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Activating The Henry Ford Archive of Innovation

From Work to Play: Industrial Locomotives and Park Trains

October 9, 2023
Pennant, "Edaville Railroad, Cranberry Belt Line, South Carver, Mass.," 1947-1965

Opened in 1947, the Edaville Railroad quite literally transformed from an industrial railroad into an amusement attraction. / THF238726 

Ellis D. Atwood only wanted to make his Massachusetts cranberry-farming operation more efficient. He’d purchased four steam locomotives and several railcars from narrow-gauge railroads in Maine, and he’d built 5.5 miles of track winding through his cranberry bogs. The trains hauled supplies into the bogs, and they carried harvested cranberries out of them. But then Atwood began offering rides at five cents a ticket.

Intentionally or not, Ellis Atwood discovered an entirely new business model for himself. Using his initials, EDA, for inspiration, Atwood named his operation the Edaville Railroad. Following his death in 1950, subsequent owners added rides and amusements and turned the operation into one of New England’s most popular destinations. The Edaville Railroad morphed from an industrial railroad into a “park train” – a railroad operated as part of a larger attraction.

The Edaville Railroad debuted at a time when American railroads were transitioning from steam locomotives to diesel-electric power. Diesel power was less expensive and more efficient, but it lacked the distinctive sights, sounds and smells – what many railfans would call the “romance” – of steam railroading. More troublesome for the railroads, postwar America was also transitioning from rails to roads and runways as passengers shifted to cars and planes and freight moved from railroads to trucks.

As steam power disappeared from America’s mainlines, and as the railroad itself receded in its prominence, steam trains found new life as theme-park attractions. From Massachusetts to California, many of these park trains were pulled by locomotives that, a few years earlier, had been hauling cars and commodities on industrial railroads.

Early Park Trains

Coney Island, New York, circa 1905

The miniature railway at Dreamland, Coney Island, New York, circa 1905. / THF241415 

Recreational railroads weren’t a new concept in the mid-20th century. Nor, for that matter, were amusement parks. Coney Island, near New York City, was home to a trio of enterprises widely regarded as America’s first modern amusement parks: Steeplechase Park, Luna Park and Dreamland. Steeplechase and Dreamland both featured miniature railroads that carried passengers on scenic tours through the parks.

Miniature Locomotive, Used at Salisbury Beach, Massachusetts, circa 1905

This Cagney-built locomotive operated at Salisbury Beach, Massachusetts, at the turn of the 20th century. / THF91589 

The firm that built those little Coney Island trains, the Miniature Railroad Company, was established by brothers Timothy, David and John Cagney in 1898. The Cagneys initially intended to produce small locomotives for mines, lumbering operations and other industries where full-size railroads were impractical. But their charming engines became popular attractions at expositions, zoos and resorts – especially after the Cagney brothers operated one of their railways at Buffalo’s Pan-American Exposition in 1901. Interestingly, many of the Cagneys’ little engines were based on the New York Central’s full-size locomotive 999, which earned headlines for pulling passenger trains at better than 100 miles per hour (and which later inspired the name of one of Henry Ford’s race cars).

Clara Ford Riding with K. T. Keller and Unidentified Man at Detroit Zoo, 1949

Clara Ford joined Chrysler president K.T. Keller (left) for a train ride at the Detroit Zoo in 1949. / THF99889

The Detroit Zoo opened in suburban Royal Oak, Michigan, in 1928. Three years later, the Detroit News gifted the zoo with its own miniature railway. When it came time to upgrade equipment after World War II, the zoo was given three new locomotives built to resemble streamlined trains of the era. Strictly speaking, these weren’t readapted industrial locomotives. But they were designed and manufactured by a company representing Detroit’s biggest industry: Chrysler Corporation.

Over time, the Detroit Zoo’s three engines were named Walter P. Chrysler (in honor of Chrysler’s founder, who was a railroad mechanic early in his career), the Reuther (named for labor leader Walter Reuther) and the Scripps (honoring Detroit News founder James Scripps). Each locomotive was powered by a 6-cylinder engine coupled to a fluid-drive transmission. While they’ve been refurbished multiple times since their debut, the locomotives remain popular attractions at the Detroit Zoo today.

Theme Parks Under Steam

Souvenir Book, "Disneyland," 1955

Disneyland’s Santa Fe & Disneyland Railroad was among the influential theme park’s opening-day attractions. / THF205157 

In the 1950s, a new attraction appeared in Southern California that redefined the very concept of the amusement park: Walt Disney’s Disneyland. In planning his revolutionary park, Disney was partly inspired by his own visits to Henry Ford’s Greenfield Village. Disney took further inspiration from the Carolwood Pacific, his private backyard railroad similar in size to the Cagney miniature railways of an earlier era. From the start, railroads were a part of Walt Disney’s vision for his park. When Disneyland opened in 1955, one of its first attractions was the Santa Fe & Disneyland Railroad, a 1.2-mile-long line circling the park’s perimeter.

Disneyland’s first two locomotives were built by the multitalented staff at Walt Disney’s own WED Enterprises, with only their boilers, frames and wheels outsourced. When it came time to add a third engine in 1957, Disney employees purchased a narrow-gauge locomotive built in 1894 by Baldwin Locomotive Works. The little locomotive had spent six decades shuttling sugar cane around Louisiana agricultural operations.

The Santa Fe & Disneyland Railroad operated on narrow-gauge, 36-inch track – smaller than the 56.5-inch standard gauge on American railroads. As a result, the park’s locomotives and cars were all scaled down to roughly five-eighths the size of standard-gauge equipment. Smaller scale meant smaller costs for equipment, roadbed, track, etc. But for a park like Disneyland, narrow gauge offered another important advantage. Smaller trains felt more “comfortable” in scale and less imposing than their full-size counterparts. Smaller trains also complemented the forced-perspective buildings of various scales in Disneyland’s Main Street, U.S.A. area.

Cedar Point, Sandusky, Ohio, 1985 Season Brochure

Funway Station, pictured here circa 1985, became one of two stops on the Cedar Point & Lake Erie Railroad. / THF123534 

Cedar Point in Sandusky, Ohio, predated Disneyland as a pleasure resort by 85 years, but the lakeside attraction was not immune to Disney’s influence. Investment bankers George Roose and Emile Legros purchased Cedar Point in 1956 and began remodeling the aging park in the Disneyland vein. Among their biggest additions was a narrow-gauge railway, the Cedar Point & Lake Erie Railroad, opened in 1963. Cedar Point officials acquired a fleet of used industrial locomotives built by manufacturers like Davenport, Baldwin, Porter and Vulcan.

For its first few years, Cedar Point’s railway was strictly an attraction. Every ride was a full 2-mile loop through the park’s woodlands and across its scenic lagoons. But when Cedar Point opened its Frontier Town area in 1968 (another idea lifted from Disneyland), the Cedar Point & Lake Erie Railroad was given a second station and a second purpose as a legitimate mode of point-to-point transportation. By its 50th anniversary in 2013, the railroad had carried well over 100 million riders.

Railroading in Greenfield Village

President Herbert Hoover, Lou Henry Hoover, Clara Bryant Ford, Thomas Edison, Mina Edison, and Henry Ford Arrive at Smiths Creek Station, October 21, 1929

The Hoovers, Fords, and Edisons arrived at Greenfield Village by train in 1929. / THF294692 

While no one would call Greenfield Village an amusement park, Henry Ford’s historical attraction has always included park-like settings – the Village Green, Suwanee Lagoon and Walnut Grove among them. Similarly, railroading has a long-standing history at the site.

Henry Ford was a lifelong railroad enthusiast. He often traveled in his private railroad car, and he owned the Detroit, Toledo & Ironton Railroad in the 1920s. Railroads played a central role in the Light’s Golden Jubilee celebration that formally dedicated Greenfield Village in October 1929. Henry and Clara Ford, Thomas and Mina Edison, and President Herbert Hoover and first lady Lou Hoover all arrived for the ceremonies aboard a special steam train.

Public train rides were offered in Greenfield Village at various points throughout its history, but operations were initially limited to back-and-forth excursions along a straight section of track between Smiths Creek Depot and the area near where Firestone Barn now stands.

Torch Lake Steam Locomotive in Greenfield Village

Greenfield Village opened its perimeter railroad in 1972. / THF133880 

Just as Greenfield Village inspired Disneyland, that influence came full-circle when Greenfield Village opened its own perimeter railroad in 1972 (coincidentally, just one year after Walt Disney World, Disneyland’s bigger American sibling, opened in Florida). The new 2-mile loop not only expanded and improved Greenfield Village’s train-ride experience, it also transformed the railroad from a simple excursion into a practical transportation link. Multiple stations were built around the loop, giving visitors a relaxing way to travel from one end of the village to the other.

The Greenfield Village railroad – later rededicated as the Weiser Railroad – differs from the Disneyland and Cedar Point railways in one key respect. It is a standard-gauge line with track measuring 56.5 inches between the rails. The Weiser Railroad’s curves might be a little sharper and its gradients a little steeper than what you’d find on a mainline railroad, but its locomotives and cars are full size.

Torch Lake Steam Locomotive, 1873

The Torch Lake as photographed by builder Mason Machine Works in 1873. / THF133911 

The operating locomotives of Greenfield Village have their own industrial histories. The Torch Lake is, as of this writing, the oldest regularly operating steam locomotive in the United States. Built in 1873 by the Mason Machine Works, Torch Lake hauled ore for the Calumet and Hecla Mining Company on Michigan’s Keweenaw Peninsula. The locomotive’s articulated design – with driving wheels that pivot under the boiler – was well suited to the crudely built track at a mining operation.

Manchester Locomotive at Ford Motor Company Rouge Plant, August 1932

Though based on an 1870s locomotive, the Edison was rebuilt at the Rouge in 1932. This photo reveals the extent of the work needed. / THF136651 

The Edison steam locomotive was based on an engine built in the 1870s by Manchester Locomotive Works of New Hampshire. When Henry Ford acquired it in 1932, the little steamer was shuttling cars around the yard of the Edison Portland Cement Company’s plant in Stewartsville, New Jersey. The locomotive required significant work when purchased, and skilled craftsmen at the Rouge plant tackled the assignment. But, at Mr. Ford’s direction, the project moved from mere restoration to replication. The engine’s 0-4-0 wheel arrangement was converted to 4-4-0 with the addition of a front pony truck, and its general appearance was altered to reflect that of a Civil War-era passenger locomotive. Given the extent of the rebuilding, the Edison is more properly dated from 1932 rather than the 19th century. The locomotive has been altered multiple times since. As it looks today, the Edison doesn’t pretend to be anything other than itself.

Visitors to Greenfield Village might see two other industrial locomotives running around the railroad. The 1942 General Electric diesel-electric occasionally fills in for the steam locomotives on the perimeter trains. The 50-ton engine is a veteran of sorts, having worked at the U.S. Navy’s ammunition depot in Charleston, South Carolina, during World War II. It later moved railcars at a scrapyard in Ecorse, Michigan. The 1927 Plymouth locomotive doesn’t pull trains on the perimeter line, but it does shunt equipment in and around the roundhouse. The Plymouth, which is powered by a gasoline engine not too different from those used in automobiles, spent many years moving coal cars at Detroit’s Mistersky Power Plant before coming to The Henry Ford in 1979.

Torch Lake Locomotive at Main Street Station in Greenfield Village, July 1978

Torch Lake and train at Main Street (now Firestone) Station in Greenfield Village, 1978 / THF133908 

Make no mistake, however charming they might be, park trains are real trains. The oil-fired locomotives at Disneyland, and the coal-fired engines at Cedar Point and Greenfield Village, are all operated using the same skills learned by railroaders from earlier centuries. Likewise, many of the locomotives that now shuttle tourists and pleasure seekers once hauled commodities like ore, coal, sugar cane and limestone.

In a sense, these former industrial locomotives serve a higher purpose in their new lives. They now carry the memory of mainline American steam railroading, and they do their part to keep the technology and technical skills of steam railroading alive. All in all, it’s not a bad second act.

Matt Anderson is curator of transportation at The Henry Ford.