Friday, September 14, 2018

Railroads: Roaring Camp & Big Trees Narrow Gauge Railroad

F. Norman Clark was a dreamer. And he loved railroads. In 1959, Norman leased 170 acres of the Big Trees Ranch from the Welch family, which had owned and operated the adjacent Welch's Big Trees Grove since the 1860s. His plan was to build a narrow-gauge railroad up to the summit of the nearby mountain and use vintage steam locomotives to pull the passenger cars. He named his mountain heritage park Roaring Camp after a nickname given to Isaac Graham's nearby sawmill that had operated over a century before.

An early excursion train when the station was still Felton Depot, c. 1964. [Roaring Camp Railroads]
Graham had owned Rancho Zayante in the 1830s and '40s where he built in 1842 at the bottom of Bean Creek the first saw water-powered sawmill west of the Mississippi River. For nearly two decades, his mill cut many of the old-growth redwood trees in the Felton area, but the trees on what became the Welch property remained relatively untouched. In 1867, Joseph and Anna Welch purchased the meadow, mountain, and redwood grove from Graham's estate. It was soon divided between their private ranch and the redwood grove. After running the resort for decades, the family sold the grove to Santa Cruz County in 1930 for use as a county park. It later was merged with the much larger Henry Cowell Company properties in 1954 to become Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park.

Roaring Camp in the 1970s with the station and watertower beside a crowded train led by Tuolumne. [Derek R. Whaley]
A large portion of the ranch, however, was leased to Norman, and they began construction on their new tourist attraction almost immediately. Norman had found a rusted Lima Locomotive Works Shay locomotive in an old coal mine in Appalachia in 1958 and decided to truck it over to Felton where it could be restored to service. The restoration took less than four years an the railroad first ran on April 6, 1963. The railroad track only reached the edge of the forest and there were only 44 customers. Construction continued for a number of years, building the railroad up to the top of Bear Mountain. The track was primarily composed of reused steel rails. The route to the summit involved a long curving trestle and a far more complex corkscrew double-trestle. The entire route was single-tracked except for a loop at the top of the mountain and a similar loop around the large meadow at the bottom. The railroad also installed a wye beside what became the parking lot to allow locomotives to reverse direction, if necessary. Initially, the railroad used the Southern Pacific's former Felton Depot structure as its ticket office and waiting area, but a new station, of somewhat similar style, was erected beside the meadow, where a small rustic township slowly developed as the heart of the park.

The burned remains of the corkscrew trestle in Spring Canyon, 2012. [Derek R. Whaley]
Roaring Camp in its early days did had numerous issues. The construction of the route to the summit of Bear Mountain took years to complete. Norman wanted to preserve as many of the redwood trees as he could during the construction process, but this also delayed matters as the route had to be designed to avoid large trees and cathedral groves. A decade after the route was completed, a fire on the corkscrew in 1976, later determined to be arson, destroyed a hallmark feature of the train ride to the top. Due to a lack of insurance coverage and associated costs, Norman decided to build a switchback through the heart of the burned wreckage. This switchback included a 9.5% grade, the steepest still used by a passenger railroad in the United States. This switchback restricted the size of trains to a maximum of six cars, so longer trains had to split up briefly when operating in this section. Meanwhile, construction of the townsite was drastically curtailed due to costs and space. The original plan for a full-blown Western town with saloons, hotels, banks, livery stables, smithy, and other thematic trappings was reduced to a general store, school, photograph studio, and a few restaurants based out of cabooses. The biggest disaster, though, was the death of Norman in December 1985, only months after finalising the purchase of the stub branch line between Olympia and Santa Cruz from Southern Pacific. His wife, Georgiana, whom he married in 1966, took over as CEO and president.

Dixiana in front of the station with the general store and caboose restaurant at right, c. 1966. [Roaring Camp Railroads]
Prior to the purchase of the Southern Pacific line, the two railroads interacted directly once in 1969 to celebrate the centennial of the Promontory Point, Utah, linking of the Transcontinental Railroad. A triple-rail section was laid between the two lines, with a diesel- and steam-powered engine briefly touching noses to symbolize the transference of dominance from steam to diesel. The event was not highly publicized and the tracks connecting the narrow and broad lines were removed soon afterwards and have never been reinstalled.

Steam engineer Tom Shreve posing beside Tuolumne, with Kahuku and Sonora on either side, 2013. [Joseph Shreve]
Over the years, numerous narrow-gauge locomotives have been purchased for restoration and use on the line. Dixiana, the original company Shay, entered service in 1963. In that year, Norman purchased the Tuolumne, a Stearns Manufacturing Company Heisler that had operated relatively recently for the West Side Lumber Company. Three years later, soon after Norman married Georgiana, the Clarks bought the Kahuku, a tiny Baldwin Locomotive Works locomotive that had operated on a plantation near Georgiana's home in Hawai'i. This is the oldest locomotive in the fleet and generally does not haul passenger cars. Norman added another Hawai'i-based Baldwin locomotive named the Waipahu to the collection in 1977 , but this was later sold to a Japanese firm in 1988. The impressive Bloomsburg joined the collection of rusting project locomotives in 1975. This Climax Locomotive Works stock was one of the last built and operated on the Carroll Park & Western Railroad decades before its acquisition. It has yet to be restored and a non-profit organization has been founded to help fund its restoration. The most impressive locomotive in the fleet is Sonora, a larger Lima Shay that was purchased by Georgiana in 1986 and restored in 2007. The final locomotive, Daisy, purchased in 1988, is a twin to Dixiana and has yet to be restored. The pieces of the Bloomsburg and Daisy can be viewed in the parts yard beside the parking lot. Three of the locomotives sit on the register of National Mechanical Engineering Historical Landmarks.

Union soldier re-enactors marching down Main Street at Roaring Camp, 2016. [Roaring Camp Railroads]
With the purchase of the Southern Pacific Railroad's route in 1985, the park rebranded itself Roaring Camp Railroads and the original tourist line up Bear Mountain became the Roaring Camp & Big Trees Narrow Gauge Railroad (also now called the Redwood Forest Steam Train). It has kept this name ever since. Over the past thirty years, the park has slowly grown in size, with the addition of a large barbecue and picnic area, the restoration of the old Felton Depot and freight warehouse, the construction of Bret Harte Hall and a new eating area, and the introduction of annual events such as the Memorial Day Civil War Reenactments and various Days Out with Thomas (the Tank Engine). Georgiana died on March 2, 2016, leaving her daughter, Melani, sole owner, president, and CEO of the park and its railroads.

Dixiana leading a train over the Indian Creek trestle, c. 2010. [Walter Scriptunas II]
While the narrow-gauge railroad is not a historic line, it does provide a good representation of the types of sounds and experiences lumber crews working in the nineteenth century within the Santa Cruz Mountains would have been familiar with. All the trains are historical entities and the history of the Felton area is ever-present along the line.

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  1. As I mentioned with your article last week, I met Norman Clark
    when I wandered down to the Felton station in the summer of 1961.
    I was only 11 years old and this nice man went out of his way to tell
    me of his plans for building this railroad which I rode immediately
    after it opened in 1963. Shortly after, I returned on the Southern
    Pacific Big Trees Picnic Train that summer. They gave the Picnic
    Train passengers special tickets stamped "Excursion" so we could
    all ride on the narrow gauge line. From 1963 to 1965 you could
    see a sight you will never see again: Roaring Camp trains running
    parallel to the annual long Southern Pacific passenger train with
    vintage 1920's suburban cars from the San Francisco peninsula
    commuter service.

  2. I still remember what the conductor of sorts explained when I first
    rode the Roaring Camp train on a short stretch of track in 1963:
    The rails had come from the last remaining part of the Carson & Colorado
    narrow gauge from Laws to Keeler in the Owens Valley, still operated
    by Southern Pacific until abandoned in 1959. At one time, the
    Carson & Colorado had operated all of the way from Mound House (near
    Virginia City) down through Mina to Keeler (near Lone Pine).


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