Gene Balch, a board member for the Brownsville Museum in southern Texas, was at an impasse with his pet project - the restoration of the Rio Grande Railroad Locomotive #1. Originally built in Philadelphia in 1871, the historic Locomotive #1, or "El Trenesito" as it is referred in Spanish, was moved from a park at Fort Brown in 1992 to the Balch Machine Shop for repairs and restoration. But more than a decade later, it was still being worked on in Balch's facility.

Hearing about the promising project to restore the Baldwin narrow-gauge locomotive through the monthly newsletter of the Timber Heritage Association, James Alves of Hesperia contacted Balch and offered his services.

"I just offered my services pro bono," said Alves, who has lived in Hesperia on-and-off since 1963. "The next thing I know they're asking me all sorts of questions, and I gave them all sorts of answers."

Alves brought a lifetime of fascination with trains, especially steam locomotives that get their power from burning wood or coal to heat water, which creates steam to drive the pistons that move the wheels.

A true renaissance man, Alves is a machinist, amateur railroad historian, traveler, actor, novelty song aficionado and baker (he was baking Double Chocolate Brownie Bites cookies when a local reporter recently visited the Alves household on Hesperia's Mesa.) This year, Alves is even expected to be named president of the Jedi Knights, an international club devoted to all things "Star Wars." Alves and his wife, Carol, a retired City of Hesperia employee, have been involved with the organization since the early 1980s.

"I guess that makes me the wielder of the Force," he said. "We've still got 50 members."

The son of former longtime Juniper Elementary principal Bill Alves, who runs Bill's All Star Realty with wife, Aileen Alves, a former teacher, James Alves early on realized he wasn't going to follow in his parents' footsteps as a teacher. And after a semester in the University of Southern California's rigorous engineering program, he knew that he wouldn't go into that profession, either.

"I'm a manual person," he said. "I don't just push a button, turn the knob and go off. I'm a manual person. I use my hands."

Alves first showed his affinity with locomotives when he built a small steam-engine train as teen-ager. He surprised a teacher at his school, Apple Valley High School, when he brought in a completed project.

"You had to prove that you had some trade or ability when you were about to graduate."

But Alves identified with trains way before that, however.

"My mother has a sketch I did of a train when I was about 2-1/2 years old."

FINDING PARTS
When Alves was invited to participate in the Locomotive #1 project, he used his vast network to find rare parts needed to complete the engine. He contacted a friend who worked at Walt Disney World in Florida.

"I was able to give him a tap and say hello. They boxed up a set of wheels and axles. It made Gene very happy. Having to know where the skeletons of the world are located makes a difference."

With the parts, Balch completed the restoration project. So in mid-January, Alves flew down to Brownsville to participate in a plaque dedication ceremony. Alves, Balch and Walter Plitt, who helped move the "Little Train" to its new home, were honored by the Historic Brownsville Museum Association.

"I got to meet a lot of nice people down there," he said.

Other major contributors to the project were Balch Machine Company, Plitt Crane & Rigging, Jim Kidd of Anglo Iron and Metal, Brownsville Rio Grande Railroad, Walt Disney World in Orlando, Fla., and Wayne Bennett of Quality Custom Cabinets.

While Alves is back in Hesperia with his wife, baking cookies, auditioning for professional acting jobs and planning Jedi Knights activities and travels, part of him is reminiscing about Little Train and other 19th-century locomotives that once helped to define the West.

"I'm either in history or in the future."