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 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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 roaringcamp.com or call (831) 335-4484.