Narrow your horizons

Posted by Jim Wrinn
on Friday, September 9, 2011

The Southeast isn't known for its narrow gauge heritage. Slim-gauge lines here were primarily industrial in nature. The last of these is Palmetto Brick, near Wallace, S.C., which operates a 2-foot-gauge clay-hauling railroad. But this week and weekend, the 31st National Narrow Gauge convention is meeting here in Hickory, N.C., in the foothills, to discuss, praise, and adore railroads with rails less than 4 feet 8 1/2 inches apart.

More than 1,000 narrow gauge enthusiasts are here from all over the U.S. and the world. Many are model railroaders, but there are a number of them who love the real thing, too. Wandering about the trade show, I run into Sam Furukawa, a modeler and narrow gauge fan from Tokyo who loves the Rio Grande narrow gauge. I also see Linn Moedinger, president and chief mechanical officer of Pennsylvania's Strasburg Rail Road, who also enjoys things narrow. The group from Alamosa, Colo., that is working to restore 4-6-0 No. 169, has set up a table, as has the well-known Durango & Silverton, whose chief conductor, Rich Millard, works the crowd. Famous author Mal Hope Ferrell is on hand. It's quite a gathering.

Participants make field trips to Tweetsie Railroad, the Wild West theme park near Boone, N.C., that is the direct descendant of the famous East Tennessee & Western North Carolina Railroad. They also learn about plans for the Southeastern Narrow Gauge & Short Line Museum that will accompany the restored Newton, N.C., depot, where the tracks of the 3-foot-gauge Carolina & North Western once ran. (Yes, that C&NW!) They also crowd into seminars on Virginia and West Virginia narrow gauge lines, the life story of Ephraim Shay, the inventor of the most successful geared engine that bore his name. They even discuss the speed, power, and relative beauty of narrow gauge Mikados (the overall winner being declared a tie between the Rio Grande K-36 and K-37 classes).

What is it about narrow gauge? Part of the allure is that it's a lost cause. Narrow gauge was supposed to work because its capital and operating costs were lower, but failed because it didn't haul as much as standard gauge. But it did so in a most colorful way. Narrow gauge is cute and adorable in the same way that a miniature horse looks appealing. It is as if you washed a big railroad in hot water and it shrank.

Next year's narrow gauge meeting is in Seattle. Maybe I will continue to narrow my horizons.

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