‘Petticoat Junction’s Hooterville Cannonball: Why Clint Eastwood Kept the Train Running

by Craig Garrett

It may sound odd, but one of the most prolific careers in Hollywood belongs to a train, and Clint Eastwood helped it along. Okay, maybe that’s a bit of a stretch, but this is certainly the most famous train of classic tv. Plus, you can still see it operational to this day. The Sierra No. 3 steam locomotive was in use as early as 1891. It fell out of use during the Great Depression.

However, Hollywood productions began using it as early as 1919. Because of the look and model, it was perfect for westerns. according to the California Parks and Recreation website, “Hollywood producers discovered Tuolumne County and Sierra No. 3, filming this steam locomotive along the scenic Sierra Railroad to satisfy America’s love affair with Westerns.”The Sierra No. 3 was used in several Gary Cooper productions, including 1929’s The Virginian. This film was the first talkie not shot on a soundstage, but on location. Cooper worked again with Sierra No. 3 in 1952’s High Noon. Like Clint Eastwood later, Cooper won an Academy Award alongside the train.

As early as the 1950s, Sierra No. 3 started making tv appearances. Its TV debut was on The Lone Ranger in 1956. More famously, the locomotive was seen on Petticoat Junction. The Sierra No. 3 pulled the Hooterville Cannonball passenger train. The train also made appearances on such iconic shows as Green Acres, The Wild Wild West, and Gunsmoke.

The Sierra No. 3 worked well into the 90s. It was seen in Back to the Future 3 in 1990. It was also in the Bruce Campbell western comedy, The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr from 1993.

Clint Eastwood steps in to give Sierra No. 3 a facelift

Clint Eastwood first became involved with the train early in his career during the production of his tv series Rawhide. Clint Eastwood again used Sierra No. 3 in his Academy Award-winning 1992 film, Unforgiven. Perhaps because of this, Eastwood was instrumental in the restoration of Sierra No. 3. The train had been dismantled in 2001 and repairing it had stalled. Eastwood wrote an open letter to the public in 2007, appealing for funding for the restoration of the locomotive.

“Sierra No. 3 resides at Railtown 1897 State Historic Park, Eastwood wrote. “It is housed in the original roundhouse which is still in use. Together these two assets provide a rare opportunity to experience history just as it was 109 years ago.” Clint Eastwood then went on to appeal to fellow filmmakers. “Having this locomotive in operation will give filmmakers another reason to stay in California, as demonstrated by the hundreds of productions Sierra No. 3 has appeared in over the years,” he concluded.

Reportedly, the rebuild of Sierra No. 3 cost $1.6 million. The train went back into service in July of 2010. You can visit the train at Railtown 1897 State Historic Park in Jamestown, California.