In search of steam (and vintage diesels) on a western road trip

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My father, to whom I owe my interest in railroads, was a long-time subscriber to both Trains and Model Railroader. He and I made many trips during my childhood to watch trains at various places in central Massachusetts, where I grew up. But he didn't take many photos of trains, so the two below, which I believe he took during the winter before I was born, are very special to me.

This Boston & Maine passenger train is passing the Norton Company, in Worcester, Massachusetts, en route to Gardner. This was close to the first house I lived in, which was within sight of the B&M. Years later, in 1970, I would start my railroad career at B&M's Worcester yard, about two miles from this location.

But I did not grow up with steam. The railroads that served Worcester (B&M, New York Central's Boston & Albany, and New Haven) were early adopters of diesel power. There were steam locomotives still operating in New England during my childhood, but my Dad was more model railroader than railfan, and we didn't venture to B&M's New Hampshire branch lines or other locales where we might have seen the last of steam. I do recall riding in the car with him, pacing a steam-powered train on short line Grafton & Upton, but that's about the only steam-specific memory I have from our railroad trips. The bottom line is that I grew up with diesels.

I know that growing up with steam is not a prerequisite to becoming a steam fan in adulthood. But for me, there was fascination enough in diesels and the trains they hauled. When I went to college at New York University in the late sixties, my horizons expanded to include Pennsylvania's GG-1s, New Haven's EP-5s, and New York Central's P-, S-, and T-motors, and steam receded even further into the background.

Still, I did have some exposure to steam over the years. When I was in high school, Canadian National 6218 made several trips south from Montreal over the Central Vermont Railway, and I am fortunate to have seen it and to have taken a few photos. I recall encounters with other famous locomotives like Nickel Plate 759 powering the Golden Spike Centennial Limited in 1969, and Southern Pacific 4449 (dressed in red, white and blue) leading the American Freedom Train through Chicago in 1975. And living in Fairfax County, Virginia, in the late 1970s and early 1980s, within walking distance of the Southern Railway main line, I had plenty of exposure to that company's wonderful steam program. Still, steam remained a curiosity to me; I enjoyed it when it was right in front of me, but I didn't put much effort into seeking it out.

In recent years, I've come to enjoy steam more than I did in those earlier decades. Part of it, I suppose, is that having lived in California since 1990, I've found that some of the steam-powered tourist railroads in the West provide a good way to see hidden corners of this vast landscape, while at the same time offering a lesson in how challenging it was for the builders of these lines to overcome mountain ranges, deserts, canyons, rivers, and other natural barriers. And the dedication of all the volunteers and paid staff who keep these railroads and their locomotives in operation is impressive.

So, when my wife Marcia and I take road trips in the West now, I try to visit as many tourist railroads as our itinerary allows; if they're steam-powered, all the better. Marcia's no railfan, but after 37 years with me, she has learned to tolerate my railroad obsession, and she does enjoy a scenic train ride.

Last September, we made a road trip with Park City, Utah, as our destination. From our home on California's central coast, we drove to the San Francisco area, then to Yosemite National Park, across the Sierra Nevada and down U.S. 395 to Bishop, California, the western terminus of U.S. Highway 6. We took U.S. 6 across Nevada and into Utah, drove through Provo Canyon to Park City, and returned home by way of Salt Lake City and Las Vegas.

Our first rail-related stop was the Yosemite Mountain Sugar Pine Railroad. Located just outside Yosemite National Park, the YMSP operates over a four-mile portion of the Madera Sugar Pine Lumber Company's logging railroad, which operated from 1908 to 1924. Motive power today consists of two three-cylinder Shays. Number 10 is a 1928 LIma product, built for the West Side Lumber Company of Tuolumne, California. YMSP says that it's the largest narrow gauge Shay ever built, weighing in at 81.6 tons. Number 15, a 1913 locomotive also built by Lima, was used by various logging railroads including West Side; it weighs 59 tons.

The day we visited, we were fortunate to have number 10 as our motive power. Even standing still, it's an impressive locomotive.

But when a Shay is operating it's an incredible machine, offering both visual and sonic entertainment. Though the YMSP's four-mile route is short, it's got enough grades to give the locomotive a good workout.

The diesel fan in me was pleased to see the railroad's work engine, a 50-ton General Electric switcher built in 1951 (originally for Algoma Steel) sitting outside the engine house. Those picnic tables are used for barbecue dinners, offered twice a week during the summer as part of the railroad's Moonlight Special excursions.

En route to Park City, we went through Lynndyl, Utah, and followed Union Pacific's Sharp Subdivision north toward Provo. I had a personal connection with this line, because in 1980 I had hi-railed it as part of a consulting team that was putting together a transportation plan for the Intermountain Power Project. At that time, we visited the future site of the IPP generating station near Lynndyl, and it consisted of nothing more than a sign stuck in the ground. Today, the two-unit, 1900-megawatt plant generates electricity for Los Angeles and other California cities, and for more than 20 Utah municipalities and power cooperatives, as it has been doing since the first unit came on line in 1986.

Just north of Lemington, we – or more accurately, I – had the good luck to encounter UP's Lynndyl local, powered by two clean, recently rebuilt SD40N locomotives. Finding these two former SD40-2s, wearing this classic livery, and without any visible trace of dirt or graffiti, was enough to make me think the clock had been turned back to the 1970s.

Looking for a place to have lunch, we pulled into the town of Nephi and drove around for a while before coming upon JC Mickelson's restaurant. When we walked in, it was as though I had planned this stop well in advance: an extensive G-gauge railroad ran throughout the restaurant, winding around each of several dining rooms. If you're on Interstate 15, about 85 miles south of Salt Lake City, pull off at exit 222 and take a look. The food's good, too.

Park City doesn't have a railroad today (though it did once have a UP branch line, and the UP station is now a restaurant in the heart of the town's tourist district). But there are a couple of rail attractions nearby: the UP main line through Echo and Weber canyons, and the Heber Valley Railroad, based in Heber City, about half an hour south of Park City. I didn't spend much time on the UP; on the day I went, the weather wasn't good, and rail traffic was lighter than I expected. But before the rain started, I did get a photo of a westbound grain train in Echo Canyon.

I had better luck with the weather on the day I visited the Heber Valley Railroad. The railroad's ex-UP Consolidation 618 was sitting near the Heber City depot, not under steam; it's due for a boiler inspection. The railroad has another Consolidation, ex-Great Western 75, which is currently undergoing major boiler and firebox work in the railroad's shop. Mark Nelson, the railroad's general manager, told me that because the work required on number 75 has been more extensive (and expensive) than originally anticipated, it has set back what should be a relatively limited amount of work to restore the 618 to service. However, he is hoping to mount a money-raising and volunteer-recruiting effort this year to accelerate the work on both locomotives, and if everything falls into place, at least one of them could be back in service by September 2013. Still, I was delighted to see what the morning train did have for power: ex-U.S. Army Transportation Corps EMD MRS-1 1813, in Heber Valley's adaptation of Rio Grande's black-and-aspen gold paint scheme.

I followed the train from Heber City south along the edge of Deer Creek Reservoir, and caught up with it near the north end of Provo Canyon, with Mount Timpanogos in the background.

On the way back, I got a photo as the 1813 crossed the Provo River, in the middle of Provo Canyon...

... and passing the historic Tate Barn near Soldier Hollow, a few miles outside Heber City.

Nearby, good luck struck again as I came across Heber Valley 4028, a BLH/Whitcomb RS4TC (also ex-Army), on a work train with mobile crane C-260. The crane was being used to place a station sign at Charleston, about four miles southwest of Heber City.

The bottom line at the Heber Valley Railroad, for this trip at least, was no steam, but a couple of rare diesels along with lots of sun and some gorgeous foliage.

Leaving Park City, we spent one night in Salt Lake City and the next morning headed west along Interstate 80 toward Nevada. Soon after passing the Great Salt Lake, as we were paralleling the UP (former Western Pacific) Shafter Subdivision, I noticed a headlight and pulled off at Timpie, where a local with a pair of SD40Ns was doing some switching. If the name "Dugway" rings a bell, it's because it is home to the Dugway Proving Ground, the U.S. Army's center for "for testing weapons and defenses against chemical and biological weapons of mass destruction."

West of Timpie, Interstate 80 became one of the straightest, flattest roads I've ever been on. I wasn't surprised when I realized we were passing the Bonneville Salt Flats.

Our destination this day was the final railroad stop of our road trip, and one where I knew I would find steam: Ely, Nevada, and the Nevada Northern Railway, which bills itself as a Historical Operating Railroad Museum. Marcia decided she would use the afternoon to catch up on reading in our hotel room, while I explored the Nevada Northern yard and shops.

The railroad lived up to its billing. I was told that I could wander around the yard as long as I was careful and didn't climb on equipment. In the shop, a volunteer who was working on a passenger car told me much the same thing. And what a treasure trove the Nevada Northern's shop is! A partial list of its contents includes:

• 2-8-0 93 (operational, this engine is a 1909 product of American Locomotive Company's Pittsburg Works)

• Rotary snow plow B (built in 1907)

• Former Kennecott Copper electric 81

• Former Kennecott switchers 801 (Baldwin VO1000) and 802 (BLH S-12)

• GE 25-ton switcher 310

• Former Kennecott RS-3 109 (operational)

And not least among the residents of this historic building is coal-fired steam Wrecking Crane A, which is operational, and is here being moved by SD9 NN 204, formerly SP 4426.

On the day I visited, Nevada Northern 40, a 1910 4-6-0 built by Baldwin, was the power scheduled for the afternoon train to Ruth. I paid for a museum membership, which made me feel better about not generating any revenue as a passenger on the train, and when it left at 4:30 PM I followed it out of town. It wasn't a long trip but there was enough scenery to make for some nice backdrops as the train headed toward Ruth, a former mining town.

At Ruth, the train was wyed and headed back toward Ely. It was midweek in September, but the train was well-patronized, even though Ely is quite far from any population centers.

Before wrapping up this report, I think it's appropriate to mention one other western steam operation that I've had the pleasure of seeing. It's the Black Hills Central, and it operates out of Hill City, South Dakota, over the former Burlington Keystone Branch.  On the day I was there in the fall of 2009, the power was 2-6-6-2T articulated Mallet 110, a 1928 Baldwin product built for the Weyerhaeuser Timber Company. I had no idea there was anything such as an articulated tank engine until I saw this one, although in 2011 I saw a variation on this concept in the form of the Garratts operated by Welsh Highland Railway in northwest Wales.

During 2009, I was also able to visit the Durango & Silverton and Cumbres & Toltec, too, which were both fine experiences, but would require a separate post to cover them adequately. There are a few photos from each on a trip report on our travel blog.

I'd be happy to make another road trip to visit any of these railroads – and savor the sounds, sights and smells of steam power – whenever the opportunity presents itself.

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  • Very nice photos, I like the Yosemite 50-ton General Electric switcher too! Its a cute little thing!

  • Nice to see MRS 1 in action I was involved with in Army at Ft Eustis,Va.

    Fred Allen

  • Thanks for the explanations and excellent pictures, Tom.  Good to hear and see that you are doing the things you love to do.  And allow us to enjoy it with you.

  • Those NN coaches look suspiciously like IC suburban trailers - cars on which I rode zillions of miles as a kid.

  • That MRS1 sure does look nice. Great photos and article.

    Lance

  • No mention of the NN SD7 nor their exceptional horde of freight equipment---a great gathering of exotic variants of arch-bar and post-pure arch-bar trucks from the first decades of the 20th century.

    Long live the NN Ry!

    f-10

  • You've got to love the full-circle trip in this piece from the B&M 10-wheeler and two suburban coaches in 1948, to the NN 10-wheeler and two old suburban coaches last year! And, the two orange coaches on the Heber Valley look like retired Lackawanna MU's, which seem to have found homes on tourist railroads in every corner of the country. They seemed rickety back when they were active on the the E-L, but they were obviously built (and maintained) to last!

  • Great post, thank you!

  • Marvelous collection of photos, with one more beautiful and/or interesting than the next.  That photo of Mt. Timpanogos looks artificial at the band of pink flowers in the middle:  simply stunning.  What a blessing your father's interest in RRs has been for you and for us who have been privileged to see your work here! I hope to see more of it.

  • Technically, (Beyer-)Garratts may be tank engines carrying fuel and water on the same frame as the boiler, but given they include some of the largest and most powerful steam locos ever built (after the US Mallets, of course) the description seems a little demeaning.  The Welsh Highland Railway ones are the most powerful 2-foot gauge steam locos - built for use in South Africa with its extensive network.  Another 'tank'-engine variant is the Fairlie double-ended design to be seen on the Ffestiniog in Wales.

In search of steam (and vintage diesels) on a western road trip