Strasburg, Colorado: Home of Uhrich Locomotive Works

IMG_0421Part 1 – A Visit to Strasburg, Colorado,

It’s late on a spring Saturday morning in May when I chanced to visit one of a very few steam locomotive works.  This turned out to be a total surprise, judging from the small farm town in eastern Colorado east of Denver on I-70.  Surrounded by very large farms and ranches, Strasburg is at once a farm community and a railroad town. Served by Union Pacific, the town was founded as a water stop for the Kansas and Pacific railroad, later becoming part of the Union Pacific Rail.

This Saturday morning, I am attracted to a single rail coach sitting on a siding behind a grain storage tower near the town’s only rail crossing.  This location is immediately behind the KOA Campground where our Family Motor Coach Association (Rocky Mountain Chapter) was holding a weekend rally.  From about 200 yards, the fading burgundy coach seems to be something like a club car, or maybe a short dining car.

Or perhaps it’s an old coach that was modified with a typical roof vent above a kitchen where work crews eat and sleep while repairing tracks.

 

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An Old Club Car?

I made a note of the coach and determined to investigate further. Later that Friday evening, I took a walk to and around the grain storage tower and into some deep field grass to take pictures and look for any identifying marks on the old car. I did note that on the bottom of the coach, near the center, were five small compartments that apparently held propane bottles similar to what I use for our barbeque grill at home.

After taking a picture or two, I started back by way the grainery to the UP crossing and noticed yet another odd-looking rail car sitting in a field just across the road near a large quonset building.

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Here work crews ate and slept while repairing right of way.

Below appears to be an old mail car in a state of rapid decay. Yet marked on the other side of the car is printed in large letters, “Tool Car”.  Apparently this is a converted mail car that was retrofitted with machine tools, a tool crib and materials issue point for right of way work trains.

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An old Mail Car converted to a Tool Car

The following morning, Saturday, was a really beautiful morning following a period when it had rained cats and dogs for the previous two weeks along the Colorado Rockies Front Range with two or more feet of snowfall in the Rocky Mountains.  There is a threat of more rain in the afternoon, with hail and possibly a tornado or two. I head out to see the old mail car this morning and to see what other treasures might be waiting in old Strasburg on Railroad Avenue.

After taking another picture of the mail car, I walk past two industrial–looking buildings.  The one in the middle looks very interesting.  According to the logo outside the center headquarters building are the facilities of the Uhrich Locomotive Works or ULCO! Now I am very curious to find out what goes on here in Strasburg, Colorado, with respect to railroading, especially steam railroading. The building on the left is the main machine and tool building of ULCO.

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Foundry Facility at ULCO

The building on the right is Foundry where molten iron is poured into molds for all kinds for the making of locomotive parts, including wheels and rail car knuckles.  For those railroads running steam engines today in the U.S sand Canada, Uhrich Locomotive Works is on speed dial for many railroads.  Here, they can cast the parts and then they can machine the parts, assembling the parts  the parts and produce a real, live steam engine, complete with steam whistle and brass bell.

I am fortunate that while it is Saturday, Mike Kumnick, a dedicated employee of ULCO is working on a project in the Quonset building. He advises that the building is actually on Union Pacific Property and all visitors must sign in, which I do.  Mike shows me a project that he is working on.  It is a 15 –Gauge scale model of a Kansas Pacific railroad caboose.  The model he is building will soon be hauling young passengers in true scale model on the Tiny Town Railroad in Morrison, Colorado, a suburb of Denver metro area.IMG_0412

All the metal parts for this caboose are to scale while the wheels and carriages were all cast here at the Uhrich Locomotive Works, bearing the “Baldwin-Like” bronze plate of the manufacturer.  A special type of spruce is used for the sides and matches in scale the wood pattern of Kansas Pacific Railroad.  Mike loves his work and has been a machinist for many years with ULCO.

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After a tour of the machine shop with Mike, we take a walk outside the Quonset building to look at two passenger rail cars that were built in late 1947.  The two cars are called “Slumber Cars.” Mike related that the cars were for businessmen traveling from Chicago overnight to the industrial rust belt of the upper Midwest.  There are 12 slumber bunks, each with a small window at one end of each coach where a business person and wake up relatively refreshed at his/her destination.

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After the tour of the property along Railroad Avenue, I thanked Mike for his time and let him get back to work.

By the way, the first coach that I saw behind our RV Park was waiting to be picked up by a rail museum, but it has been there a while and vandals have actively broken out the windows and tried to strip it of anything they could carry off. It looks like the rail museum could not afford to keep their commitment.

Part Two – Whats behind Uhrich Locomotive Works?

Not very far but to the east of Denver, we follow I-70 to exit 310.  We turn north over I-70 to Strasburg, Colorado, a small farming community and rail siding for the Union Pacific railroad. In the distance, we see rail coaches parked on a siding next to a Quonset building.  Further east, past the only rail crossing in Strasburg, is another rail coach.  It sits on a siding near a grain silo, deteriorating with the help of vandals and brutal Colorado winters.

Crossing the Union Pacific tracks, we turn left on Railroad Avenue, noting a fading silver mail car rusting and deteriorating in a field of grass just behind the lone Quonset Building.  On the other side of Railroad Avenue are three large buildings belonging to the Uhrich Locomotive Works.

In this usually agrarian setting, the old facility doesn’t seem to fit for a little Colorado country town, but does fit the definition of a working “museum”, especially a place dedicated largely to the “days of steam” and the techniques and processes founded in the 19th century, a son of the founder, his father. This is the home of Uhrich Locomotive Works, owned and managed by Marlin Uhrich. Consisting of a full machine shop, a foundry, with lathes, drill presses, and wood working tools of all types and varieties, the shops have been in operation since 1946.

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Marlin Uhrich discusses  parts of a locomotiuve with Mike Kumnick

According to the company brochure, “visitors will have an opportunity to visit an outstanding museum of rural Colorado history, tour one of the few shops in the United States capable of erecting large scale live steam locomotives, ride a 15 inch-gauge “backyard” railroad, enjoy lunch in a shady picnic grove, and view rare railroad movies in an old-town, small town movie theater.”

“A Bit of History”

“The Uhrich Locomotive Works was built by Virgil Uhrich in1945, owner of the Strasburg movie theater. He decided it would be nice to have a 14-1/2-inch gauge, live steam locomotive-so he set up a small foundry and machine shop behind the theatre and proceeded to build one.

By the time Number 1 was finished in 1948, the hobby shop had become the Virgil Uhrich Shop, known throughout the area as the place to go for equipment repair or welding jobs.”

“In 1963, Virgil’s son Marlin joined the business and they moved the shop across the alley for larger quarters and were then known as the Uhrich Locomotive Works (ULCO).  The business now includes machine and fabricating shops, foundry, storage in the original shop building, and a 15 gauge shop railroad.”

“While local folks still think of ULCO as the place to get things fixed, it has become an international business that routinely fills orders from all over the United States, Canada and Mexico. Machined parts and castings for tourist railroads comprise about 40% of ULCO’s business, and the shop can produce railcars and engines in 15 inch to 30 inch gauges.”

“Today, Marlin Uhrich is the general manager of this unique family business, and very much involved, spending several hours a day working on projects in the shop.

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Marlin discusses what’s hot for today with staff.

Marlin Uhrich is the son of the founder, Virgil Uhrich, who passed away in XXXX.  One of three sons of Virgil, Marlin carries on the family business of building 15 gauge steam locomotives and casting parts for use by small steam-driven railroads nationwide.or Marlin, no day is typical. His day starts early when he checks into the ULCO to check progress on “in house” projects and to take calls from customers who are running 15 gauge steam engines. Sometimes, he will get a call for service to one of his favorite customers – Tiny Town and the Tiny Town Rail Road in nearby Morrison, Colorado. Marlin knows that the Tiny Town Rail Road is an all time favorite place for children throughout the Denver Metro area who get to experience a real steam railroad on the 15-gauge tracks surrounding Tiny Town. Time is of the essence or the children may be disappointed about not getting a train ride today.

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Tiny Town Rail Road, Morrison, Colorado

Being a “hands-on” manager and CEO, Marlin works with each employee on completing projects, repairs and maintenance of the shop equipment, ordering materials, and pouring parts prepared in the ULCO Foundry.

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One of the hallmarks of ULCO is building 15 gauge Steam Engines for use in parks and zoos.  Engine #463 is an exact scale model of the real thing, taken from the plans for an American Locomotive, Company (ALCO), a historic builder of steam engines in the last century and built to run on real coal.

 

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                                             Denver Zoo Train Built by ULCO

Marlin’s production crew consists of five veterans from  railroad and industry industry who possess the skills needed to build steam locomotives as well as exactly detailed scale railcars.  Their proficiency in welding , metal work, fabrication, steam boilers, casting precision parts and tools are crucial to the continued success of ULCO in very limited of miniature steam railroad iequipment production.

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When work is completed on engine 463, it will be outfitted with a live steam whistle and a brass engine bell, configured in scale for 15 gauge.

Once Engine 463 is completed in the shop, Marlin and his team will move the new locomotive on a trailer to the test track set up in a rolling field about mile east of Strasburg, the home of the Cherokee Crossing and Eastern Rail Road. In fact, all locomotives, tenders and rail cars go through rigorous quality testing before final delivery to ULCO’s customers.

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The leather belt drive pictured above came from anold Ice Plant near Pueblo, CO

Over the many years of ULCO Locomotive Works, Marlin’s father Virgil, and Marlin were always on the lookout for old railroad machining equipment for the shop, or other tools that could be used in making parts for old steam engines.  Once procured, Marlin and his team assessed repairs needed to get the equipment working again.  This includes lathes, grinding machinery, and other hard-to-find equipment once used by the railroads to produce rail cars and boiler equipment. Reconditioning and refurbishing of shop equipment helps to cut down on overhead costs.

For Marlin, ULCO is a realization of a dream by his father Virgil. He dedicates himself and his shops to carrying on the skills associated with the trades, such as welding, machine tool making, fabrication, manufacturing, forging parts and machining to exacting tolerances.  While Marlin’s father, Virgil, provided these same services in the repair of mechanical farm equipment over the years, his father had a dream of one day owning a railroad.

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Through Marlin, that day arrived some years ago with the creation of the Cherokee Crossing and Eastern Rail Road. Much to the delight of children everywhere, the history of steam railroading has been preserved, but on a smaller scale.

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Engine No. 1 of the Cherokee Crossing and Eastern Rail Road

According to Marlin, the old equipment he has collected over the years was well made and not all of it in the United States.  Railroads pay big money to buy this equipment when it was new and well-maintained.  Marlin continues to ensure that the equipment in his shop is well maintained and ready for use. In some instances, Marlin relies on his machining experience to instruct his employees the old techniques for accuracy and production safety.

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Key parts of a turntable for the Cherokee Cross and Eastern

Railroad future roundhouse.

As busy as a CEO and Chief Engineer can be these days, Marlin makes time to support a local Pioneer Summer Camp held annually in Strasburg for school age children in the community.  This camp, unlike other day camps, provides hands-on instruction on the ways of the pioneers who settled Colorado. That includes the daily chores of raising live stock, tending chickens, putting food on the table, planting crops, harvesting, making and mending cloths, even preparing pioneer style meals.

In addition to farming skills, Marlin exposes the campers to a day on the railroad and what it was like to learn the skills of steam railroading.  As an object  lesson in steam railroading , the boys and girls  get to spend the day learning about steam railroading as well as the skills necessary to  make the train go, the whistle to blow, the tracks to run on, the bridges over the rivers and gullies. Marlin talks about the work of building a railroad and why railroading is so important in the history and to the economy of the U.S. even today.

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According to Marlin’s philosophy ‘If we don’t teach people about the ways of the past today, then many of the old skills will be lost for tomorrow. “

 

A Day onThe Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge

Southwest Colorado:

We spent last weekend in Bayfield, CO, in the southwestern Colorado Rocky Mountains.  We enjoyed spending evenings with members of the Family Motor Coach Association (FMCA) in a major regional rally.  We spent Saturday on the Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad.  They are running a lot of old Rio Grande and Southern RR narrow gauge steam equipment from the turn of the last century out of Durango, Colorado. Check out the pictures of the Animus River and the DSNGRR. The rails track through vertical real estate that is claimed by the BLM.  White water this spring is plentiful in Colorado.  This is a full steam operation, except for two GE-44 switch engines.  Most of their runs are during non-snow periods of the year because it’s difficult to clear sixty-ft deep drifts caused by area winter blizzards.  The trip takes all day- 4 hours up to Silverton and 4 hours back.  We were in an open domed observation car which afforded views of the vertical nature of the terrain.  Thank heaven for hot coffee, tea and blankets–and umbrellas when the rain really gets bad.  We traded off a nice warm comfortable seat in a closed parlor car because they told us the best seats were in the observation dome car.  Our car attendant did a great job in taking care of the 18 or so who braved the elements at 10-12,000 feet above sea level.  The trip itself was epic and what I would term “World Class’ because of the service we received and the many vistas that we enjoyed.

This is the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad Depot in Durango, Colorado.

 

The first train leaves Durango at 8:00 AM daily.  The second leaves at 8:45, and the last leaves at 9:30. All steam driven

The first train leaves Durango at 8:00 AM daily. The second leaves at 8:45, and the last leaves at 9:30.
All steam driven

Trackside, passengers are in the process of boarding DSNGRR on the 8:45 Am run from Durango to Silverton pulled by a Baldwin 2-8-2 from the old Rio Grande and Southwestern Railroad.

Joe is our engineer on the run this morning.  His fireman will shovel a lot of coal on this 45 mile trip with three stops for water on the way up to Silverton, and only one stop on the way back.  Climbing mountains to 10,000 feet in the Rockies by steam engine is demanding.RV Travels - Southwest Colorado 121

Engine 486 is one of four working steam engines in operation on the DSNGRR.  The up bound trip to Silverton will proceed at between 16 mph to 18 mph.  The consist is made up of a boxcar (supply car) two day coaches, two observation gondolas, a baggage car for food services, a deluxe coach, a domed observation car, and a private party car bring up the rear.

 

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The boiler plate indicates the engine was built in 1925.

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This view of the engine and the tender shows the load of coal to fire the engine.  Engineer Joe advised that the soft coal is minded nearby from a Colorado coal mine.

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RV Travels - Southwest Colorado 158Train crew Stena and Dakota of the DSNGRR compare her railroad watch with Dakota’s Iphone. Stena is the Domed Observation Car Attendant and guide for the 8:45 am train to Silverton.

RV Travels - Southwest Colorado 164What time does the 8:45 train leave for Silverton from Durango?  On time-that’s when it always leaves.

There is an 8:00 am departure and a 9:30 departure.

The first train leaves Durango at 8:00 AM daily.  The second leaves at 8:45, and the last leaves at 9:30. All steam driven

The first train leaves Durango at 8:00 AM daily. The second leaves at 8:45, and the last leaves at 9:30.
All steam driven

This is the first view from the domed car as we leave Durango.  There is a little bit of sunshine today.  Maybe we’ll find more sunlight later.

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RV Travels - Southwest Colorado 174First view of the mountains in the San Juan range coming up quickly as we follow the Animus River to Silverton, Co.

Cathy and I enjoy a cup of coffee (or Tea) as we enjoy the trip.  We became acquainted with coal dust constantly blowing into the open coach. There were also breakfast pastries and cookies along with bottled water included.  In addition, there were blankets provided to take the chill out of the mountain air and to keep the coal dust off of clothing.

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Engine 486 moves along the woodland and the Animus River.  Heavy rains over the past several weeks  kept the grass and trees a vibrant green.  We are steadily heading upgrade to Silverton.

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Blankets help ward off the cold and damp of the open coach. Next time, we’ll recommend bringing rain coats and jackets.

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Engine 486 is starting the climb upgrade on the run to Silverton.

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In the high pastures of the Rocky Mountains, we see a mare and her foal in a mountain pasture.

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A pastoral lake reflects the surrounding forests and the clouds above.

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This is the Rockwood Depot.  Hikers are dropped off here to hike the surrounding peaks or to trek to and from Silverton.  Rockwood is about half way to Silverton.

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Engine 486 is committed to the climb on the cliffs above the white water of the Animus River.

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The tracks wind around many mountain curves on the way to Silverton and provide a striking view of the Animus River, the mountains and the peaks that are over 14,000 feet above sea level.

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Rocks and trees is a common occurrence each day.

Our train is still climbing upgrade to Silverton, which is above 9,000 feet. Rock slides are quite common along the right of way. A track inspector makes the run every morning ahead of each train from Durango, while another track inspector follows each train on its journey.   Rocks and fallen trees are sometimes found.  Even a small rockslide could damage the tracks and road bed.

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We note a “blow down” beneath the Engine Cab which is done to remove sediment from the boiler water from time to time. It prevents a buildup of sediment from the water.

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With the Animus River close at hand, another blow down for sediment is in order.  Now both sides are cleared of sediment.

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Inside the Dome Observation Car, the views are spectacular.  With Stena on board to point out landmarks and mountains, we learn a lot about the local geology.

RV Travels - Southwest Colorado 347We are getting closer to Silverton Now, just the other side of the center mountain in the distance.

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The Animus River churns along with Class Five white water rapids almost all the way to Silverton.

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Another beautiful view of the mountains along the route of the Durango & Silverton.

RV Travels - Southwest Colorado 412This water tower is one of several remaining from the old Rio Grande and Southern Railway.  This particular water tank is no longer in use but is maintained as an antiquity.

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Engine 486 puts out a lot of smoke as it makes the grade to Silverton and behind schedule by twenty minutes.  During the winter, the DSNGRR will make a run about a third of the way for photographers to take some classic winter snow pictures north of Durango.

RV Travels - Southwest Colorado 419The mountain greenery of spring features the Aspen, which tend to grow just about anywhere in Colorado. In the fall, this view becomes a sea of gold as far as you can see. Fall is the most popular  time to make the trek to Silverton.

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Along the way, we find a deserted goldmine, long sealed up and abandoned to the ages.  We are almost into Silverton.  Evidence of other mining efforts are noted on the surrounding  mountains by the conical slag piles of ore and rocks that bore no gold.

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In the distance we can make out our destination – Silverton, Colorado. Even in the middle of June, there’s still snow on the mountains.  The snow will return in September.

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Finally, we are in downtown Silverton and enjoying the only paved street in town.

RV Travels - Southwest Colorado 532Turned around now for the return trip, Engine 486 awaits it’s passengers for the  2:30 departure and return trip through the mountains to Durango.

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Other passengers enjoyed another type of western transportation – the local stage coach. RV Travels - Southwest Colorado 548Article by Chip Deyerle, Days of Steam.com

 

Kids today and Steam Railroading

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Feature by Chip Deyerle

(May 23, 2015)  Morrison, CO – Just off of Colorado 285, near Morrison, the road sign says “Tiny Town Railroad”, ¾ mile, Next Left.”  We make the turn at the base of a mountain grade about 30 minutes west of downtown Denver. Immediately we are among some of the tallest pines in Colorado, complete with a mountain stream surging beneath the dark green canopy.  It’s springtime in the Rockies and the winter run-off is almost even with the stream banks.

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Beneath this canopy we first hear a real steam engine whistle, loud and clear.  As we pull up to turn into the parking lot, there is a buzz of activity taking place among many child-size homes and houses, banks, churches, car dealership, hardware store, drugstores, department stores, library, school houses, playgrounds, restaurants, florists, even a Moving and Storage Warehouse.

Our visit today is to enjoy the 100th Anniversary of Tiny Town and the Tiny Town Railroad. This special occasion is marked with a special anniversary cake for the visitors to Tiny Town.  In keeping with the tradition, volunteers and staff wore period costumes set at the turn of the last century to add a sense of history to the occasion.

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“Nestled in a mountain valley is Tiny Town opened on this date 100 years ago in 1915 and despite its age, it is still popular as ever with little kids and big kids. What is so special is that Tiny Town has its own steam and diesel railroad, but in 15-gauge configuration.  The tracks from the out-sized rail depot and ticket office run the perimeter of the Tiny Town city limits, crossing two trestles over famed Turkey Creek. There is even a rail tunnel named “North Portal” after a real railroad tunnel of the same name nearby.”

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A brief History of Tiny Town…

“Tiny Town was created at the site of the Denver-Leadville stagecoach stop in a scenic mountain canyon southwest of Denver in 1915. That’s when moving company owner George Turner began erecting one-sixth sized buildings with a turn of the century flavor to delight his young daughter.”

“In 1920 the town was opened to the public.  In just five years, it became one of Colorado’s top attractions.”

“By 1939, the “World Famous” Tiny Town Railway was in operation.  By Then, Tiny Town was creating thousands of special memories for kids of all ages.”

“But the historic town was not without its setbacks as fires, floods, and changing economic times often kept this special palace on the edge of extinction.”

“So in 1988, volunteers adopted the resurrection of Tiny Town as a civic, charitable project.  Individuals from the entire state refurbished original buildings, created new structures and got the railroad up and running again.”

“The Tiny Town foundation was created in 1990 to establish Tiny Town as a not-for-profit effort and ensure the cherished village would never be threatened again.  Each year the foundation has been proud to donate a portion of the proceeds to various area charities.”

“One thing about Tiny Town hasn’t changed over the years – Kids always have a big time in Tiny Town.”

“Families spend hours admiring over 140 colorful buildings, each individually handcrafted by Colorado volunteers.  Many of the structures contain detailed interiors to spur the imaginations of young and old alike.  And some buildings let kids crawl inside and view the town through tiny windows.”

“Tiny Town’s turn-of-the-century downtown features a fire station, toy store, ice cream shop, moview theater, gas station, grade school, library and many other colorful buildings.”“

On this day, the Inter-Canyon Fire and Rescue is on hand with an EMT unit and a fire truck.  They’ve set up display of equipment all firefighters must have, along with a real fire hose for the smaller visitors to try out on a target.

There is also a restored antique fire truck from the 1920s, complete with fire bell and a hand-cranked siren.  Kids and adults take turn trying to crank the siren, putting on an old firemen’s helmet and trying to turn the steering wheel.

Of course the biggest attraction of Tiny Town is the TTRR, the Tiny Town Railroad. It features several different engines that have run for many years on the TTRR. Each steam engine is a a 15-guage replica of a real steam engine running on the Durango and Silverton RR and Cumbres and Toltec RR in southwest Colorado and New Mexico.  Add to that, the engines run on live steam from burning coal!  Built to scale, each engine features virtually the same parts as their big brothers and provides more than adequate power for the half hourly runs around d  TTRR.

If you are wondering who still builds and produces 15-gauge steam engines, look to Uhrich Locomotive Works in nearby Strasburg, Colorado.  In fact, ULCO has not only built the locomotives, but the rail cars as well.   ULCO also makes parts for steam engines across the U.S., Canada, and Mexico.  While not mass-produced, each part is made from iron castings that are poured from a Coke Furnace and Foundry at ULCO.  Production runs for parts are usually small to meet the requirements of their customers, one of which is Tiny Town.

For more information about Tiny Town, see their website at www.tinytownrailroad.com or call 303-697-6828.

End of Part 2

611 Returns Soon To Roanoke From North Carolina!

A great day for a runN&W Class J 611™ completes a 110-mile roundtrip

from Spencer, NC to Greensboro, NC

Courtesy of Norfolk Southern

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The Fire Up 611 mechanical crew completed a test run of the iconic locomotive round trip from the North Carolina Transportation Museum in Spencer, North Carolina to Greensboro, North Carolina. The train consisted of No. 611, the auxiliary water car, tool car No. 1407, and eight Norfolk Southern passenger cars. This marks the first time No. 611 has operated under steam on the mainline in more than twenty years.cropped-images5AK59GE7.jpg

 

You’ve waited 20 years. Don’t miss the train.Excursion Spotlight: The Powhatan Arrow

Roanoke to Lynchburg

July 3, July 4 and July 5

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Riding from Roanoke to Lynchburg on the old Norfolk and Western takes you through some of Virginia’s most beautiful

views.  Leaving Roanoke, on the left you will pass the famous East End Shops, where 611, her sisters, and the 1200s and 2100s were designed, built, and maintained.  Further east in the shops complex in the former N&W Car Shops is the current site of Freight Car America’s Roanoke Plant.

You will continue eastward through Vinton and down a long straightaway to Boaz siding in Bonsack, made famous in photographs by O. Winston Link.

Moving further up the Blue Ridge grade, our train will pass the original plant of the Webster Brick Company, and a bit farther up on the left, the site of the Blue Ridge station and the quarry operations of Boxley Materials, the company that provided all the ballast to the N&W.

On the other side of the Blue Ridge Gap, prepare to take in spectacular views of the Peaks of Otter, on of the most scenic areas on the Blue Ridge Parkway.  Leaving the Gap, we will pass through Bedford, home to the national D Day Memorial honoring those who served on the beaches of France on June 6, 1944.  After passing Bedford, the train passes through the village of Forest, home to Thomas Jefferson’s summer home Poplar Forest. This is also where the newer “low-grade” line broke away from the old N&W main line to avoid congestion in downtown Lynchburg and a climb out of the James River valley. Pulling into Lynchburg, the train will turn on the wye at Norfolk Southern’s Montview Yard for the return trip to Roanoke.

It will be a trip you’ll remember forever.

Other excursions include: 

The American– Manassas, Virginia to Front Royal, Virginia. June 6 & 7

·     Take a 102-mile roundtrip through northern Virginia over former Southern Railway tracks

·     Turn on the wye alongside the river at Riverton Junction at Front Royal

·     Enjoy the 21st annual Manassas Heritage Railway Festival and explore the walkable, historic downtown

The Cavalier-

Lynchburg, Virginia to Petersburg, Virginia. June 13 & 14

·         Ride from the mountains of Lynchburg to the heart of Petersburg and back on this 260-mile roundtrip journey

·         Explore downtown Petersburg

·         Dine, shop, and relax during the two-hour layover

The Pelican– Roanoke, Virginia to Radford, Virginia. June 3, 4, & 5 (afternoon trip)

·         Enjoy the ride from Roanoke to Radford on this 84-mile roundtrip

·         Climb the fame Christiansburg grade- the exact type of mountainous terrain 611 for which 611 was designed

·         Return to downtown Roanoke for an evening of Independence Day weekend festivities

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About the 611 Excursion Train 

There’s no bad seat on this train! Climb aboard for an experience that features modern amenities and a level of service reflective of the golden age of passenger rail travel.  Our passenger cars – many from the 1940

s and 1950s – have been thoughtfully rebuilt and restored and each car is unique.  However, every car offers air-condition

ing, comfortable seating, large windows, and ample leg room. Restrooms are also available throughout the train.

Whether you choose to ride in standard or deluxe coach, or to treat yourself to first class, dome, or observation seating – or even a private suite – you’ll be able to walk through the train and get to know your fellow passengers along the way.  It’s not unusual to make a few new friends on board! Car hosts will share information about the route and the history of the train, and see to your needs and comfort.

 

A commissary car mid-train will offer soft drinks and snacks for sale, as well as tee shirts, videos,and other merchandise.  For those who choose first class, a private suite, or dome or observation seating – which both offer unique and spectacular views – first class car attendants will bring complimentary beverages and snacks to you.

 

The fastest and easiest way to purchase tickets is online through FIREUP611.org. You may also call the VMT Ticket Line at 540-797-2666 or purchase tickets in person at the Virginia Museum of Transportation in downtown Roanoke.

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The NCTM says goodbye to the Class J 611. Roanoke welcomes her home. Two full weekends of activities are planned as the North Carolina Transportation Museum (NCTM) says goodbye to the Class J 611 and the Virginia Museum of Transportation and the City of Roanoke welcomes The Spirit of Roanoke home.

See all that the NCTM has planned on Saturday, May 23! Get your camera ready for the 611 Photo Charter on May 28!

Roanoke is throwing a welcome home celebration fit for a Queen on Saturday, May 30.

On Sunday, May 31, visit the VMT to see the Big Three  – the Class J (611), the Class A (1218) and the Class Y6a (2156)- in the same rail yard in over 60 years!

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About the Norfolk & Western Class J 611™  Steam Passenger Locomotive

 

Norfolk & Western Class J 611™ is considered by many to be the finest American locomotive ever made. She is a marriage of beauty and power. Simple lines, a bullet nose, a midnight black façade, a Tuscan stripe and a baritone whistle makes her the most distinguished steam locomotive left in the world. She’s an engineering powerhouse of steam, technology and near mechanical perfection. The Class J Locomotives were built using American ingenuity, design and engineering. Even today, she is the pinnacle of steam locomotive technology known to man.

 

The Norfolk & Western Class J Locomotives were designed, constructed and maintained in Roanoke, Virginia. These streamlined locomotives have captivated the hearts of rail fans worldwide since they first rolled out of the N&W Roanoke Shops, beginning in 1941.

 

611 was built in May of 1950.  The 611 Locomotive pulled the Powhatan Arrow, the famed passenger train, from Norfolk to Cincinnati.  611 retired from passenger rail service in 1959. In 1962, she was moved to the Virginia Museum of Transportation in Roanoke, Virginia.

 

In 1981, Norfolk Southern pulled her out of retirement and restored her to her original glory. Once again, she blew her whistle to sleepy towns and thundered across the landscape. She was retired from excursions in 1994 and moved back into the Virginia Museum of Transportation. Since her retirement, rail fans have clamored, hoped and dreamed that she return to the rails, to blow her whistle and steam over the Blue Ridge and Appalachian mountains once again.

 

In 2015, barring the unforeseen, the dream of 611 returning to steam will become a reality.  Thanks Norfolk Southern, friends of 611 and the Virginia Museum of Transportation, and Rail Fans all across the USA and from around the world for your support!  The “Queen of Steam” RETURNS SOON!

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Strasburg, Colorado: Home of Uhrich Locomotive Works

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Feature Article By Chip Deyerle

It’s late on a spring Saturday morning in May when I chanced to visit one of very few steam locomotive works in the United States.  This turned out to be a total surprise, judging from the small farm of Strasburg, Colorado, town  east of Denver on I-70.  Surrounded by very large farms and ranches, Strasburg is at once a farming/ranching community and a railroad town. Served by Union Pacific, the town was merely a water stop for the Kansas and Pacific   steam locomotives, later becoming the Union Pacific Rail Road

This Saturday morning, I am attracted to an old rail coach sitting on a siding behind a grain storage tower near the town’s only rail crossing.  It is a forelorn-looking coach and is deteriorating rapidly. This location is immediately behind the KOA Campground where our Family Motor Coach Association (Rocky Mountain Chapter) is holding a weekend rally.  While walking our two little dogs, Lexie ( a dachund mini) and Lilly ( a Papillion mix), I am looking across a field about 200 yards to the coach, now a fading burgundy color in the setting sun coach amid waving stands of rye grass in the breeze. It appears  to be something similar to a club car, or maybe a short dining car.IMG_0373

Or perhaps it’s an old coach that had been modified with an  exhaust vent in the roof perhaps for housing work crews while repairing right of way.

I make a note of the coach and determine to investigate further. Later that Friday evening, Lexie accompanied me out of the KOA and around to grain storage tower and into some deep field grass to take pictures and look for any identifying marks. I did note that on the bottom of the coach, near the center, where five small compartments that apparently held propane bottles typically used for barbeque grills at home.

After taking several pictures, Lexie and I start back by the grainery to the UP crossing and notice yet another odd-looking rail car sitting in a field just across the road near a large quonset building.IMG_0386

IMG_0392This appears to be an old mail car in a state of rapid decay. Yet marked on the other side of the car is printed in large letters, “Tool Car”.  Apparently this was a converted mail car retrofitted with machine tools, a tool crib and materials issue point for right of way work trains.

The following morning, Saturday, is a really beautiful morning following a period of heavy rains during the previous two weeks along the Colorado Rockies Front Range with two or more feet of snowfall in the Rocky Mountains.  There is a threat of more rain in the afternoon, with hail and possibly a tornado or two. I head out to see the old mail car and to find other  treasures  to be seen in old Strasburg on Railroad Avenue.

After taking another picture of the mail car, I walk past two industrial–looking buildings.  The one in the middle looks very interesting:

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None other than the Uhrich Locomotive Works! Now I really need to find out what goes on here, in Strasburg, Colorado. The building on the left is the main machine and tool building of ULCO.  The building on the right is a Coke Foundry where molten iron is poured into molds for all kinds of locomotive parts, including locomotive wheels and rail car wheels.  For those railroads running steam engines today in the US and Canada, Uhrich Locomotive Works is on speed dial for most of the railroads.  Here, they can cast the parts and then they can machine the parts, assemble the parts and produce a real, live steam engine, complete with steam whistle and brass bell.

I am fortunate that while it is Saturday, Mike Kumnick, a machinest at ULCO, is working on a project in the Quonset building. He advises that the building is actually on Union Pacific Property and all visitors must sign in, which I do.  Mike shows me a project that he is working on.  It is a 15 –Gauge scale model of a Kansas Pacific Caboose.  The model he is building will soon be hauling young passengers in true scale model steam engines on the Tiny Town Railroad in Morrison, Colorado, a suburb of Denver metro area.

IMG_0412All the metal parts for this caboose are to scale and the wheels and carriages were all cast here at the Uhrich Locomotive Works, bearing the “Baldwin-Like” bronze plate of the manufacturer.  A special type of spruce is used for the sides and matches in scale the wood pattern of Kansas Pacific Railroad.  Mike loves his work and has been a machinist for many years with ULCO.

After a tour of the machine shop with Mike, we take a walk outside the Quonset building to look at two passenger rail cars that were built in late 1947.  The two cars are called “Slumber Cars.” Mike relates that the cars were for businessmen traveling from Chicago overnight to the industrial rust belt of the upper Midwest.   There are 12 slumber bunks, each with a small window, at one end of each coach where a business person could sleep and wake up relatively refreshed at his destination.  AMTRAK should take note of this idea.unnamed[5]After the tour of the property along Railroad Avenue, I thanked Mike for his time and let him get back to work.

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By the way, the first coach that I saw behind our RV Park was waiting to be picked up by a rail museum, but it has been there a while and vandals have actively broken out the windows and tried to strip it of anything they could carry off. It looks like the rail museum could not afford to keep their commitment. There it sits, falling apart.

ULCO –Uhrich Locomotive Company

PO Box 125

Strasburg, CO 80136

Phone: 303-622-4431

Call for an appointment for a tour.

 

AMTRAK’s Congressional Limited and North Philadelphia Redux

One of America’s Worst Train Crashes Happened on the Same Curve as AMTRAK 188-72 years ago!

By Dan Kois

As rescue teams responded to Tuesday night’s frightening AMTRAK crash outside of Philaelphia, they’re walking the same ground where, 72 years ago, servicemen headed to New York City on Labor Day instead spent the night searching through derailed train cars in one od the worst accidents in American history, the 1943 Frankfort Junction crash.  The coincidence was noted by Philadelphia Daily News assistant managing editor Gar Soseph on Twitter.

In tht crash, 79 were killed and 117 injured when a journal box failed and an axle snapped at high speed, sending the Pennsylvania Railroad’s Congressional Limited,packed with service men and vacationers, catapulting off the track.  According to an Associated Press story published at the time, the accident happened at Frankfort and Glenwood Avenues in Philadelphia’s Kensington neighborhood–on the same great bend of the tracks where AMTRAK train 188 derailed on Tuesday evening last.  Infact, the intersection of Frankford and Glenwood Avenues is only a few tenths of a mile away from the 2000 block of Wheatsheaf Lane, where a local NBC affiliate is reporting Tuesday’s crash occurred.

Dan Kois is Slates Culture editor, co-host of Mom and Dad Are Fighting, and a contributing writer to the New York Times Magazine.

TVRM’s Historic Steam Locomotive #4501 Is Ready for Tennessee Valley Railfest

Chattanooga, Tennessee – The Tennessee Valley Railroad Museum (TVRM) today announces the return of their iconic Steam Locomotive 4501 to operation. TVRM has been restoring Locomotive 4501 over the past three years and she will make her public debut at Tennessee Valley Railfest on September 6 & 7. The locomotive last ran in 1998 and has patiently waited for a complete overhaul . The locomotive restoration specialists at TVRM began the project in 2011 and it has continued nonstop since then. The 4501 has now rolled out of Soule Shops in East Chattanooga looking better than ever. After testing and various final adjustments, the locomotive will make its public debut at the Railfest celebration.. 

“This is a dream come true,” said TVRM spokesperson Steve Freer. “Many of us at TVRM grew up riding behind 4501 (often simply referred to as “the 01″) and loved every minute of it. With the diminishing demand for main line rail excursions in the 1990’s, large locomotives were relegated to storage or display. However, 4501 is returning to active operation. It is a great day for TVRM and we are thrilled to make this example of living history available to the public.”

 

Railfest is an annual celebration of railroading at TVRM, which includes train rides, special exhibits, interesting displays, model railroads, children’s activities, live entertainment, and more. The public debut of Locomotive 4501 will feature a public dedication at at Railfest. Tickets for Railfest on September 6 & 7 are only $20 adults and $15 children (per day) and are available online at www.tvrail.com.

 

Locomotive 4501 has an interesting history: She was built for Southern Railway in 1911 and worked for 37 years before being forced out of service by a wave of modern diesel locomotives. Instead of being scrapped as so many other steamers were, 4501 was sold in 1948 to the Kentucky & Tennessee Railway in Stearns, Kentucky, to haul coal from mines served by the K&T. After 16 years serving the K&T, 4501 was sold to Chattanooga railroad enthusiast Paul Merriman in 1964. Merriman was a TVRM founder and president at the time, and brought Locomotive 4501 to Chattanooga for display and possible operation. This is just what the fledgling museum needed, as 4501 was a highly visible symbol of steam railroading. Shortly thereafter, Southern Railway leased the engine from TVRM to be used throughout their system as a roving ambassador and to pull public rail excursions, which continued until 1994. Back in home in Chattanooga, TVRM was able to operate the locomotive until its boiler certification ran out in 1998. Since other steam locomotives were operating at TVRM at the time, 4501 rested in semi-retirement until 2011 when Norfolk Southern inaugurated their “21st Century Steam” program. 21st Century Steam is a program of excursions for Norfolk Southern employees and the general public, utilizing steam locomotives on a limited number of trips on Norfolk Southern rail lines. TVRM’s Locomotive 630 has been participating in the programs since 2011, and now with the help of many contributors, including Norfolk Southern, 4501 will join the program in 2015.

 

The Tennessee Valley Railroad Museum is a non-profit, educational organization founded by volunteers in 1961 with a mission to preserve, restore, and operate historic railway equipment. Trains operate within Chattanooga daily in season with many additional special events and excursion trips throughout each year. Every ticket sold is a fundraiser to keep the history of American railroading alive and available for the public to experience. For more information and schedules, please visit www.tvrail.com.

 

 

Denver To DC: Inside the Real Amtrak

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It is about 5:30 on Saturday afternoon, June 28th, when we are dropped in front of Denver’s newly renovated Grand Central Station. A really beautiful afternoon was slowly giving way to a cool Denver evening.  While the remaining renovations were still taking place, we zigzagged through wire fence barriers with our baggage to find the Amtrak Ticket office and passenger waiting room.

There we found the ticket window with two station attendants and their computers.  Our check-in is a breeze! Reservations on the 7:10 California Zephyr east bound were confirmed. We soon learn that the train was delayed and would arrive about 45 minutes later.  What to do now!

Fortunately there are a number of new restaurants open and in sight of the train platform. Our choice is an outside table at a rather large café next to the Station and part of what is referred to as “lodo”, or lower downtown.

In a more relaxed mood, we bid farewell to the café and head over to the train platform. What a sight we see.  The flying sail overhead adds luminous soft light and blends with the blue sky overhead. It gives  the concrete train platform a modern and massive design accent.

Train Platform 4 at the Denver Station.

We are not the only ones anxious to depart Denver for Chicago and ultimately DC.  Some folks are anxious about the trip, while others with backpacks are passing the time reading their I pads or texting on their Iphone.  For Cathy and myself, we are looking forward to our evening meal on the train and spending the night in our compartment on the rails. I keep thinking are we in for a surprise? You bet.

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Well train time came and went as we admired our surrounds.  The sun is beginning to set into the western Rocky Mountains and Train 65 is not here yet.  Talk among passengers reveals that the train is 45 minutes late and e won’t depart until shortly before 8:00 this summer evening.

 

Finally we look down the track to see the back end of a sleeper car coming our way. It is Amtrak’s Train 6 backing to our platform.  Waiting passengers loaded down with carry-on baggage surge down the platform. Most of the passengers waiting are headed for the two passenger coaches while others are waiting to board the sleeper cars.  Soon the dining car, snack bar and observation will attract the attention of all the passengers, as the California Zephyr makes ready to ride the rails east.

We note our sleeper car is second from the end and head that way.  A Porter greets us and directs us up a tiny stair case to our roomette on the upper level. As we twist and turn up the narrow stair way, bags in hand, we run into other passengers making their way down the stairs or through the very narrow corridor of the upper level. Finding our roomette, we immediately wonder if we have made a mistake.  We put our suitcases down next to us in the seats. There isn’t room to put them on the floor.  My bag squeezes under my seat, but Cathy’s suitcase is about an inch or two higher and has to stay beside her.

 We test the curtains and find that they Velcro together for privacy in addition to locking the compartment door.

Our Porter drops by and introduces himself.The Real Amtrk_0586

He introduced himself as “I’m Maurice and I’ll be your car attendant to Chicago.” he said.  Now I have already arranged for you to have dinner in the dining car at 8:30. The dining car closes at 9:30  You will hear your name called when they are ready to serve you. After dinner you may want to visit the lounge car. So what time would you like your beds made tonight?”

We tell him that 10:30 pm seems to be ok. Maurice advises that we can stow out bags on the lower level of the coach, but that he could not promise their security in the open storage rack at the foot of the stairs in this sleeper coach.  We tell Maurice that we will make do with our circumstance.

 

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Outside the train, we note the golden setting sun over the Rocky Mountains to the west as our train moves east to Brighton and the Ft. Lupton.  Sometime during dinner we will reach Ft. Morgan, Colorado, but it will be dark then.

Enjoying our compartment on the California Zephyer

 

After settling into our tiny compartment, we survey each other and learn about the reading lamps, the air conditioning, or lack thereof, and the overhead lighting.  Some of these things adjust, but it took some detective work to find the essentials.  I am glad I thought to bring a flashlight. A single 110 Volt receptacle provided power to recharge our cell phones, while wifi was not available this trip. 

With  a toilet down the hall and showers on the lower level of this sleeper coach, we are evidently traveling in style, although I don’t believe my Engineer grandfather would quite agree.  The seats were comfortable in the roomette for a while, but with the option of walking back two cars to the dining car and the snack bar, we decided it was time to find comfortable seating in the Observation Lounge Car. We also meet fellow travelers who are more than willing to converse about any topic, especially how different train travel is compared to air travel.  No TSA presence anywhere!

After passing the time in conversation, I glance at my watch. Its 8:30 and no call for dinner yet. I decide to find out how long the wait will be. The dining car attendant tells me they are running behind in the dining room and it will be just a few minutes. We are seated at 8:45 pm.

The Amtrak menu seems to be standard fare. We are told that the Angus Steak is the best dinner served on Amtrak.  I decide to check it out, while Cathy orders the Noodles and Veggies, along with a glass of chardonnay.  A few minutes later, the steak, broiled as I requested, arrives with green beans and a baked potato with sour cream and butter, along with a fresh wheat roll.  While I enjoyed the steak, Cathy did not enjoy the noodles and veggies.

Following dinner, we note the rocking of the train as it picks up speed approaching the Nebraska border. Occupied as we were, we didn’t even notice the stop in Ft. Morgan.   

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Note to readers;  This is the first chapter of a book by the same name.  Will hope to publish in November.

 

 

Searching for Spring on the Crescent

       by Skip “Groundhog” Hansberry

      For breakfast I was seated with two ladies from Philadelphia We solved all the world’s problems as I enjoyed my omelet, grits, and raisin toast at a leisurely pace.

 We departed Atlanta on time and after passing Howell Yard Wye we entered what could arguably be called the heart of the Norfolk Southern, a fifteen mile stretch of track between Atlanta and Austell where the CNO & TP joins the “main line”.  At Austell traffic from the industrial North joins interchange traffic from the western roads at St. Louis and Memphis to funnel into Atlanta Accordingly, we met six trains in the first half hour out of Atlanta –in this brief period I saw power representing all the North American Class I roads except CP.

 By now it had started to rain…I returned to my room where Patrick had left the USA Today.  So what if it was two days old, the crossword puzzle was still new to me.  As we entered Alabama I spent a minute changing the time zone on my Nikon; this was a task I certainly didn’t have to do forty-five years ago with my Argus C3.

 Next stop: Anniston As we slowed for the station I spotted a sign on an auto shop proclaiming it to be “Cooter’s Detail” – the only other time I ever heard that name was on “The Dukes of Hazard”.  The architecture of the brick station here was Southern through and through.  It even still sported the silver letters spelling out “Southern Railway System” over the entrance.  I had never been here before, but had a personal interest in this town.  My parents got married here only months before my father shipped off to Europe in 1944.

 The Amtrak pamphlet refers to the Anniston Army Depot located near here – this facility is the only one in the U.S. for the repair of tracked military vehicles.  For years it was also a site where chemical weapons were stored before being destroyed.  Sure enough, a few minutes out of the station we began to pass a huge, sprawling group of buildings.  I don’t know how fast we were going, but this installation stretched on and on and on.  Finally, I spotted a number of tanks – some appeared to be quite old – perhaps there is a museum here one could visit.

 We were now passing through rural country filled with pine trees and limestone cuts.  This was mostly single track, certainly not to be confused with high speed rail.  I know there is some padding in the schedule, but the timetable allows 1:50 to traverse the sixty-four miles between Anniston and Birmingham, roughly thirty-five mph.  I consulted my 1967 OAG – this was almost identical to the pace of the “Southerner” in that era.

 At milepost 771, a bit west of Anniston, we passed through a short tunnel – it’s the only tunnel on the Southern main line south of Lynchburg There certainly wasn’t much that needed to be done here when the double stacks started rolling.

 At Lincoln a pair of BNSF GE’s were working the Honda plant there.  A few miles east of Birmingham I spotted my first “Retro Belle” – KCS 4690, a very handsome ES44AC.

 As we were entering Birmingham I looked up and was quite surprised to see Frisco Mike 4019 behind a chain link fence.  This was a USRA locomotive built in 1919, then sold to the Frisco in 1923.  It toiled for its owner for thirty years until its retirement in 1952, after which it was placed on display.  In 2009 it was cosmetically restored and moved to its current location.

 Just beyond this locomotive I saw another relic from the past: the Sloss Blast furnaces seemed to rise forever toward the sky.  If there was one symbol representing both Birmingham and the Industrial Age, this was it.  For over ninety years it turned out tons of pig iron before our changing economy rendered it obsolete in 1971.  It was saved by the city of Birmingham and designated a National Historic Landmark.  It is the only one of its kind in the U.S. where one can take a tour of such a facility.  Huge.  Impressive.  Iconic.  Definitely worth a visit! Hiding nearby in some trees was what appeared to be a Baldwin switcher.

 Our double track merged with two more at Woodlawn Junction where the track layout would make any modeler proud.  By now we were creeping along…I saw a pair of NS units in the distance.  Closer to us was a pair of BNSF units: 1557, a rare SD38P, still in green, and 1596, an SD40-2 in Heritage I paint.

 The Birmingham station was a rather depressing place…decrepit was the word that came to mind.  The cold, damp air didn’t help to change my opinion.  Patrick did say that plans were in place for the construction of a new facility.  There was a large contingent boarding here; many appeared to be students returning to the University.  I saw a number of individuals wearing apparel adorned with red “A’s”, crimson, I presume, not scarlet.

 Nearby in the station sat a very forlorn-looking baggage car lettered for Civil Defense.  Perhaps in the 1950’s it was used for some type of preparedness training. Barely discernible were the letters “CAGY”, i.e., Columbus and Greenville Patrick told me this car had been sitting here in the station the entire time he had been working for Amtrak.  I read somewhere that it was originally built for the IC in 1911, then “modernized” at some point.  Briefly after our departure from the SteelCity I saw the next harbinger of spring – red buds in bloom – progress was being made as we made our way farther south.

 About an hour from Birmingham we eased to a stop in Tuscaloosa and were soon met by our northbound counterpart.  We then proceeded to back out of what must’ve been a stub end siding.  I caught a glimpse of Bryant-Denny Stadium where many a gridiron foe has left in disappointment.  The very appealing Southern brick station had a rounded turret which made one think “castle”.  This facility appeared to be both well maintained and well utilized, as there was a sizable crowd awaiting our arrival.  Just a general observation: most college/university communities seem to be dependable supporters of rail travel, not just vocally, but with their wallets.

 My watch said it was just after 1:00 CDT, but my stomach was still on EDT, so I joined two ladies from the suburbs of Boston for lunch.  It’s not often that I use the words “healthful” and “delicious” in the same sentence, but both adjectives accurately described my salad of chicken served on a bed of spinach with blue cheese crumbles.  And, it was very attractively presented.  If we’d only had bone china and a genuine tablecloth I would’ve truly been transported back to the 50’s.  Only one downside…it could’ve been a bit more generous, so I guiltily ordered the cheesecake for dessert.  With blueberries on the side and a plump red strawberry riding on top, it was both a visual and gustatory delight.

 A bit east of Meridian we met a Herzog ballast train with two gray KCSSD’s bracketing a “Retro-Belle”.  At Meridian there was a nice-looking Meridian and Bigbee caboose on display along with a heavyweight car lettered for L&N and an ex-Southern streamlined coach, both in a badly deteriorated state.

 At some point I learned that dinner would be an abbreviated event.  I wasn’t surprised because I had had a similar experience two years ago on the Texas Eagle.  Serving hours were from 5:00-5:45 and the menu was labeled “Amtrak Express Menu” – the express was the meal, not the train.  My tablemates at this meal were a young military man and a couple returning home to Houston via tomorrow’s “Sunset”. The wife worked at a Hobby Lobby in Houston and the man spent his money there – turns out he was an avid modeler in both N and G.  We ended up exchanging e-mail addresses so I could send him some pix from my journey.  So many times I have noted the vast difference in the sense of camaraderie on the train versus that on an airplane.

 The express menu choices were limited to sandwiches, burgers, salads, and a pasta special.  I opted for the pasta and was told it was the last one.  Big mistake; cold and tough, far beyond al dente, and rather tasteless as well.

 By now the clouds had disappeared and I was content to watch the sun set over Lake Pontchartrain At one point I was confident we would arrive considerably ahead of schedule, but after some very slow running followed by a back-up move into the station, we arrived almost exactly on the advertised.  Three tracks over sat a string of Superliners.  I was told this was the “Sunset”, but I was confident it was l Arlo Guthrie’s favorite train.  There was still just enough light in the sky to silhouette the tops of the gleaming stainless steel.  I tipped Patrick and thanked him for his patient conversation, then made my way into the station.  I had learned that Patrick works the extra board, sometimes sleeping car attendant, sometimes coach attendant, sometimes in the diner.  He really didn’t care what…he just wanted to work as much as possible.

 The station was certainly no grand masterpiece – other than some attractive murals depicting the history of New Orleans, I found it a bit institutional.  It was built a few years post-WW2 when things began to be designed more for their functionality rather than overwhelming beauty. There was a considerable wait for the checked baggage;  it was done “cruise ship style”, i.e., all placed in an enclosed area where each individual retrieves his bag and shows his claim check stub before being allowed to leave.

   Outside there was a long line waiting for the taxis which showed up only sporadically.  Finally, it was my turn to be whisked off to Kenner where I would spend the night before renting a car in the morning to continue my odyssey.  As I mentioned at the beginning, I planned to visit my cousins and elderly uncle in Alexandria, then drive to Houston and pick up my wife the following evening.

 At this juncture I had no way of knowing how hard Mother Nature would strive to discombobulate our plans.  On March 25 an intense snowstorm hit the mid-Atlantic, dumping six inches of snow on Lynchburg in a short time.  My wife’s regional jet flight was de-iced in preparation for departure, but the time window expired before they got off the ground.  So they came out to de-ice again and the equipment malfunctioned.  The flight was cancelled, and in today’s world of full flights my wife was not able to get to Houston until more than twenty-four hours later.  We did finally reach San Antonio and I was subsequently able to get my much anticipated railfanning in at Corsicana, Big Sandy, and Marshall.

 P.S. Our local NRHS Chapter (Blue Ridge) swaps newsletters with many other chapters via e-mail.  I try to at least look at each and find many of the articles both entertaining and informative, especially the travelogues.  If you happen to come across this and find it enjoyable, I would very much appreciate hearing from you at my e-mail:  groundhogtales@yahoo.com.                                                                 Skip Hansberry

NOTE:  Skip writes for the Blue Ridge “Telegraph” near Lynchburg, VA,  occasionally and is an active member of the National Railroad Historical Society (Blue Ridge Chapter)

 

 

Living Desert‘s Garden “Bighorn Railroad” Captures Railroader’s Attention

when we think of a zoo, we usually associate it with a collection of wild and exotic animals in a safe and protected environment. We also expect to learn something about those   creatures and to enjoy their beauty and grace as they go through their daily routines such as feeding time. 

But the Living Desert has added to the Desert Zoo experience with the addition of an expansive and imaginative Garden Railroad!

As Zoo visitors make their way among the many Living Desert Zoo exhibits, their attention is immediately drawn to the “Bighorn Railroad”, with more than 3,000 feet of model railroad track winding through a beautiful garden setting, resplendent with hundreds of miniature scale buildings and vehicles set in a variety of modeled landscapes. Children are particularly drawn to the garden railroad experience and bustle from one vantage point to another to catch a glimpse of one of four model trains making their scheduled runs to multiple destinations.  In many ways, the Garden Railroad layout presents National  Monuments, such as Mt. Rushmore, the Grand Canyon, coal mines, mountain timber cutting operations, and depiction of large scale rail yards serving  Southern California communities.

A Garden Scale freight train rolls past Mount Rushmore.

While the Garden Railroad represents a fabulous community investment, it is an all-volunteer force of railroad modelers who come to work, enjoying their passion through the eyes of Zoo visitors, young and old. 

A G-scale Volunteer conducts the daily train talk for visitors young and old alike

“With the desert winds blowing, we have to clean the sand off the tracks almost daily,” advised a train-talk volunteer to a group of visitors gathered for a train talk at 12:30 PM under a nearby shade tree. ‘All of the hundreds of scale model vehicles in the garden have been donated by our volunteers, who have also built the miniature buildings you see as you watch the trains go by.” The volunteer railroader went on to say that the Garden railroad was first unveiled in 1998, when three loops along with a few buildings and a couple of bridges were placed on the ground and the trains ran for the Living Desert’s annual Wildlights program.  The trains became so popular that many requests were made to make the trains a more permanent exhibit.

In 2000, the adventure began.  In order to create the necessary landscape, forty two dump truck loads of dirt were brought in and the Logging and Mine rail lines were created.  Next came the Indio rail yards and to the east of the yard, a large flat area was used to turn the trains around.  In order to get the trains from the lower part of the layout to the upper part of the layout, the idea of a large trestle came about.  The trestle was made in five weeks, taking another four weeks to install. 

Made of redwood, the trestle is believed to be the longest G Scale trestle in the world.

 

 

Behind the scenes, there is a train control tower, called “The Little Tower”. In this building, all train activities are controlled by wire on an individual basis.  Each model train has its own switch and in the Little Tower, making stops at depots freight and passenger stations along the way. Even in model railroading, someone has to control the engines on a long shift (13:00 AM to 6:00 PM), all staffed by volunteers.

What can you do with 542 bags of concrete?  Why, you build a replica of the Grand Canyon!  Working with chicken cooping and concrete, the Living Desert volunteers on the Bighorn Railroad build a garden-sized model of the Grand Canyon. The project reflects in miniature what was carved out of Arizona landscape millions of years ago.  Additionally, the volunteers also detailed Indian cliff dwellings of Arizona and New Mexico, complete with the red clay hills, rivers and lakes. 

Other additions to the Garden railroad also include several waterfalls cascading over rocks, with fishermen catching fish from miniature canoes and rowboats. 

Now that construction of the Bighorn Railroad is complete, the goal of the volunteer tra1n crew is to maintain the layout on a daily basis, add more landscape details, a sound system, and more that will add to the enjoyment of the Garden railroad, helping the Living Desert visitors to better understand the importance of the railroad, both culturally and historically.   Note:  for more information about the Living Desert Zoo, located in Rancho Mirage, California, see their website at www.livingdesert.org.    Article by Chip Deyerle  and copy write (c) 2014.