New exhibit at the Tehachapi Railroad Museum
Friends of the Tehachapi Depot
August 5, 2023
"The Oil Cans" exhibit recently opened at the Tehachapi Depot Railroad Museum.
Oil was at the center of things through all of the 20th century, and the railroads made it possible. History wove the stories, and it's time to untangle them. That's what this exhibit does.
The new exhibit stretches the entire width of the west end of the Depot Freight Room. Linking all its displays is a model of one train, a lost local icon.
A new oil pipeline over the Tehachapis had been economically and environmentally prohibitive, so Shell Oil teamed up with Southern Pacific to transport crude oil by train.
It was one of the heaviest trains of its time to travel through the Loop and over the summit. That Southern Pacific train ran daily from 1983 to 1996 from the Elk Hills oil region near Bakersfield to an oil refinery by the Los Angeles harbor.
Trains always look mysterious. Each one has a purposeful identity. This SP train was officially "BKDOU" for Bakersfield/Dolores Yard Unit train. The rail crews dubbed it "The Oil Cans." Turns out that phrase has a rich history in tough and vital railroading.
Accordingly, artifacts on display include original steam locomotive oil cans, with accounts of both their function and how oil came to be important.
The "Oil Cans" was a most unusual train. Specially built interconnected "TankTrain" cars were grouped and linked together with heavy, flexible hoses.
"Inverted siphons" enabled rapid loading of six "cuts" of 12 cars each. All 78 cars were filled simultaneously from just six taps, heated to enable the thick crude oil to flow into the train.
It required nine Electro-Motive Diesel locomotives; four in front and five helper engines two-thirds of the way back. Each train's 78 tank cars carried more than 1.8 million gallons of crude over the Tehachapi pass.
The trip was 8 to 9 hours one way, 365 days a year, from the Central Valley to Shell Oil's refinery in Wilmington.
Eventually a series of existing pipelines, originally built by different owners, were adapted and linked together to replace the train. The oil still makes the trip, but flows underground; out of sight, out of mind.
But much more connects the story than interconnected cars.
Part of the story includes the evolution of railroad tank cars. Models illustrate design changes through 150 years, including the Oil Cans' specialized TankTrain cars.
The exhibit explains the role of oil from a machine lubricant in the Industrial Revolution, through transitions of powering locomotives with wood, to coal and then oil. Visitors see how these technological innovations impacted not just railroads, but ships, riverboats and all modes of transport.
The exhibit was made possible through a collaboration organized by the Friends of the Tehachapi Depot (FOTD) Curator Staff Lawrence Wines. FOTD member Marlan Woodside loaned his HO scale model of the Oil Cans train including the signature "tunnel motor" diesels and an appropriate caboose. The Model Train Museum of History and Technology in Lancaster loaned numerous models to illustrate the exhibit's multifaceted story. Supporting photographers and authors gave permission to use their works. Lawrence Wines designed and created the exhibit.
You can learn more by listening to the July 14 edition of "TehachaPOD," the City of Tehachapi's podcast. The award-winning series' first visit to the Depot is all about the new exhibit. Listen wherever you get your podcasts or at tehachapod.libsyn.com.
"The Oil Cans" is a temporary exhibit scheduled for a six-month run, so don't delay visiting to see it. The Tehachapi Depot Railroad Museum, 101 W. Tehachapi Blvd., is open Friday through Monday, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Admission is free.