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A Ride On Roaring Camp’s Redwood Train In Felton, California

This article was first published in the Epoch Times on April 9, 2023.

As the train ascended the tight curves of Bear Mountain in Santa Cruz, California, it began to sing. Harmonic tones rang out among redwood trees as the projecting edge (flange) of the train’s wheels pressed up against the inside of the rails. “This railroad has tighter curves than almost any other railroad in the country,” the conductor later explained, making the wheels “want to sing a little bit when they go around the curves.”

The projecting flange of steel wheels keep trains on the tracks. The wheels “sing” as they go around curves.

The tones only added to the ambience of the steam train as it chugged along the tracks, its whistle blowing at every turn. Children called out happily, or slept in their parent’s arms, while people of all ages enjoyed a gentle ride up one of the steepest railroad grades in the country.

A child sleeps while the Dixiana negotiates a tight curve.

The Roaring Camp and Big Trees Railroad

“This railroad has the tightest radius curve of any wooden trestle on the entire North American continent,” the conductor informed us. At that moment, we were traveling an 8.5 percent grade, meaning that for every 100 feet traveled, our train rose 8.5 feet. At one point, the conductor informed us that the rear of the train, where he stood, was actually three stories below the front of the train! It didn’t feel that way to us, as we all traveled on the same grade.

The Dixiana ascends a system of switchbacks to reach the top of Bear Mountain.

The Dixiana Shay

Our conductor narrated other wonderful facts as the steam train conveyed us from Roaring Camp in Felton, through a redwood forest, and up and down a mountain. We rode Engine #1, the Dixiana Shay: a geared locomotive originally built in 1912 to work on narrow-gauge logging and mining railroads. Though she is a steam engine, the Dixiana no longer burns wood or coal; instead, she produces steam from recycled motor oil.

A fireman checks the workings of the Dixiana steam locomotive.

Founder F. Norman Clark

The Dixiana came from Dixiana, Virginia to California in 1963, through the efforts of Roaring Camp’s founder,  F. Norman Clark. Norman Clark was only 23 when he arrived in Felton in 1958 with $25 dollars in his pocket. A train buff, Clark’s dream was to preserve steam locomotives by reviving the “Picnic train” that formerly ran between Felton and Santa Cruz in the early 20th century. Unfortunately, Southern Pacific wouldn’t sell him the tracks, so Clark came up with another idea.

Historical photo from the museum at Roaring Camp.

Because regular logging used to take place in the Santa Cruz mountains, Clark decided to build an authentic recreation of a logging railroad. This way he could save several steam locomotives that were headed for the scrap yard, as well as teach visitors about California history and the ecology of the Santa Cruz mountains. To that end, Clark rounded up partners and investors; secured a 99-year-lease from the family who owned the land; built Roaring Camp, a replica of an 1880’s town; and ran the first train on April 6, 1963.

Visitors exit a train into the “town” of Roaring Camp in Felton, California.

Joseph Welch

The 170 acres of land Clark leased, came from a private forest preserve called Welch’s Big Trees Resort. On December 26, 1867, Joseph Warren Welch, a San Francisco entrepreneur, purchased 350 acres of old-growth redwoods to save them from surrounding logging operations. It is because of Joseph Welch and Norman Clark that the Roaring Camp steam trains travel through a virgin forest of old-growth redwood trees, rather than a more realistic setting of logged tree stumps.

A model of a narrow-gauge logging train from the Roaring Camp museum.

Old-Growth Redwood Trees

During our ride through the forest, the conductor told us some interesting facts about the surrounding redwood trees. He pointed out a small group of trees known as the “leaning trees,” because they lean over the tracks. When the trees get too close, rather than remove them, Roaring Camp moves the tracks further into the mountain, because these trees have right-of-way.

Our excellent conductor.

The conductor also told us how redwood trees have an average height of 250 feet, and an average age of 750 years, but can grow up to 380 feet, and live as long as 2,200 years. And he explained why some trees have hollowed out areas at the bottom of their trunks. These are called “goose pens,” and happen when a fire burns right through the tree’s protective bark to the hardwood at the center of the tree. Goose pens were used by Ohlone-Native-Americans to house their geese at night and protect them from wild animals.

At night, Ohlone-Native-Americans would cover the “goose pen” with a large rock to keep their geese safe inside.

A Family-Run Business

Roaring Camp is a family-run business that operates narrow-gauge steam trains through the redwood forest and standard-gauge diesel trains down to the Santa Cruz Beach and Boardwalk.
That’s because, in 1984, Southern Pacific finally sold Norman Clark the railroad line that ran between Felton and the beach. Clark didn’t live to see his beach trains run, but his dream survived when his wife Georgiana took over the company, and after her death, their daughter Melani Clark. Melani is currently the CEO and also a working steam-locomotive fireman.

Families seem to love riding the trains of Roaring Camp.

In 2023, Roaring Camp is celebrating sixty years of entertaining and educating visitors from all over the world. They have many events, and though the beach train is seasonal, the redwood train and town of Roaring Camp are open every day but Christmas–weather permitting. For more information, check out their website at or call (831) 335-4484.

At the end of 75 wonderful minutes, the Dixiana steams back to Roaring Camp.


  1. stephenmichaeldahl stephenmichaeldahl

    Yes! We traveled to Felton and stayed in an RV Park just on the other side of the river. We had no idea there was a steam locomotive in operation until we heard the whistle!! Of course, then we had to ride the train and do the entire experience! What an awesome time. Amazing!!

    • KarenGough KarenGough

      That sounds like a great surprise! I’m so glad you got to enjoy the Felton train. Thanks for commenting.

  2. Anonymous Anonymous

    Fantastic article. We’ve ridden the train, but I didn’t actually know this much about it!

    • KarenGough KarenGough

      Thank you! I’m so glad you learned something new. The conductor was so informative. Thanks for commenting!

  3. Tish Bertino Tish Bertino

    Great article Karen. Interesting story. We need to do the train ride soon! Thank you. Tish

    • KarenGough KarenGough

      I hope you do! It’s really fun and a beautiful environment. Thanks for commenting!

  4. Anonymous Anonymous

    Great article Karen! I especially like the fact about moving the tracks rather than cutting down the “leaning” trees.
    Dave T.

    • KarenGough KarenGough

      Glad you enjoyed it, Dave! Yes, I was surprised about how seriously they adhere to protecting those trees. Nice! Thanks for commenting.

  5. Jeannine Jeannine

    Loved this article! I’m curious as to whether your conductor knew that a passenger with a COBRA was behind him as he posed for your photo? Your articles are always so rich with detail and little known information. Today I learned about Goose Pens! Thank you!

    • KarenGough KarenGough

      Ha ha! Is that what that little boy was holding? Cute! Glad you enjoyed the article Jeannine, thanks for commenting!

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