Dunsmuir mural donated by renowned railroad artist

Tony D'Souza
Ken Michaelsen hoists up a bucket of supplies from his wife Judy as they prepare for a morning’s work on the Dunsmuir Downtown Historic District Mural earlier this month.

Murals that document our region’s history are tourist highlights in many of Siskiyou County’s towns, and now Dunsmuir will have a signature mural of its own.

Thanks to the joint vision of Dunsmuir’s Downtown Historic District Committee, the Shasta Cascade Rail Preservation Society, the Dunsmuir Railroad Depot Historical Society, and the Dunsmuir Chamber of Commerce, $15,000 has been raised through grants and donations to paint a John Signor-designed mural of a Union Pacific train passing through the Upper Sacramento canyon as a fisherman smokes a pipe and ties a fly in view of a snow-covered Mount Shasta.

The mural, easily one of the largest in the south county, is currently being painted by McCloud artists Ken and Judy Michaelsen on the Pine Street wall of the Hotel Dunsmuir, and boasts the phrase, “Dunsmuir—Home of the Best Water on Earth.”

For the past month, the Michaelsens have strapped on harnesses to mount the high scaffolding and color in the images transposed from the Signor creation. Little by little, Signor’s design has come to life in a scale far grander than the Macintosh computer screen he created it on. According to Helen Cartwright of the Historic District Committee’s Helen Cartwright, “I hope that it will become a landmark. We’re just trying to revitalize the downtown.”

A small controversy accompanied the unveiling of the mural design. In letters to the Chamber of Commerce, some area residents complained that the pipe in the fisherman’s mouth “sets an unhealthy example for the youth.” But when Signor was approached with the complaints and asked if he would take the pipe out of the fisherman’s mouth, he refused. “The key for me was the fisherman on the river. There was a ruffle among some of the folks… smoking isn’t PC. I would have pulled [the design]. Ninety percent of it for me was that fisherman smoking his pipe… It’s the ‘pop’ point in the graphic.”

Signor isn’t one to be influenced in his art by the vagaries of contemporary opinion. With a lifetime devoted to trains, railroad lore, graphic design, and the art he generates from his long and intimate knowledge of the subjects, Signor knows that what is most important is to stay true to his material “as it was.”   His fisherman is based on a 1917 Northwestern Pacific Railroad brochure. “I’m a retro-person,” Signor said during a visit to his north Dunsmuir home, which also serves as the base of operations of his flourishing graphic design business. Surrounded by a veritable library of similar pamphlets, pictures, and other railroad miscellanea collected in ‘hundreds’ of cartons around his house, he  explained, “If I can figure out a retro approach to something, I’ll do it. If I can incorporate something that’s period, I’ll do it.”

Signor’s artist fingerprints are scattered prominently all over Dunsmuir. From the rail-yard water tank, to the caboose on Dunsmuir Avenue, to the mural in the Pacific West Bank, Signor’s work has helped give Dunsmuir its modern visual identity. He’s designed t-shirts for Railroad Days, Dunsmuir coffee mugs, promotional graphics for town events; it’s even a Signor design on the Dunsmuir commemorative coin.

Constantly occupied with a business that now employs his two grown children, Signor was eager to dispel a misconception that he will profit from the Dunsmuir mural. “In some circles they are saying, ‘Congratulations, you’re making all that money,’” he explained of comments he has received regarding the mural. “But hey, I didn’t get a dime. I donated it to the community.”

According to Signor, the idea of a mural in town had been batted around by various parties for a number of years. Then last year, the Downtown Historic District Committee asked him for a design to fit the Hotel Dunsmuir wall. “I wanted it to be kind of period,” Signor said of the starting point of what would eventually become the mural. “A Railroad Days t-shirt I did had some of the elements in it. Then engines would be the color of the new Union Pacific engines… I took a photo of the wall, and drew [the mural] on the photo on the computer. It took a couple of days. I just built it on the computer in Adobe Illustrator… All of the graphics are a compilation of various things I’ve found over time.”

Born in Hollywood—and a resident of Dunsmuir since 1978—Signor’s future in railroad inspired art began at an extremely early age. “It all started with a Cub Scout’s merit badge. I was working for my model railroad badge…then I saw the train itself at a crossing in Orange, California. The real one was much more dynamic than my model. The seed was planted. Eventually I found a niche for both careers.”

As a young adult, Signor began to pursue commercial design, and also worked for the railroad itself, starting as a brakeman in 1974. By 1980, he had published his first book, the illustrated “Rails in the Shadow of Mount Shasta.” The book, “…created a sensation in the railroad fan world. After that, I never had trouble getting published.”

Signor eventually graduated to the position of full-time historian for Southern Pacific Railroad, all the while producing paintings, graphics, maps, magazines, and books at a dizzying rate, an output that continues to this day. He’s edited over twice as many books as the ten he has written himself, and travels all over the country collecting stories and artifacts related to railroad history. “It certainly sustains us. It’s sort of an obscure interest. It’s not like powerboats or muscle cars,” he said with a grin of the passion he’s turned into a living.

One of the defining points in his career came with the transition to computers. “I had a lot of guys at the railroad telling me to get a PC, but people in the graphics industry told me to get a Mac. I did, and I’ve never looked back… Really the computer has allowed me to be what I am… I was able to do just-in-time digital work. [The graphic design companies] were all dinosaurs in an old-time industry. Plus we were cheap. [The work has been] all digital since 1988.”

Though he continues to occasionally conduct the Shasta Sunset Dinner Train, Signor hasn’t had to work for the railroad for well over a decade. He makes his living just as he wants to, through his art. The mural going up in downtown Dunsmuir will be the capstone, perhaps, of his immense artistic influence on the town. As he ran a train past a vast orange grove he built in his attic’s elaborate model train display, Signor said just what would be expected of a kid who fell in love with trains and never had to abandon them: “I live in the midst of my research…I don’t see how I could retire. This is what I do. I don’t see any reason to quit.”