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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