Monday, May 15, 2006

Getting it in Gear

I see my close friend Keith Berry three to four times each week. As you may guess, many of our conversations center on EDWRF's effort to restore the D&C No. 4 and preserve the history of this unique period in El Dorado County logging industry.

But I didn't give it much thought when Keith mentioned a few weeks ago that a higher percentage of Shays had survived the scapper's torch than rod engines. I quickly agreed. My cerebral filing system quickly came up with seven Shays in Northern California:
  • Placerville -- D&C No. 4
  • Turtle Bay -- Michigan-California Lumber Co. No. 2 -- builder's number 122 makes it the oldest Shay in existence
  • Fish Camp -- West Side Lumber Co. Nos. 10 and 15
  • Felton -- Coal Processing No. 3, W. M. Ritter Lumber Co. No. 7 and West Side No. 7

(Another nine or 10 other Shays reside within driving distance of the El Dorado Western engine house, according to's list of surviving Shays. A total of 116 Shay geared locomotives are known to have survived, along with 20 Climaxes ( and 34 Heislers (

For a month now, I've been contemplating a summer vacation at Odell Lake in the Oregon's Cascade mountain range. A quick scan of the Internet led me to the May 1996 issue of TRAINS Magazine, which carried an article that maps the best spots to photograph former SP and Amtrak trains crossing the range. (The vacation didn't begin as a railroad trip -- it evolved once I discovered that the UP line passed along the south shore of the lake.)

Like any railroader, I dove into the rest of the issue and discovered a 10-year old piece on the geared workhorses of the mid-1990s ("Getting it in gear: Shays, Climaxes, and Heislers do more than their share of work in today's steam world," pages 34-39).

Author Jim Wrinn reasons that "good genetics" helped geared engines run so well a decade ago. That's the legacy of the Shay, Climax and Heisler. They were built to steam in rough mountains on poorly ballasted rails where "agility, brute strength, and simplicity of design were primary virtues."

Wrinn said that geared "engines worked on steep grades, flimsy temporary track with little or no maintenance, out in the wilderness far from the shops." That's why they survived. Any locomotive that was built for the arduous conditions of the forest was bound to outlive their mainline brothers.

Approximately 174 of the nearly 4,500 geared engines built from the late-1880s through to World War II are still with us today. That means about one of every 26 geared locomotives ever built is still with us (the ratio is 1:21 for the Shay). Twenty-one of the 116 surviving Shay operate today.

What's the survival record for rod engines? I'm not sure. But, I can say that only 1 in 300 Baldwin locomotives are still with us. According to Wrinn, over 60,000 locomotives were manufactured by Baldwin Locomotive Works (including five geared engines!).

Keith is right. Geared locomotives did survive in greater numbers that their mainline cousins. It's certainly a testament to their rugged design and ability to endure rough, often brutal conditions of the forest.

Come watch the El Dorado Western restore Lima Shay number 1986, the Diamond & Caldor No. 4. We're slowly restoring the largest of the two surviving El Dorado County logging locomotives and need the support of local citizens and railfans. We appreciate the help the we receive from the local El Dorado County community.

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