One of the highlights of our recent family vacation in California was a trip to Felton and a ride on the Roaring Camp and Big Trees Narrow Gauge Railroad (RCBT). This was a nostalgic journey for me; my wife and I had ridden this train twenty years ago, with our daughter Elizabeth. This time our entourage numbered nine, eight of whom were humoring my passion for railroading.
The RCBT is unique in that it was constructed in 1963 as an historic replica of a California logging railroad. It is located in the Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park. In 1867 San Francisco businessman Joseph Warren Welch purchased the Big Trees Ranch in the Santa Cruz Mountains, with the intention of preserving the giant redwoods growing there. It eventually was acquired by the state of California and incorporated into the park.
This was the very first conservation initiative dedicated to the redwoods; it eventually resulted in the salvation of about 100,000 acres of these behemoths in the Coastal Range of California and Oregon. They are magnificent specimens – we are grateful that conservation efforts have succeeded in saving so many of them.
The founder of the RCBT was F. Norman Clark. He located a “rusty pile of junk” in Dixiana, Virginia and rehabilitated it to become Engine #1, which he then named “Dixiana”. Using light weight rails that had been shipped to California around Cape Horn in 1881, he snaked a narrow gauge (thirty-six inches) rail line three and a half miles up a steep (8.5 %) grade to the top of Bear Mountain, full of twists and turns in between the redwoods.
For the benefit of readers who are not rail-fans, an 8.5 % grade increases 8.5 feet every one hundred feet. By comparison, the maximum grade on the Horseshoe Curve, 1.85 %, is considered quite steep for a conventional railroad. Fortunately, the Dixiana is an unique type of engine, a “Shay” gear-driven locomotive.
Ephraim Shay, a Michigan logger, conceived and patented the idea of powering the drive wheels of a locomotive with gearing from a central drive shaft to maximize their traction, enabling them to negotiate steeper grades than conventional piston-driven locomotives. The Lima Locomotive Works, Lima, Ohio, built over 2700 Shays between 1878 and 1945; about 115 Shays have survived, most of them in museums. From the front, Shay locomotives look strange, as the boiler is offset from the centerline of the trucks, to accommodate the vertical pistons that drive the main shaft.
The RCBT is fortunate to possess three of the eleven Shays still in operation, including the Dixiana. It was our good fortune to have her pull our six cars up the mountain. Built in 1912, she has an integral tender, with one set of drive trucks under it and the other set at the front of the locomotive.
The original route of the RCBT included two large trestles at Spring Canyon, providing a corkscrew loop to gain elevation. When a major fire in 1976 destroyed them, a switchback was installed to fill the gap. According to the conductor, who was an excellent tour guide throughout the trip, the grade on the switchback was an amazing 10.5 %. Throwing switches and negotiating the switchback was an interesting interruption in the trip.
The obvious disadvantage of developing a torque sufficient to propel the train up a steep slope is the very slow speed associated with it. It took us nearly an hour to negotiate the three-and-a-half mile long run; I don’t believe we ever reached a speed of ten miles an hour. That is perfectly acceptable for a tourist train travelling through the spectacular redwoods forest or for a logging train snaking its way through the mountains. The Shay is the perfect locomotive for either application.
Our destination at the top of the mountain featured a rest room and the opportunity to explore a “cathedral circle”. Redwoods have a shallow root system that may extend as far as one hundred feet from the trunk of the tree. Frequently roots from several trees will interlock with each other. When a mature redwood dies, sometimes tiny saplings grow up from the remaining roots. The ones that prosper produce a large diameter circle of mature trees, with the stump of the mother tree at the center.
These are commonly known as cathedral circles, a name that is indeed appropriate. The large one atop Bear Mountain and accessible by the train is a popular site for weddings and assorted religious ceremonies. Many of the folks on our train took a short hike to investigate it. I chose instead to take a closer look at our engine, as did the other half dozen true rail-fans in the group.
For a centenarian, Dixiana is a handsome old gal. Her boiler is painted forest green; circumferential straps and horizontal piping are a complementary golden. The cab is barn red; the tender green, with gold lettering on it. Obviously, someone very competent has done a good job of preserving the locomotive.
The cars in which we rode were gondolas with benches on each side and a light roof above. I counted fifty passengers in our car. The length of the switchback limits the number of cars in each run to six. I suspect Dixiana could handle at least a few more cars.
The return trip was a mirror image of the one up, providing the passengers with the opposite view of the magnificent forest. We all owe a debt of gratitude to the conservationists who were successful in preventing this group of redwoods from succumbing to clear-cutting.
And I owe a debt of gratitude to my family for indulging my rail-fan passion. It was a wonderful experience, magnified many times by being able to share it with them.