this end of Sierra Valley.

In addition to offering a glimpse of local history, Railroad Days also offers fun in the here and now. The event always offers a wide variety of food vendors.

The Railroad Museum will feature a Mexican dinner timed for the arrival of the excursion train on Friday evening and open to the public.

Indeed, the whole weekend of activities begins with food Thursday, Aug. 18, at 5:30 p.m. at City Park. The Community Barbecue is hosted by the city of Portola, the Railroad Days Association and the churches of Portola.

On Thursday, Aug. 18, the fun begins. Check next week’s paper for a full schedule of events.

As the Railroad Days Committee ties up last minute details, they also look to the community for volunteers to help with various projects. Call City Hall at 832-4216 to offer your services.

There’s also the bounce house, obstacle courses, Human Bowling (best to see this), treasure hunts, prizes … Have fun, Portola!

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