FOR THIS COLUMN, I decided to take a close look at miniature steam railroads.
Wait, don't turn the page! This is interestingstuff ... honest! For some reason, "serious" railroaders cringe whenever talk turns to
miniature steam. There seems to be a perception that these trains aren't "real" or
worthy of attention. The truth is, some of
these "toys" are just as interesting as their
full-size counterparts, and hundreds of people across the country are involved with
steam preservation, though admittedly on a
smaller scale than what we're used to.
Granted, this isn't railroad preservation
in the traditional sense; these groups aren't
rebuilding a single locomotive or caboose.
Instead, they're preserving the atmosphere
of steam railroading as it existed 100 years
ago, and they're doing it with miniature
trains instead of full-size ones. To reconstruct an entire 19th century railroad is beyond the economic means of most steam enthusiasts; miniature trains are affordable
enough that you can construct a large
roundhouse, backshop, boiler shop, and ser-
vicing facilities all in a small area, and still
capture the essence of steam railroading as
it existed at the turn of the century.
Riverside & Great Northern
One of the best miniature lines in the coun-
try is the Riverside & Great Northern Railroad of Wisconsin Dells, Wisconsin. This 15'
gauge railroad, at one time a registered common carrier, was opened in 1958 by Elmer
and Norman Sandley as a way to promote
the 1/3 scale "light railways" they were building and selling to amusement parks and
zoos. The Sandleys built the R&GN primar-
ily to demonstrate their products to potential buyers while at the same time providing
a place for themselves, their friends and the
public to relive the days of steam.
Nearly two miles of track were laid over
the abandoned grade of the LaCrosse & Milwaukee Railway, and at the 'Dells the Sandleys built a fully-equipped shop to construct
their little locomotives, including a five-stall
roundhouse, running repair shed, cinder pit,
coal tipple, sand house, joinery and boiler
shop. Besides building live steam locomotives there, for over 30 years public rides
were offered behind one of the steam loco-
motives every day during the summer.
During the 1960s and '70s the Sandley
Light Railway Equipment Works did a brisk
business, building dozens of locomotives and
cars, but in 1980, following the death of
Elmer Sandley, the company closed, along
with the R&GN. After that the railroad and
shops sat in a state of disrepair, and were
about to be dismantled when William C.
Fitt, publisher of Modeltec magazine, start-
ed a campaign to save it. With his support
and contributions from outside sources, the
R&GN was restored and reopened in 1990
by the Riverside & Great Northern Preservation Society.
Today, visitors to Wisconsin Dells are
able to take the same train ride that was offered 40 years ago. Like most miniature rail-
roads, the steam locomotives are the stars,
but at the Riverside & Great Northern they
are merely actors on a much larger stage.
Watching one of the 4-4-Os slowly creep out
of the roundhouse, spin on the turntable,
and rumble off to load coal and water teaches much more about railroad history than if
the engine was just fired up in a corrugated
metal shed. As for the locomotives, you
won't find any gas-powered replicas of the
C.P. Huntington here. (You know, those gas-powered park trains marketed by Chance,
which featured a 4-2-4 steam engine riding on EMD Blomberg trucks?). All current
R&GN steamers were designed, built, and
constructed by the Sandleys right in the
Wisconsin Dells shops. Reacquiring them
from past owners has been something of a
challenge. When the railroad was being re-
built in the late 1980s, only a little vertical-
boiler "Tom Thumb" 0-4-0 remained. Fortu-
nately, an original Sandley 4-4-0, No.82,
was found at the Milwaukee Zoo (where it
had been since 1957) and was acquired
along with a complement of passenger cars.
Now restored, No.82 has powered nearly all
trains for the last twelve years.
Recently the R&GN took delivery of another Sandley 4-4-0, No.98, which last
worked at the Old Wakarusa Railroad of
Wakarusa, Indiana. Nearly identical to
No.82, No.98 has received some light repairs
and is now fully operational. The unique
"Tom Thumb" 0-4-0 has also been rebuilt after being out of service for many years, and
the railroad is hoping to acquire one of the 4-4-2 Atlantics that pulled the R&GN excursion train during the 1950s and '60s.
The train ride is undoubtedly the highlight of most people's visit to the R&GN. Un-
like most miniature railroads, when the
Sandleys laid out the R&GN they did not
hesitate to run their tracks up steep grades
and around sharp curves. Aboard one of the
15" gauge enclosed coaches, you really get to
experience the little 4-4-0 on the head end as
it struggles up the 2 1/2 per cent grade past
Milepost 9. It is a long ride, and after passing through many cuts along the wooded
right of way, the train stops near a small
turntable at the end of the line where the locomotive is turned for the return trip to
Hyde Park Station.
The R&GN operates daily from Memorial
Day to Labor Day, and on weekends during
the spring and fall. They also have special
runs during the fall and winter. Check their
website at www.randgn.com for current information. Memberships are also available
in the R&GN Preservation Society.
Redwood Valley Railway
You'd be hard pressed to find a more perfect
miniature steam line than the 15" gauge
Redwood Valley Railway of Berkeley, California. Conceived and built by the late Erich
Thomsen, the RV preserves the feeling and
flavor of California's early narrow gauge
railroads with beautiful scale locomotives,
intricate trackwork (which includes features such as lap switches and working
Harp switch stands), and historically appropriate railroad structures and facilities, including a large roundhouse.
Erich Thomsen was a man well known in
preservation circles. In fact, he was responsible for saving several full-size steam locomotives before he turned to miniature trains
in the 1950s. The Redwood Valley is the result of his desire to recreate the atmosphere
of a narrow gauge short line as it existed in
the early 1900s. After 50 years of hard work,
today trains run over a wooded one-mile
right of way through Berkeley's Tilden Park;
the line features heavy grades in a redwood
forest setting. It is not uncommon to see
trains 20 cars or more in length, and often
you'll find trains doubleheaded or set up
with a helper engine on the rear.
Remarkably, the Redwood Valley is not a
copy of some long-gone narrow-gauge railroad. It is an original railroad that has been
created from scratch, with its own locomotives specifically designed and tailored to its
needs. All have something of a Baldwin flavor, although they are of Thomsen design
and don't follow a particular prototype. The
first locomotive built was a 2-4-2 named
Laurel that was soon followed by a 4-4-0
(Fern) and a 4-6-0 (Sequoia). Currently under construction in the shop is a 2-6-2 to be
named Oak, which has a steel cab (the others have wood cabs), which will represent a
more modern locomotive than those currently in service. Rugged and dependable, some
of the RV engines have traveled as far as
England to visit other 15" gauge railroads.
The question remains: is this railway
preservation? I believe it is. Visitors to the
Redwood Valley come away with a good idea
of what narrow-gauge railroading in pioneer
California was actually like. They experience the sights, sounds and smells of the locomotives as they take the train out of town,
and witness the drama as two or three engines struggle to lift the heavy cars up the
hill. Even braking is realistic: all RV trains
are equipped with automatic air brakes.
The Redwood Valley operates year round
on weekends and weekdays during the summer. Consult their website at www.redwoodvalleyrailway.com
Wabash, Frisco & Pacific
The WF&P, known as the "Uncommon Carrier," is a 12" gauge steam line located at
Glencoe, Missouri. One of the oldest miniature steam operations in the United States
(it can trace its roots back to the 1939) the
WF&P offers a two-mile round trip over a
former right of way of the Missouri Pacific.
It moved to its current location in 1961.
What sets the Wabash, Frisco & Pacific
apart from other small-scale steam operations is its attention to detail. The railroad
is operated much like a Class I of the 1950s.
Train crews must know the timetable and
book of rules, and during two-train operation the crews (three men are required on
each train) use radios to communicate with
the dispatcher and each other. Since 1989,
trains regularly meet midway along the line
at Mohan, which is 1/2 mile from the Glencoe
depot. In downtown Glencoe, the railroad is
protected by standard grade crossing sig-
nals at the one major street crossing. Volunteer members of the WF&P Association, the
non-profit group that oversees operations of
the railroad, man the trains, perform maintenance, and sell tickets.
From humble beginnings with a single
4-4-0 in 1940, the WF&P roster has grown to
include eight steam locomotives from a variety of builders. Largest are Nos.400 and 401,
both 12" gauge Pacifics, and No.464, a scale
replica of a Santa Fe Hudson. The WF&P
runs most Sundays during the summer.
Check their website at www.wfprr.com for
more information and schedules.
Preserving Miniature Steamers
So far I've talked about preserving the experience of railroading through miniature
trains. However, there is another aspect to
this story. Believe it or not, some of these
engines are close to 100 years old and are historic artifacts in their own right. There are
many collectors across the U.S. actively involved with the preservation of these small-scale steamers. Ottaways, Crowns and Wagners are all desirable, but perhaps most
popular with collectors and preservationists
are locomotives manufactured by Cagney,
one of the early builders of miniature trains,
which are very much sought after today.
The Cagney Brothers' "Miniature Railway Company" began building steam locomotives in 1894, and their popular 15" gauge
4-4-0 was a crude replica of New York Central No.999. For many decades these engines could be found working at amusement
parks, zoos, city parks and fairs across the
United States. Remarkably, they were actively marketed for practical uses such as
mine service, but found their greatest sales
for use as a novelty and amusement item.
All in all, Cagney built about 1300 locomotives in many different sizes and gauges before it went out if business in 1948.
Cagney locomotives were a big hit with
the public, especially children. For the 1904
World's Fair in St. Louis, the company constructed 20 15" gauge 4-4-0s and four 22"
gauge 4-4-0s which were used as public
transportation on the fairgrounds. Finding
one of these Cagneys today is extremely
rare. John Rimmasch of Heber City, Utah,
acquired one through his grandfather, who
saved it from being scrapped in the 1960s.
Although its original number is unknown,
Rimmasch has assigned it No.4.
The restoration of Rimmasch's Cagney
was as extensive as that of a full-sized steam
locomotive. All that existed of the little 4-4-0 was the original 1904 boiler (which had
been cut and modified by a previous owner
to hold a Briggs & Stratton gasoline engine),
the frame and most of the tender. New dri-
ve wheels had to be cast, along with new
valve gear parts and side rods. The boiler received extensive repairs that allowed it to
steam again, and tender had to be completely rebuilt from the inside out. Now back together, Cagney No.4 holds a place of honor
as the oldest operable steam locomotive in
the state of Utah.
Another, larger, Cagney was recently restored by the Golden Gate Railroad Museum
(of Southern Pacific 2472 fame) for the San
Francisco Zoo. This locomotive was built
nearly 100 years ago for an amusement park
in Santa Cruz, California, and ended up at
the San Francisco Zoo, where it pulled
trains for many years. When the train was
removed in 1978 due to zoo expansion, the
engine was set aside and allowed to fall into
disrepair. Fortunately, in the 1990s a group
of GGRM volunteers (including Don
Micheletti, who has beautifully restored his
own 12" gauge Cagney class D) saw to it that
the engine was rebuilt and placed back into
operation. Now fired with propane instead
of coal, the resurrected Cagney No.1925
once again is delighting zoo visitors, especially children.
I've just scratched the surface when it comes
to miniature steam lines. There are enough
of the larger-scale railroads in the country to
fill this entire magazine. Other notables include the Paradise & Pacific Railroad at the
McCormick Railroad Park of Scottsdale,
Arizona; Train Town at Sonoma, California;
the Orland, Newville & Pacific at Orland,
California; and dozens more. In addition,
some major museums, like the Colorado
Railroad Museum in Golden and the National Railway Museum in Green Bay, Wisconsin, have placed some historic small-scale engines on display. A former Overfair
Railway 4-6-2 is displayed in the lobby of the
California State Railroad Museum, which is
particularly notable as it was built in 1915
for use at the Panama-Pacific-International
Exposition in San Francisco.
I hope I've opened your eyes, or at least
sparked some interest in miniature steam
lines. Far from being "toys," these little railroads should be considered a part of the preservation community.