Working on the Railroad – the Cedar Point and Lake Erie Railroad

Hopefully the previously posted video of the Cedar Point and Lake Erie Railroad has gotten you in the mood to learn a little bit more about this interesting little narrow gauge, steam railroad, celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. The appropriately named railroad is a part of Cedar Point amusement park, the second-oldest continuously operated amusement park in the United States. Despite being around since 1870, the park has few truly long operating rides. Part of that is likely due to the geography of the park. Unlike America’s oldest amusement park, Lake Compounce, land is a finite resource for Cedar Point. The luxury of acquiring more land and expanding outward (and even moving town roads!) is not an option for Cedar Point – located on a thin peninsula jutting out into Lake Erie. As such, land is at a premium – many of the park’s recent noteworthy attractions have required the demolition of a previous attraction. Despite all that, the Cedar Point and Lake Erie Railroad has survived half a century, and is one of the park’s staples.

Early view of Cedar Point
Early 1900s view of the Lake Erie peninsula where you’ll find Cedar Point, America’s second-oldest amusement park. Today this peninsula is covered with 16 roller coasters.

Decades before the railroad
From the 1910s and beyond… decades of Cedar Point brochures before the railroad. All items from the collection of Jason Hammond.

Cedar Point Brochures
At left: 1965 Cedar Point park brochure from the collection of Jason Hammond. At right: Early 1960’s Cedar Point and Lake Erie Railroad brochure

Over the railroad’s fifty year lifespan, it has hardly been static; as the park has changed, the railroad has as well. From tracks being moved to acquiring and rebuilding new locomotives, the Cedar Point and Lake Erie Railroad has watched as other attractions have come and gone. Since the railroad’s inaugural season the park’s eponymous Cedar trees have slowly disappeared, with other attractions appearing in their stead.

Construction of the CP&LE Construction of the CP&LE Construction of the CP&LE Construction of the CP&LE Adjusting the route of the tracks in the late 1960s Construction photos from the Cedar Point and Lake Erie Railroad from cplerr.com.

Some of the park’s early endeavors to grow its boundaries was Frontier Town, originally accessible only by the railroad. The popular Shoot the Rapids ride (not to be confused with the current ride with the same name), built in 1967 in Frontier Town, led to heavy use of the railroad. It was not until 1971 when some of Cedar Point’s biggest changes came to fruition when the Frontier Trail was built, finally providing a walking link between Frontier Town and the rest of the park. Construction of the Frontier Trail led to several adjustments of the railroad’s tracks, and the addition of a new railroad station.

Cedar Point and Lake Erie Railroad

As one of Cedar Point’s most long lived attractions, I felt that creating a map of the railroad displaying both geography and time would be a really fun endeavor. I got a chance to highlight the park’s roller coasters, which besides being Cedar Point’s claim to fame, share the fundamental track-running concept with railroads. Although at first glance it might be a jumble of colors, the map above depicts Cedar Point’s most noteworthy attractions, both past and present, along with some of the railroad’s changes. It is interesting to note that one of the park’s most coveted ride locations is in the far back, first home to the original Shoot the Rapids ride, which was later replaced by White Water Landing, which itself was subsequently replaced by the roller coaster Maverick.

Union station The lynching scene
Changes on the CP&LE: at left is the Funway Station when it went by the name of Union Station. At right: A scene that wouldn’t quite fly today – a cattle rustler is lynched along the railroad’s route. Photos from cplerr.com.

Our focus today, however, is not necessarily the Cedar Point and Lake Erie railroad itself, but the people that make it run. I spent three days this summer photographing the Cedar Point and Lake Erie Railroad, and perhaps one could say relentlessly stalking the train crews with my camera lens. Without a doubt the folks working at the CP&LE are some of the most wonderful and hard-working people you’ll find at Cedar Point, period. Running a steam railroad is not clean, and it sure isn’t easy. While one might romance the idea of working on the trains of yesteryear, most likely forget the grunt-work that happens every day to get that beast of a machine running – from cleaning the locomotive to shoveling coal, or even working around a hot fire on a scorching summer day (or in a torrential downpour).

While the park usually opens at 10 AM for the general public during the summer, work for the rail crew begins at 7 AM or earlier. The locomotives (two are usually operated on busy days like the weekends, and one during the week) need to be readied, which includes starting the fire and letting it burn for at least an hour to achieve the necessary pressure to operate. Keeping this railroad running is superintendant Randy Catri, who has been a fixture on the CP&LE for nearly 40 years. Catri is a kind fellow that took time out of his busy schedule to give me a nice tour of the locomotive shops, and talk about the CP&LE. Although Randy strikes me as modest, the crew that work under him use words like “one of steam railroading’s most unsung heroes” and “the best boss I’ve ever had” – undoubtedly he is an important part of the railroad’s fifty years.

Today’s set of photos show the Cedar Point and Lake Erie Railroad from the perspective of the hardworking crew that make it run daily. Next week we’ll take a look at the railroad as a whole, and delve a little bit more into its 50 year history!

 
  
 
   
   
   
 
   
  
 
  
   
  

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Cedar Point & Lake Erie Railroad 50th Anniversary “Timelapse”

Ever since I purchased a GoPro camera, my absolute dream was to fasten it to the front of a moving train and make a totally awesome video. On Sunday, that dream was finally fulfilled on the Cedar Point and Lake Erie Railroad. Not only is the CP&LE RR awesome for using authentic coal-fired steam locomotives, they’re celebrating their 50th anniversary this season! We’re commemorating that milestone by taking you on a fast-forwarded ride around the park from a camera mounted on the front of “Judy K.” – one of the park’s steam locomotives.

Long before the park opens to the public, the crew of the Cedar Point and Lake Erie railroad are hard at work getting the locomotives running for the day. A real rarity among amusement park railroads, the CP&LE RR uses real coal-fired steam locomotives, which takes a whole lot of “elbow-grease” and experience to run. Crewed by some wonderful, and exceptionally hard-working people under the watchful eye of 40-year veteran superintendent Randy Catri, the CP&LE RR has long been a staple attraction of Cedar Point. Though it may not be one of the park’s most talked-about rides – like the behemoth Top Thrill Dragster, or the new Gate Keeper – not many of the park’s attractions can boast a 50 year history and having served over 116 million in those years.



The Cedar Point and Lake Erie Railroad in action.

I met up with the crew early on the morning of August 18th, and captured “Judy K.” leaving the railyard, coupling with passenger cars outside Funway Station, and performing a first test loop around the park. Thanks to our camera, mounted on the front of the locomotive, you get an up-close and personal tour of the coolest amusement park railroad on the planet (and authentic coal-fired steam is interesting ANYWHERE!). As an added bonus there’s also a short crew view, where we see coal being added to the fire, and another loop around the park viewing the train from the side.

Consider this a quick preview of the CP&LE RR, as we’ll be celebrating the 50th with a whole lot more photos and fun in the upcoming weeks!

Note: This is a repost of an original post from several weeks ago. At the request of Cedar Point, that original video (and the post that featured it) was taken down. We reshot the video, along with some additional angles, so it is actually better than it was before!

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Riding the Alaska Railroad, Part 2

After last week’s journey along the Alaska Railroad to around Hurricane Gulch, we continue today with the remainder of the ride to Fairbanks. This includes passing through Denali National Park and Preserve, though no one was looking to disembark in the frigid weather (we did see some ice climbers from the window, however). Further north was the small town of Healy, which contains the Usibelli coal mine, Alaska’s only operating coal mine. The coal from the mine is shipped southward by the Alaska Railroad to Seward, where it is loaded on ships for export, or north to other interior locations in Alaska.

Usibelli's coal ships via the Alaska Railroad
Usibelli’s coal ships via the Alaska Railroad. The mine is connected to the railroad main line by a rail spur. ((Usibelli coal photograph via Alaska’s Department of Natural Resources))

Beyond Healy is the town of Nenana, once a large population center with several thousand residents. According to the 2011 census ((Census data from the US Census Bureau via Google)) there are only 383 residents today. Nenana depot, opened in 1922, still stands, and the Aurora train reached it around sunset. The Alaska Railroad itself was completed just north of the depot in 1923 with the Mears Memorial Bridge. ((A history of the Mears Memorial Bridge.)) President Harding drove the ceremonial golden spike at the north end of the bridge, linking the two sections of rail. Beyond the bridge the passenger portion of the Alaska Railroad terminates in Fairbanks. The railroad itself extends at least to Eielson Air Force base, which is freight only. In fact, some of the aforementioned Usibelli coal is shipped to and used at the base.

Artifacts of the Alaska Railroad
Brochure and matchbook cover from the Alaska Railroad.  ((Alaska Railroad brochure and matchbook covers from the author’s collection))

While we traveled from Anchorage to Fairbanks, the only route open to passengers during the winter, the Alaska Railroad’s main line is more than a hundred miles longer. Extending southward to Seward, the line also branches off to the port of Whittier. Along these rails glaciers are visible from your train seat, and one of the routes is aptly named the Glacier Discovery.

When it comes to railroad history, Alaska’s rails are a bit young compared with some of the other lines we normally cover on the site. The New York Central can claim history back to 1826, and the Harlem to 1831 – Alaska’s first dates back to 1903. ((Timeline history of the Alaska Railroad)) The predecessor Alaska Central Railway went bankrupt by 1907, and was reorganized as the Alaska Northern Railway Company, operating an approximately 70 mile stretch of rail extending north from Seward. Construction on a real Alaskan railroad began in earnest in 1914, when Congress agreed to fund the construction and operation of a railroad from Seward to Fairbanks (Alaska had officially been incorporated as a US territory in 1912). Anchorage, Alaska’s most populous city today, was formed as a railroad town during the construction. Populated by construction workers of the now-named Alaska Railroad, Anchorage officially became the headquarters of the railroad by 1915.

Today the Alaska Railroad is owned by the state of Alaska, and it operates both freight and passenger service. On the passenger side, as of 2012, the railroad owns a fleet of 44 railcars (excluding locomotives), which consists of 2 business cars, 6 diners, 11 passenger coaches, 6 vista dome coaches, 7 low-level dome coaches, 6 bi-level ultradomes, 1 bi-level diesel MU, and 5 baggage cars. ((Statistics from 2012 Alaska Railroad Passenger Services Business Report.)) In 2011 the railroad carried 412,200 passengers, 265,335 of which were from cruise ships. Outside of cruise passengers, the Denali Star is the railroad’s most popular passenger train, followed by the Coastal Classic.

That is about it for today’s post on Alaska – there will be one more Alaska post forthcoming, and it will contain dogs and penguins… everybody likes dogs and penguins, right?

   
  
   
  
   
  
   
 
  
 
  
  
  

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Looking back at 2010… a countdown of the most popular

Ah, 2010. You were the first full year that I actually operated this blog. Lots of fun and shenanigans were to be had. I decided to take a look back at what was popular on the site this year, as a wrap-up for 2010…

1. BPGlobal Billboards

The first entry here is not train-related in any way… however it was such a major news story at the time I couldn’t not have some fun with it – though fun is actually a terrible way to describe it, as the Gulf Oil Spill was quite tragic. To me the two standouts in coverage on this was a fake twitter account, BPGlobalPR, and Boston Globe’s The Big Picture. I merged the two into fake billboards, which apparently caught on and made their rounds on the web – and brought around thirty thousand viewers to the site in a single day.

2. Harlem Line Timetables

It is true, I have turned into an eBay whore… collecting just about anything regarding the Harlem Line. Many of the timetables I have can be found on the second most popular part of the site, the Harlem Line Timetables archive. It is desperately needing updating, as I own or have scanned many more timetables than are currently pictured. My goal was always to have a timetable for every year, and for the most part I do have that, from 1930 on up. Look for a major overhaul of this section in 2011!

3. Stupid Warning Signs

Ah, stupid warning signs. One of the most amusing things I’ve made for the site. These popular signs round out the top three most popular things on the site this year. Folks have requested that I turn these into stickers, but if you people start sticking these on trains the MTA PD might actually have a real reason to arrest my ass.

4. The Cutest Train Car in the World

One of the posts I made after returning from Japan featured the Tama Densha railcar of the Wakayama Electric Railway. The railroad is known in offbeat circles around the world due to the fact that they employ a feline Stationmaster (I believe she’s actually been promoted to Vice-President now). Tama the cat was so popular, designer Eiji Mitooka created a train car in her honor. The front of the train has whiskers, the seats inside have cat print. My favorite part of the train? The library full of books for the kids.

5. Centalia, PA – Burning Ghost Town

I’ve always been fascinated with Centralia, ever since I first read about it on the internet many years ago. Since then I’ve visited several times. The story begins in the 1960’s, when a coal seam under the town caught fire. It continues to burn to this day. The land has fissures that belch smoke, and it permanently smells of sulfur. It is a tragic story, as the once bustling small town has been whittled down to less than ten citizens.

The coal under the town that is burning is anthracite – which was popularized in little rhymes about Phoebe Snow in advertisements for the Lackawanna Railroad.

6. The Loneliest Station on the Harlem Line

Although I hadn’t come up with the concept yet, the Harlem Line Panorama project began with Mount Pleasant – which I labeled as the loneliest station on the line. The tiny station in between Hawthorne and Valhalla services the cemeteries in the area, and has very limited service.


The first panorama posted on the site

7. The Harlem Line Panorama Project

If you’re interested in seeing all the panoramas to date, located on a map – this is the place to go. This Google map is the seventh most popular portion of the site, although technically it lies off site and on Google’s servers. However, each placemark contains my favorite panorama from that stop, and a link back to the post on this site.

8. Sadie the Subway Cat

The Transit Museum in Brooklyn has employed a cat or two, mostly in the hopes that they would chase away any subway rats. In this eighth most popular post I recollect my first visit to the Transit Museum and my encounter with Sadie… and my crazy idea to get her a miniature-sized train conductor’s hat. Of course none of that really panned out – and as far as I am aware, Sadie has been quietly retired from the public.

9. The #1 Reason to Ride Metro-North

Back in June I posted these spoof ads for Metro-North and beer. If you are a regular commuter you will notice that in the afternoon, and most especially on Fridays, there are quite a few people drinking beer. The exception to that if you are those people that work at Target in Mount Kisco, you’re drinking it in the morning. But since you can’t drink and drive, and you can certainly drink and ride, Metro-North could always have an amusing new ad campaign.

10. M8 Cars Will Not Debut on the New Haven Line

Ah, April Fools Day… I couldn’t resist making a fake post about the new M8’s. Shattering the dreams of many New Haven Line riders, I posted that the red trains would be repainted blue and running instead on the Harlem Line by the end of the year. I even made up some fake quotes and attributed them to Dan Brucker – which probably doesn’t place me very high on his list of awesome bloggers.

So that is it! The ten most popular things on the blog in 2010. Happy New Year everyone!

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An old adventure to Centralia, Pennsylvania – The Burning Ghost Town

Hopefully you guys aren’t missing me too much… I figured I would set up some posts in the queue to submit themselves while I am gone on vacation, that way you wouldn’t miss me at all. If you haven’t noticed by now, I enjoy going on adventures, and taking photos. On a cool morning last November I boarded an early train to White Plains to meet up with my friend, and partner in crime. From White Plains we drove to a small town in Pennsylvania named Centralia. I first learned about Centralia several years ago, and somehow I became obsessed with its history. Centralia today is nearly a ghost town, with a population of under ten people. In 1981, that population was over 1,000. It was a town full of life, a close-knit community with homes, churches, and shops. But today those homes, churches, and shops are gone… razed long ago. Thin wisps of steam rise from the ground in Centralia, especially so on cool mornings. The ground is warm to the touch, and the air smells of sulfur. Centralia is not like any town you’ve ever encountered, for it is burning, and has been since 1962.

If you’ve ever seen old advertising for the Lackawanna Railroad, you may already be familiar with anthracite. Anthracite is a particular type of coal, which in the United States is found in northwestern Pennsylvania. It burns hotter and cleaner, with less soot, than ordinary coal. In the early 20th century, anthracite was used for a variety of purposes, including home heating, but also to power trains. Although other railroads may have used anthracite, it was the Lackawanna Railroad that made it a part of their advertising. They called their line “The Road of Anthracite” because they chose the more expensive coal to power their locomotives. Anthracite, with its cleaner burn, prevented passengers from the possibility of getting dirty from the soot of a regular coal-burning locomotive. To further underscore this point, the character of Phoebe Snow was created for the advertising. Phoebe was a regular train rider who frequently wore white gowns. Various rhymes using Phoebe were created for advertising:

My gown stays white
From morn till night
Upon the road of Anthracite

Phoebe says
And Phoebe knows
That smoke and cinders
Spoil good clothes
‘Tis thus a pleasure
And Delight
To take the Road
Of Anthracite


The character, Phoebe Snow, used in Lackawanna Railroad’s advertisements.

During World War One, railroads were not permitted to use anthracite, as it was required for the war effort, so Phoebe’s career essentially ended there. However, in 1949 a passenger train named the Phoebe Snow was debuted on a route from Hoboken to Buffalo, and later from Hoboken to Chicago.

Anthracite figures significantly in the history of Centralia. Centralia was an old anthracite coal-mining town. It is somewhat ironic to note that it was the coal mines that led to the founding of the town, and also the anthracite coal that led to the town’s demise. In 1962 a landfill caught on fire, underneath of which was an old, open strip-mining pit. The fire above ignited a coal seam underground. The actual details of the start of the fire are hazy and frequently argued. One theory believes that the trash in the dump was burned every year, and that particular year the fire was improperly extinguished. Another theory states that a trash hauler threw hot coals from a stove into the dump, causing the fire. Whatever the cause, the coal underneath the town began to burn.

Side by side comparison of Centralia then and now (although this photo was taken from the wrong position, facing the wrong way. However it is my favorite from the adventure). Historical photo © David DeKok.

For the most part, how the fire began is unimportant. It was the hazardous conditions caused by the fire that led to Centralia becoming mostly unlivable. As the fire spread underground, burning along the seams of coal, carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide were released. Efforts to extinguish the fire failed, not because it was impossible, but because of money. It finally came down to the fact that it would be cheaper to relocate everyone in the town than it would be to put out the fire. Centralia was essentially not worth saving, at least in the government’s point of view. In 1984 the government began buying out homeowners in Centralia, allowing them to relocate, and their old houses were demolished. Everyone was told the move was voluntary, no one was going to be forcibly removed. Except of course, that was a lie. In 1992 Pennsylvania clamied eminent domain on all the properties, and condemned all the buildings. The people that refused to give up their town were then essentially squatters in their own homes. The state of Pennsylvania is currently pushing for everyone left in the town to move out. I’m sure they would love to forget the death of a town mostly due to bureaucrats and incompetence… to get everyone out and forget that Centralia ever existed. There are some, however, that will not forget.

The current mayor of Centralia posted the fire signs above. The We Love Centralia sign was an addition by me.

As it should be, the subject of Centralia is at times a touchy subject. There are a few folks that would deny that the town was ever “unlivable” and that there was ever any danger. I consider this the emotional response to people that didn’t want to see the place that they grew up in, that their families grew up in, destroyed. When Todd Domboski fell into a burning sinkhole, these same people denied that it was a result of the fire. Back then living in the town probably was dangerous. The plumes of steam coming from the hillsides was massive, to the point of dangerously obscuring the roads. However, if you visit Centralia now, the steam is barely there. There seems to be very little danger to the people that are currently living in the town.

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