Children who visit the Nevada State Railroad Museum often rush to play with the wooden Thomas the Train rail set in the display room, their attention distracted from the real steel and smoke stack locomotives.
The museum's director gives a simple explanation for this: They can't play with the real things. Visitors can't climb aboard the historic Virginia & Truckee No. 18 locomotive, or any other train on display in the museum.
But soon children will have their own train to climb aboard. Whistlin' Billy will debut in the museum July 22. The interactive locomotive is child-sized and educational - exactly what museum Director Peter Barton says will inspire children to learn about history.
Whistlin' Billy represents an 1886 porter locomotive built for the Eureka Mill Railroad. How Billy came to be is a little less glamorous than the story that's going to be told to children.
"The inspiration is the Eureka Mill Railroad," Barton said Monday. "We're kind of taking that fact and embellishing on it to make it interesting for kids."
Billy's fictional story was crafted for children who may think trains are too boring to be interesting. Loren Jahn, who designed Whistlin' Billy, said children will find this story intriguing.
"Two children found this relic in the Nevada desert, and then they found out about the history of this locomotive from their grandparents," he said with a sly grin.
"The two kids brought the locomotive here for preservation and also so that other children can enjoy it."
The real story is this: Jahn, a Reno artist and train engineer, once climbed the No. 27 locomotive in Virginia City like it was a jungle gym. His childhood love of engines inspired him to create one that is safe for young children to play on.
For the past 20 years, Jahn has volunteered with the railroad museum as an engineer. About four months ago, he built a model for an interactive children's train, but had no financial backing.
He met the owner of Complete Millwork Services Inc. at the museum, which started the train rolling.
"I asked him if they could help build an animated version of a locomotive," he said. "They donated the final engineering, all materials, labor, construction and painting."
Barton estimates Whistlin' Billy is worth from $20,000 to $30,000.
Lester Robertson, co-owner of Complete Millwork Services of Mound House, said it took about a month for builder Frank Rogers to complete Billy.
"I have young kids who are fascinated by trains," Robertson said. "I think it's a worthy cause to donate to."
The Whistlin' Billy story will unfold for years to come. His exhibit - alongside the giant No. 27 engine and rail cars from the historic V&T - will feature a new Billy story every holiday. The exhibit will also include a mural designed to look like a "recently discovered" map. When children look at this map - created by Jahn - they will see the route covered by the Eureka Mill Railroad in Carson Valley - a route possibly traveled by Whistlin' Billy.
"I think it's very interesting," said Jahn's 11-year-old son, Weston, who sat with his father inside Billy's cab. "I'm impressed in what's been done in this short amount of time. It feels really good to be the first kid to sit in it."
n Contact reporter Becky Bosshart at email@example.com or 881-1212.