The On-Line Magazine of Rideable Model Railroading
  NUMBER 113


© August 12, 2008   

©Discover Live Steam. This material may not be published, rewritten, or redistributed without written permission.

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Steam Locomotives of
Roaring Camp & Big Trees (RC & BT)
( part 1 )

Dixiana crossing Indian Creek trestle


Written by Jim Kliment

People will travel great distances to view wildlife in their natural habitat. For us rail fans, the best place to view logging steam locomotives is in their natural habitat. Such a place exists six miles north of Santa Cruz, California. The town of Felton is home of the “Roaring Camp & Big Trees Narrow Gauge Railroad”, the RC&BT.

Isaac Graham (nephew of Daniel Boone) and some fellow frontiersmen headed west in 1833. Their goal was to reach the Mexican controlled territory of California. They ended up in a place called Nativadad and started a settlement near where Salinas is today.

A year later two frontiersmen found themselves with opportunity to acquire a Mexican rancho north of Santa Cruz in the San Lorenzo Valley. The Mexicans had granted rights to “Rancho Zayante” to Joaquin Bulea. However, Bulena allowed his claim to lapse and he relinquished his rights to Ambrose Tomilinson and Joseph Dye. This acquisition “officially” became the first “American” settlement west of the Rockies.

Joseph Dye solicited Isaac Graham to help build the first whiskey distillery in the west. Upon its completion, Isaac set-up a tavern to sell Dye’s brew. The new businesses drew in mountain men and traders from miles around. The settlement soon became known as “Wild and Roaring Camp”.

In 1836, the first “California” revolution expelled the Mexican government from the area. Isaac Graham for his assistance in the revolution was arrested along with 46 other “foreigners” and sent to Mexico for trial. Fortunately they were acquitted and received compensation for their hardships. Isaac received $36,000 dollars which allowed him to return to the San Lorenzo Valley as a rich man. With the money he was able to buy Rancho Zayate and by 1841 he had a number of businesses; the first water powered sawmill of the west, a gristmill, a still and a toll road.

The official gold rush was on in 1849. Isaac decided to stay at his rancho, but in 1853 he found a large gold bearing piece of quartz creating a local gold rush. Bitten by “gold fever”, Isaac started buying up mining equipment until he was heavily in debt. He lost all of his land in foreclosure to his lawyer Edward Stanley. Isaac Graham died in 1863.

Joseph Welch, a prosperous San Francisco businessman and his wife, loved to travel down to “Roaring Camp” to admire the “really big redwoods”. In 1867 they heard from their lawyer friend, Edward Stanley, that Isaac Graham’s Roaring Camp holdings were going to be sold off to local loggers. Mrs. Welsh did not like that idea and reportedly told her husband, “they are not going to cut down my trees!” Joseph Welch successfully intervened and bought the land out from under the loggers. This purchase was the first “real” effort to preserve virgin redwoods. The Welch’s called their new acquisition “Big Trees Ranch”.

Two years later, lumbermen thwarted by Welch’s purchase hired a surveyor for the purpose of building a railroad from Santa Cruz to a point 100ft beyond “Big Trees Ranch”; the outskirts of early Felton. Fearing they would need a “right of way” through some of his redwoods, Welch successfully held them off for several years. But in 1874, the California Legislature granted a charter to the “Santa Cruz & Felton Railroad Company”. It was the first proposed narrow gauge railroad to be built in the U.S. and was completed in October 1875. Fortunately for the Welch’s it was across the river from their redwoods.

The new railroad had a side benefit. It not only hauled revenue loads but also brought in swarms of tourist. The Welch’s recognized this interest and built the “Welch’s Big Trees Resort”, creating a prime attraction for the Santa Cruz tourist industry. This “picnic” rail line eventually became part of the “South Pacific Coast Line” (Southern Pacific) and was connected with the tracks in the bay area. The great San Francisco earthquake delayed the conversion to standard gauge in 1906. The conversion was completed by 1909, but this time the tracks ran on the east side of the river and the Welch’s lost some of their redwood trees. The rail line continued service to the bay area until 1939 when storms washed out the tracks across the mountains. Improved roads into the area had already started the railroad’s decline in 1935, so the tracks were not rebuilt. The last leg, Felton to Santa Cruz, was used for freight until it also had to close down in 1982 due to storm damage.

F. Norman Clark was born into the fifth generation of a railroad family. During Norman’s childhood, his grandfather worked as a railroad conductor in Arizona. He invited Norman to spend his summers traveling along the rails and by car. These travels and experiences made Norman a true rail fan and inspired him to become a teenage lobbyist to help save the “Los Angeles Redcar System”. He also joined a non-profit organization, the Southern California chapter of the “Railroad and Locomotive Historical Society”. This group was dedicated to preservation of retired steam locomotives. Norman was made vice-president in charge of rolling stock. The group played a part in the rail display at Griffith Park and another display at the Pomona Fairgrounds in which Norman had a major role. Norman Clark was a true steam locomotive preservationist before the age of 20!

Norman’s real dream however, was to build a working steam railroad. He made it his “lifetime goal” to recreate an authentic 1880’s rail town reminiscent of the “heyday ghost towns” he used to visit. He went to work for a development company where he was able to travel throughout the west and Hawaii and watch for potential railroad sites. In 1958 he arrived at “Big Trees Ranch”. The place had a special attraction, especially with the “historical” SP tracks close by. After exploring the forest, he knew he could build “his” rail town here. He submitted a proposal to the Welch family descendants (who still own 179 acres of the original 350-acre property) to build a railroad through the redwoods. The plan outlined how more people could see and appreciate the forest. The Welch family agreed and gave Norman a “99-year” lease to build his railroad. Norman only had $25 to put down as a “promise” and hitch hiked home to Los Angeles for the rest. But his good business plan, family and dedicated supporters literally put him on track.

The first steam locomotive to arrive at the new “Roaring Camp and Big Trees Railroad” in 1962 was a 42-ton Shay retired from hauling coal in Dixana, Virginia. When the locomotive originally left the Lima factory in 1912, it wore the #3 for the Alaculsy Lumber Company of Conasauga, Tennessee. The locomotive had five more owners during its career hauling both lumber and coal throughout the Smokey Mountains. Re-gauged to 36” in 1938, the locomotive made its cross-country trip on the back of a lowboy. After undergoing shop repairs and a conversion from burning coal to oil, the Shay was repainted the new RC&BT colors; forest green and yellow. Since it was the first RC&BT locomotive, it received the number 1 and was given the name “Dixiana”.

Roaring Camp and Big Trees first locomotive "Dixiana" #1


“Tuolumne” #2 is a Heisler type locomotive.

Another veteran logging locomotive from the well-known West Side Lumber Company joined Dixiana in 1963. Roaring Camp paid $7000 in 1962 for their new locomotive, an 1899 Stearns Heisler. This locomotive was also originally numbered 3 and was given the name “Thomas A Bullock” in honor of the general manager of the West Side Flume & Lumber Company. It started out working for the Hetch Hetchy & Yosemite Valley Railroad in 1899. Today it has the distinction of being the last operating steam locomotive of West Side Lumber, the last commercial steam locomotive in commercial service in Tuolumne and is the world’s oldest operating Heisler. In fact, it loaded itself onto to the rail car for the trip to Roaring Camp. The locomotive was renamed “Tuolumne” and the sides of the cab wear the number 2 .

One of the things missing for the new railroad was a way to haul passengers around. Gondola styled bodies were fabricated specifically for passengers to ride in. Much of the hardware underneath these bodies is from the Southern Pacific narrow gauge operation in the Owens Valley. There are also components and other rail cars from Westside and the D&RG as well. Passengers riding the trains, may not be aware of the fact their underpinnings may have once carried logs too!

Roaring Camp & Big Trees officially started passenger operation on April 6,1963, but the trip was relatively short. Narrow gauge tracks from the engine house converged out by the original Felton Depot of the “South Pacific Coast”. The narrow gauge tracks then ran parallel to the SP tracks. The early excursions were primarily half-mile trips into the forest with four passenger cars. Each following year the track grew longer until they reached the top of “Bear Mountain” in 1966.

The railroad was laid out in a “loop to loop” configuration. The climb to the top traveled over 2 1/2 miles with steep sections of 8 1/2% grades for a total elevation change @ 550ft. Three wooden trestles were required. One at Indian Creek, that has a 100’ radius (sharpest in U.S.) and two more at Spring Canyon laid out in a “cork screw” arrangement. The run gave the locomotives a real workout while allowing spectacular views of the forest all around.

In 1966, the family of George Whitney put a plantation locomotive up for sale. It was a museum piece from the “Sutro Baths - Cliff House attraction. This locomotive was an 1890 Baldwin 0-4-2T built for the Kahuku Plantation Company of Oahu, Hawaii. Originally named the “Keana” and numbered 1, it was retired from active service in 1950 after being replaced by a diesel. George Whitney acquired it for his museum because it closely resembled a steam powered street locomotive that once operated in San Francisco. Norman Clark was interested in bidding on this locomotive. Another gentleman by the name of Disney was also expressing an interest in the locomotive too (for a secret project in the swamps of Florida).

Norman was surprised to learn he won the bid for locomotive. Norman’s wife Georgiana upon seeing the little locomotive said it reminded her of the ones that used to run behind her home in Hawaii. As fate would have it, the Clark’s new “Kahuku” was one of the engines his wife used to watch as a young girl.

Upon Kahuku’s arrival at Roaring Camp in 1966, the crew discovered the fuel tank was still full of oil. When Norman and Georgiana went off to dinner, they fired up the locomotive and were running it back and forth along the parking lot when the Clark’s returned. Norman was upset at first, but was delighted the locomotive steamed so freely. The “teakettle” was quickly made ready for service and earned the number 3 spot in the fleet. A “leftover” number 3-smoke box plate from the Heisler adorned the front of Kahuku.

Disaster hit Roaring Camp a week before the 4th of July “ Bicentennial” in 1976.  

continued in part 2 "Disaster Strikes"

"Kahuku" #3 parked inside the locomotive shop


I would like to thank Roaring Camp, John Bush, Georgiana Clark, Joanne Hirasaki, Kent Jefferys, Stathi Pappas and especially Tom Shreve for helping with information for this article.

For more information, photos, activities and train schedules go to They also offer more area historical information in their “newsroom” section.

Other reference websites to look at are;, and



Written by Jim Kliment
Photos by Jim Kliment


©Discover Live Steam. This material may not be published, rewritten, or redistributed without written permission.

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