Lineside Legacy - December, 2002

Preservation on a Smaller Scale

Riverside & Great Northern No. 82 the I.W. Nieman, poses at the water tank at the Wisconsin Dells, Wisconsin yard. The 15" gauge 4-4-0 was built by Norman and Elmer Sandley for the Milwaukee Zoo's railroad in 1957. Photo: Jeff Terry
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 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

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 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.

Other Lines

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.

This page, its content, images, and data © 2002, by Carstens Publications, Inc.