For the two past years, because of Covid, we had to cancel our annual adventure to the gold discovery site in Colma, spending three days and two nights as part of the Gold Rush Program at the Coloma Outdoor Discovery School (CODS). Our school has been going to CODS for the past 25 years and it was tough to see two groups of 4th graders missing out on what is one of the most memorable experiences in elementary school.
As a substitute for Colma, my teaching mate suggested a day trip to Roaring Camp & Big Trees in Felton. In the Santa Cruz Mountains we would walk among giants, pan for gold, and take a steam railroad trip through the redwoods. I thought it was a great idea because, in a sense, it was almost in my backyard.
As I like to say, I rent in the city but I own in the country. My family cabin is in the San Lorenzo Valley between Santa Cruz and Felton. From up the valley I can hear the lonesome whistle of the shay locomotive from my deck. While the steam railway is narrow gauge, the standard gauge branch runs just uphill from my cabin, taking passengers from Felton to the Santa Cruz Boardwalk.
On the Friday morning of our trip our school buses were ten minutes late. Most mapping apps time the trip from San Mateo to Felton to take one hour. In a yellow school bus you have to add 10 to 20 minutes. So when we arrived at Roaring Camp were already behind schedule. Two words in teaching trade that are the most important in this situation are flexibility and patience.
We unloaded our bus (no one lost their breakfast on the journey over the curvaceous Highway 17) and we had a pleasant surprise, just before we crossed the covered bridge on our way to the station.
We arrived late, so our planned schedule was already out the window. We had time for a bathroom break before we queued up at the station as the No 1 Shay “Dixiana” backed into the station with her consist of brightly painted yellow and green passengers cars. We had the two cars behind “Dixiana”. We really would have front row seats to the sites, sounds, and smells of a live steam locomotive!
The two truck Class B Shay on point, was built in 1912 at the Lima Locomotive Works. It was originally built for the Alaculsy Lumber Company as a geared narrow gauge logging locomotive capable of climbing grades of 8% (most standard locomotives can handle a 1.5% grade). It served six other railroads before ending up in Dixianna, Virginia (hence the locomotive’s name). It was designated No. 1 because it was the first locomotive acquired by the railroad and she is now the workhorse of Roaring Camp.
The founder of Roaring Camp, Norman Clark, purchased the Shay in 1962 for his vision of a replica logging town with a narrow gauge railway. The Shay was loaded onto a flatcar and then shipped, via mainline rail, to her new home in Felton.
I could feel the excitement of our fourth graders as they found their seats. These tech-savvy ten year olds were about to experience cutting edge technology of the early 20th Century! And we would be pulled up the mountain by a 110 year old steam locomotive.
With two toots of the whistle, our train rumbled into life headed out from the station and past the water tower. Our train turned right into Schoolhouse Curve on it’s way up to Bear Mountain. Our top speed was about five miles an hour. Shays were built for their motive power on steep logging grades not for swift passenger service.
Once we crossed over the Indian Creek Trestle, the No. 1 labored up an 8.5% grade to the burned out trestles at Spring Canyon. The trestles were burnt in a fire on June 27, 1976.
After the trestle burned on July 27, four months later, a switchback was constructed to make up the elevation needed to summit Bear Mountain. On first section of the switchback, the train has to back up meaning that Shay No. 1 is pushing, instead of pulling, her consist up the hill. This section of track is the steepest portion of narrow gauge railroad in the United States. This grade reaches 9.25%!
Dixianna pushed our train up the grade with no problem, after all this is what she was designed to do. On the way up my some of my students caught their first sighting of a banana slug!
We headed up the last leg of the switchback and labored towards the summit of Bear Mountain, which is really more of a hill. Once our train reached the summit and we stopped for about 15 minutes. We kept our students on the train because we didn’t want to leave anyone behind. I detrained and took a few photos on Dixianna, one of which was the reference for the key sketch.
A toot from the whistle announced that it was time to board the train because we where heading back down the hill to the station.