The International Steam Pages

Narrow Gauge Steam Weekend in the USA 2018

James Waite has been on another whistle stop trip, this one covers the following venues:

  • Nevada State Railroad Museum, Boulder City, Nevada

  • Tweetsie Railroad, Blowing Rock, North Carolina

  • Orange Empire Railroad Museum, Perris, California

I've been wanting to see "Eureka", the 1875-built Baldwin 4-4-0 from the 3ft gauge Eureka and Pallisade RR in Nevada, for many years. It belongs to Dan Markoff, a recently retired lawyer from Las Vegas, and normally lives in a shed at his home, but he kindly tipped me off that it would be running for a few weekends at the Boulder City outpost of the Nevada State Railroad Museum during December, and visiting it was the main focus of this trip. He and his wife were most hospitable and treated me to a cab ride amongst other things. It's not quite the oldest working narrow gauge locomotive in the US as 2-6-0 "Glenbrook", which I saw at the museum's Carson City base last year, is a few months older. The coach is a replica of a E&P coach with Mr Markoff is slowly building there. The museum has about 500 or so feet of 3ft gauge track. Unfortunately it's located in an industrial estate and isn't scenic. The side view is at midway along the line and at the only spot where you can step back a little from the sunny side to get it. At least it includes a little of the red-coloured hills which are characteristic of much of Nevada.

I discovered that I could fly to Las Vegas via Charlotte in North Carolina rather more cheaply than going there direct. It's about 2 hours drive from Charlotte to the Tweetsie RR, a theme park at Blowing Rock which sits atop of the Eastern Continental Divide in the Blue Ridge Mountains. I've long been fascinated by their no 12, a 4-6-0 built by Baldwin in 1917 from the 3ft gauge East Tennessee & Western North Carolina RR (cumbersome name!) which terminated at Boone, a few miles north of Blowing Rock and which was informally known as the Tweetsie RR for many years until it closed in 1950. After the closure the locomotive was bought by a group of enthusiasts in Virginia but their theme park venture failed and the locomotive then returned to North Carolina after being bought by a gent named Grover C Robbins jnr. He set up the theme park at Blowing Rock in 1955 and built a steeply graded loop line rather more than 3 miles long which runs around Roundhouse Mountain. In the 1930's depression ET&WNC began to paint its locomotives a rich green colour with silver smokeboxes, red trimmings including the chimney caps and smokebox numberplate and gold lining and lettering, copied from the US Southern Ry with which the line connected at Johnson City though I suspect the silver and red bits may have been the ET&WNC's own addition. The Southern in turn had copied the green colour from the UK's Southern Railway, reportedly after its president visited London, starting with a run on a Southern boat train from Southampton.

The theme park is now run by Chris Robbins, Grover's son, and he assured me that they planned to run no 12 rather than the ex-White Pass MacArthur locomotive which they use for most of their services in order to avoid wearing out no 12. They paint the locomotive in the old green paint scheme but its lettering is in a Wild West style to match the rest of the theme park which has always put me off visiting. Recently they've started running Christmas evening trains. I don't have any grief with Christmas decorations on locomotives (!) and thought the dark would offer the opportunity to take pics in which the Wild West lettering wouldn't too apparent. The people of North Carolina certainly know how to celebrate Christmas in style! Chris was another very hospitable person who identified who I was from the footplate and invited me up for a ride. There had been a blizzard a few days earlier but fortunately this had changed to the heavy rain you can see in these photos and the roads had been reopened.

This was, incidentally, one of my first attempts at night photography without using a tripod, something possible with modern cameras with their high ISO settings and anti-shake. It certainly makes night photography more interesting.

My Tweetsie visit was on Friday evening. I flew on to Las Vegas on Saturday and had allocated Sunday to seeing "Eureka", not knowing how the locomotive would be placed in relation to the sun, before flying home on Sunday evening. As things turned out the flight to LV was early and I arrived at the Boulder City museum more than two hours before "Eureka" stopped running, and as it was facing west this was the best time for the sun. By the time I'd finished my night shots I felt I'd more than covered the locomotive and so Sunday was looking free. On the spur of the moment I decided to drive to the Los Angeles area, about 3 hours down the motorway, and visit the Orange Empire Ry Museum at Perris. It's home to the old Grizzly Flats RR collection. This was started in 1937 by a gent named Ward Kimball who worked as an artist and animator at Walt Disney, when the Southern Pacific ended passenger services on the 3ft gauge line through Laws and he bought one of its carriages (the yellow one in first picture).

The following year the Nevada Central RR closed. It ran roughly parallel to the Eureka & Pallisade but about 100 miles to the west. He bought their no 2 , one of their small 2-6-0's, which he repainted in an 18th century style using a fair dose of artistic licence and named it "Emma Nevada" after an opera star who lived along the line (also first picture). He laid out about 700 feet of track in the back garden of his home and named it the Grizzly Flats RR. In the late 1940's he bought a tiny 0-4-2T built by Baldwin in 1907 from a Hawaiian sugar factory and named it "Chloe" (second and third pictures). It must have been one of the first privately assembled collections anywhere in the USA or beyond. In the 1990's he began to give the locomotives and stock to the Orange museum which he had helped to found many years earlier. Nowadays they try to conserve the collection as Mr. Kimball had assembled it in honour of its contribution to the preservation world. 

Rob Dickinson