The Disneyland Railroad

A Complete History in Words and Pictures

by Steve DeGaetano | Release Date: September 7, 2015 | Availability: Print, Kindle

A Grand Circle Tour

Noted rail expert Steve DeGaetano welcomes you aboard for this definitive, in-depth history of the Disneyland Railroad, with hundreds of vintage and current photos, and a fascinating, behind-the-scenes account of how Disney operates its system of trains, stations, and roundhouse.

The story of the Disneyland Railroad begins with its chief engineer, Walt Disney, whose love for the steam locomotives of his youth led his Imagineers to create the same experience for millions of park guests, with continuous service for over six decades.

DeGaetano reveals this fascinating world unseen by most Disneyland guests, with:

  • A history of the five Disneyland locomotives, and how a steam engine works
  • What the train crew—engineer, fireman, conductor—really do, and why they're the most highly trained of Disney cast members
  • A history of the Disneyland train stations, as well as a special chapter on the famous Lilly Belle
  • What it's like inside the Disneyland roundhouse, where the steam trains are maintained and repaired
  • Plus builder's plates, conductor's badges, spiels, collectibles, and much more

Welcome aboard, ladies and gentlemen, for a "grand circle tour" of the Disneyland Railroad!

Table of Contents



Chapter 1 Overview

Chapter 2: Inspiration

Chapter 3: Earl Vilmer

Chapter 4: The Railroad

Chapter 5: The Railroad Comes to Life

Chapter 6: Locomotives

Chapter 7: Engine No. 1: C.K. Holliday

Chapter 8: Engine No. 2: E.P. Ripley

Chapter 9: Engine No. 3: Fred Gurley

Chapter 10: Engine No. 4: Ernest S. Marsh

Chapter 11: Engine No. 5: Ward Kimball

Chapter 12: Builder’s Plates

Chapter 13: The Cab

Chapter 14: Locomotive Hardware

Chapter 15: Safety

Chapter 16: Cab Ride

Chapter 17: Crew

Chapter 18: Conductor Badges

Chapter 19: Rolling Stock

Chapter 20: The Caboose

Chapter 21: The Lilly Belle

Chapter 22: Structures

Chapter 23: Spiels

Chapter 24: Roundhouse

Chapter 25: Right-of-Way

Chapter 26: Collectibles

Chapter 27: Models

Chapter 28: Other Trains

Chapter 29: Conclusion

About the Author

Around the world each day, over 100,000 people ride aboard a Disney steam-powered train. Due to the grit and convictions of one individual, who refused to listen to the “experts” of his day, real live steam railroading has been preserved for generations to enjoy at Disneyland and its successor themed amusement parks in Orlando, Tokyo, and Paris. (The park in Hong Kong has diesel-hydraulic engines.)

It’s becoming well known that Walt Disney dearly loved steam railroading. It started during his formative childhood in Marceline, Missouri, where the Santa Fe bisected the town;. continued with his one-eight-scale backyard pike known as the Carolwood Pacific Railroad that operated from 1950–1953; And culminated on opening day, when he arrived at Main Street Station, on the throttle of the E.P. Ripley, to officiate at the dedication of his magical kingdom.

Throughout, Walt remained committed to perpetuating the public’s interest in those chuffing monsters that prowled ribbons of steel, hauling passengers, products, and produce to all corners of a developing nation. He understood well that America’s strength was established on a backbone of rail. He regretted witnessing the demise of the great nameplates that built this infrastructure and the eventual and systematic elimination of steam as the primary source of rail power. Progress, with its attributes, caused the removal and destruction of nearly 160,000 steam engines built in this country. Less than 2,000 escaped the cutter’s torch. Most of the survivors sit static in museums and parks.

Walt didn’t have a great liking for museums. He believed storytelling with experience was the best way to inform and entertain his guests. When giving directions to his Imagineers for the layout of Disneyland, he stated simply: “I just want it to look like nothing else in the world. And it should be surrounded by a train.” He considered the Santa Fe & Disneyland Railroad to be the defining boundary between fantasy and the outside world. He crowned the entrance of his park with a Victorian train station and invited first-time guests to circumnavigate his park aboard the elevated trackage to understand its scope and content. Walt owned the railroad, having financed its construction with his own funds. The crew was on the payroll of Retlaw Enterprises, not Disneyland, Inc. And, whenever he was in the park, Walt was chief engineer, often taking over the operation of the next train pulling into Main Street Station—without the knowledge of his passengers. Dressed appropriately in the hickory-striped cap, red bandanna and overalls he kept at his apartment over the fire station, Walt enjoyed escaping for an hour or two of highballing around his beloved creation.

A stickler for detail and perfection, Walt insisted his trains be operated and maintained to the highest standards of railroad engineering. The select crew knew this and established a tradition of quality that continues to this day. Commenting on this point, Walt said, “You can dream, create, design, and build the most wonderful place in the world…but it requires people to make the dream a reality.”

In this book, Steve DeGaetano sets forth for the first time the complete behind-the-scenes story of how the Disneyland Railroad equipment is maintained and operated. He expertly weaves technical with general information, creating a fascinating narrative that is sure to educate and entertain.

It’s 8:30 am on a warm August morning in 1971. I am five years old, but the events that are about to unfold today will still be vivid and clear in my memory, some 40 years later. I wake slowly, with a yawn and a stretch, anticipating the guilty pleasures that I plan on experiencing this fine summer day. Perhaps some hide-and-seek with my friends, or maybe Mom will fill up the inflatable swimming pool in the back yard of our suburban San Fernando Valley, California, home.

After dressing, I leave my bedroom and meander down the hallway to the kitchen. My father is still home, which is unusual, since he is usually at work by this time. The significance of this situation is not lost on me, and I begin to think that something must be up. Possibly we are going to visit my grandparents. Or maybe a trip to the beach is in store.

Having the attention span of a typical five-year old, the thought quickly passes, and I begin eating breakfast with my little sister, Debbie. Mom informs us that we are going to take a trip, but she refuses to tell us where we are going. The grip of curiosity takes hold of Debbie and me. After Mom and Dad take care of a few small chores, we are herded into the family car. I am not sure how I knew, but I felt that something fun was definitely going to happen that day.

Dad guides the car onto the freeway, and we’re off. After what seems to a small child like an eternity of driving, we begin passing under the many bridges that cross the freeway in downtown Los Angeles. I recognize that we are far from home, and I still don’t know where we’re going. Now my brain has moved into high gear. We seldom journey this far from home.

We continue driving, and the anticipation and excitement begin to build. “C’mon, Mom, where are we going?” Mom’s smile is almost as big as ours when she informs us that DISNEYLAND is where we’re going.

Disneyland. Hmmm... Neither Debbie nor I have heard of this place before, so we are very curious indeed. Eventually, Dad sights what he calls the Matterhorn (a Disneyland tradition for many a southern California family is to see who can spot the snow-covered peak first. This will be the last time Dad wins.) We roll into the parking lot—which is now Disney’s California Adventure. After bolting from the car, Debbie and I must wait for what seems an eternity until something called a “parking lot tram” comes to whisk us to the front gate. I fidget while waiting and look toward the park. We are still far away from the entrance, but a large brick building with a gray roof dominates the view. I wonder what it is.

The tram eventually arrives, and before long we’re standing near the front gate of this intriguing place. As Dad buys tickets for the family, I get a close look at the brick building. It has three sets of green doors, and several small windows set into the gray, shingled roof. There are two long sheltered platforms that extend to either side of the building. Under the platform roofs stand hundreds of people. I wonder what they are waiting for. The most distinguishing feature of the ornate building, however, is the large clock tower, set into the base of a tall, pointed roof. On top of the tower is a flagpole. It looks like no building I have ever seen in all my 5 years.

As I stand there, waiting for my father to purchase enough “A” through “E” ticket books to last us the day, I become vaguely aware of a sound in the distance, off to the right of the brick building. At first it is barely perceptible—a soft hissing—but it grows gradually louder. As the sound approaches, it seems to throb and pulse. I can actually feel the sound in my chest as it rumbles closer. The noise is coming from behind some trees and shrubs, and I am now curious to the point of agony. From behind the trees, though, a steam whistle shrieks a single blast, and I know instantly what’s on the way: a train!

Like a time machine from another era, a lost traveler from a long-ago age, it appears: a blue-and-red steam locomotive with flashing red driving wheels and so much brass trim that to me, the locomotive looked shinier than a diamond. The bell on the locomotive was clanging its rhythmic warning, as if to announce the arrival of a great and powerful king—a ruler of the rails whose mighty reign would never end. When I grew older I would sadly learn that the monarch had been deposed by a brash upstart known as a “diesel”.

Trailing behind the locomotive is a string of open passenger cars, each brightly painted and topped with colorful red-and white-striped awnings. I can feel the thumping and the pulsing of the locomotive, as far away as I am, as it passes in front of the station. I clearly see the engineer and the fireman riding in the cab of the locomotive.

Stories that my mother read to me about trains always said that it was they who were in charge of and commanded the mighty locomotive, but now I found this somewhat hard to believe. They seemed to me to be merely along for the ride, like any of the other passengers. Surely no one controls this panting, puffing monster. The fireman sees me, standing there in awe, and gives me a friendly, knowing wave. I instinctively wave back.

The train glides to a stop, but the engine seems alive and restless to move, like a sprinter at the starting blocks. Heat from the large smokestack ripples the atmosphere above it. The sweet aroma of hot oil, diesel smoke, and steam drifts down from the diamond-shaped stack. Wisps of steam spiral upward from places hidden in shadows on the locomotive, and one can hear a hollow, rhythmic pounding—as though the locomotive were breathing fast and heavy, and attempting to catch its breath before continuing its journey to faraway lands. Another engineer appears to the left on the platform, and makes his way toward the locomotive.

The three crewmen are dressed literally head to toe just like the engineers that I had seen in my many picture books about trains. They wear blue-and-white striped overalls with red bandannas around their necks and a long-sleeve blue shirt under the overalls. The engineer wears large white gauntlet gloves. The square-ish cap that is familiar to everyone shades the engineer’s eyes.

The trainmen become engaged in an animated conversation as they wait for the signal to proceed. They seem friendly and approachable in their camaraderie and smiles, and I secretly wish I could join them. The one on the platform holds his stomach in laughter, though I am too far away to hear the chuckles.

Without warning, a jet of steam erupts skyward from the engine with an ear-splitting hiss, as the locomotive’s safety valve lifts. I jump back with a start. The power of this machine seems just barely harnessed. People depart and board the train, and after a few minutes, a booming, echoing voice from somewhere on the platform announces ’BOARD!

Almost immediately, things begin to happen. The whistle blasts two times and quickly, as if to say “Stand back! I am not stopping again!” Steam escapes from the cylinders, bathing the engine in the hot mist, and—for a moment—almost hiding the locomotive. Imperceptibly, the locomotive begins to move, creeping and straining against the weight of its eight-car train. Over the constant guttural rumblings of the engine comes a single, deep muffled Chuff. Then another…and another. The drivers slip once, then bite into the rail. The chuffing continues, until the exhaust beats become a staccato rhythm as the locomotive slowly disappears behind the foliage and into the distance. The cars, full of smiling, waving people, clickety-clack across the rail joints. The last car of the train, a red caboose, drifts quietly past the station, and as quickly as it began, it is all over. Silence, save for the laughter of children and families entering the park.

Dad whisks me by the hand and I catch my breath with a start. As we walk through one of the two tunnels that pass beneath the tracks, Mom asks Debbie and me which ride we should go on first. Without hesitation, I quickly voice my choice for all to hear: “The train!”

Throughout the years, my family and I would come to Disneyland many times. We would eventually ride every ride and see every show. However, we would always begin our day at the park by riding on what was, and always will be, my favorite ride. Welcome aboard the Disneyland Railroad!

Steve DeGaetano

Steve DeGaetano has always loved trains. He traces this fascination back to his first encounter with the steam engines of the Santa Fe & Disneyland Railroad when he was five years old. In addition to being an avid collector of railroadiana and Disneyland railroad memorabilia, Steve is also an accomplished artist. His print of the E.P. Ripley entitled “One of Walt’s” hangs in the home of Walt Disney’s daughter, Diane Disney Miller.

When he’s not painting or writing, Steve spends his time on the New Hope Valley Railway in Bonsal, North Carolina, where he is a qualified steam locomotive fireman. He lives in Wake Forest with his wife, Alice, and sons, Chris and Jonny.

One of Walt Disney's favorite things to do in Disneyland was to climb into the cab of one of his locomotives and take 'er for a spin around the park.

Part of Walt Disney’s genius was that he knew how to surround himself with talented employees who could help him achieve his dreams. Of course, Ward Kimball and Roger Broggie are two such people that assisted with the design of the Santa Fe & Disneyland Railroad. From an operational standpoint, Walt knew that he needed a top-notch individual who understood railroading in the real world in order to supervise a crew who would be able to build and run his railroad safely and realistically. Earl Vilmer rose to the occasion.

By mid-June 1955, the first two Santa Fe & Disneyland Railroad engines were nearing completion. Minor details, such as headlight reflectors, sand lines, and lettering still remained, but the engines were now to the point where they could be steamed up and operated. Earl Vilmer, supervising Harley Ilgen, Lloyd Ainsworth, Dick Bagley, and a few technicians, completed the engines’ assembly at the Disneyland roundhouse, and Walt was informed that the E.P. Ripley would be steamed up for the first time on Saturday, June 18.

Michael Broggie, then a wide-eyed 12 year old, accompanied his father, Roger. He remembers the first time he laid eyes on the steaming E.P. Ripley:

Half outside a corrugated steel barn was a mechanical prehistoric monster. It was puffing smoke and hissing steam. It had a distinct oily aroma mixed with freshly painted hot metal. The morning sun glinted off the mirror-finish brass bell, grab rails, and boiler bands. A black hole loomed where the single big “eye” would sit in the headlamp box. A round nosepiece contained a big brass “2”. Men in overalls were lubricating the monster’s fittings, giving the green and yellow-trimmed finish a final wiping while others were busy adjusting the valve settings in the cab and checking the water-level glass tube.

The steam-up procedure began at 5 am and lasted about three hours as the locomotive’s fire was kindled and the water brought to a boil. Eventually, the needle on the steam pressure gauge in the cab quivered and came to life, and slowly, over the course of a few hours, inched up from “0” to “150” on the face of the gauge. Soon thereafter, the steam pressure safety valves on top of the steam dome “popped off”, indicating the locomotive was ready to roll. Walt made sure he was there to witness this “birth”.

“All of a sudden, everything stopped,” Michael Broggie wrote. “Even the monster seemed to pause. I turned in time to see a quickly approaching man wearing an engineer’s cap that was pushed back on his head, a blue gingham shirt under a blue serge Ike jacket, and light gray pleated slacks.” Roger Broggie greeted Walt with, “It’s ready for its first run.”

As Michael described it, “Walt wasted no time and grabbed a handle and swung his six-foot frame into the cab. There, Harley Ilgen, who was chief engineer except when Walt was in the park, explained the control levers and valve settings.”

A great smile washed across Walt’s face when he sounded the locomotive’s whistle for the first time. Next, he moved the Johnson bar into the forward corner, released the brake, and gently moved the throttle out a notch at a time. At first, the train didn’t move. Ilgen advised Walt to let the steam build in the cylinder before pulling the throttle out any more.

Bob Gurr, watching from the ground, recalled, “Walt opened the throttle a bit, but nothing moved. A bit more and the new locomotive almost silently glided forward.” But railroad veteran Vilmer was far from satisfied. “No, no, no! Go fix it,” Vilmer yelled. He later explained to Gurr that locomotives have machining clearance tolerances expressed as “either tight or loose 1/64th of an inch”. As they had initially done with the Lilly Belle, these machinists had built their locomotive with the fine tolerances of a precision movie camera. A few days later, the tight parts were disassembled and opened up, and from then on, the locomotive would clank and clunk around the track just as a locomotive should, with very little throttle. But today, Walt didn’t care; he was too busy thoroughly enjoying his new “toy”.

The locomotive was coupled to some of the new freight cars, including two of the new gondolas for weight. As the locomotive slowly moved toward the main line, Walt called to the young Broggie. “Hey, kid, wanna ride?” After Roger gave the “okay”, Walt grabbed Michael by the wrist and pulled him into the cab. As the train rolled along the line, Walt would slow down, studying the park’s progress. Eventually, the train reached the end of the line—a large access road for heavy construction equipment to enter and leave the park where track had yet to be laid. Walt put the engine in reverse and backed up.

The rest of the day was spent with a group of photographers that were invited to record the event. Also riding the locomotive that day was a stuffed Mickey Mouse doll wearing a shirt that matched Walt’s. It would be a memorable day for all involved, and also a historic day. The train was now the first operational Disneyland attraction.

Continued in "The Disneyland Railroad"!

There's a lot more to the Disneyland Railroad than the locomotives that steam guests on grand circle tours around the park. Two often overlooked but necessary items are the handcar and speeder.

Rounding out the collection of rolling stock on the Disneyland Railroad are the Kalamazoo handcar and the speeder. The trains of the Santa Fe & Disneyland Railroad were exceedingly authentic in virtually all of their details. So, too, was the rest of the operation, from the water tower to the two stations. It’s unknown whether Walt ever thought about having a handcar, as might be found on any other “real” railroad, but he eventually got one. How the handcar came to Disney—and exactly when—are mysteries.

The car he got was a typical narrow gauge handcar built by the Kalamazoo Manufacturing Company of Kalamazoo, Michigan. The company had been founded by George Miller and Horace Haines in 1883 as the Kalamazoo Railroad Velocipede and Car Company. They had specialized in railroad equipment initially, but by the 1950s their product line was quite diversified, and railroad equipment was only a small portion of their business.

The car itself is a Kalamazoo Model 6, which in 1955 sold for a mere $285.00 (the Model 6 was the narrow-gauge version of the standard gauge Model 1. It used wheels that the company generally used on its motorized “speeders”.) Because most railroads had converted to speeders to perform the same function many years before, it’s quite likely this is the last handcar—almost certainly the last narrow-gauge handcar—that Kalamazoo ever produced. The elaborate paint scheme may reflect this.

Disney’s car was painted yellow, with the steel parts painted black. On the sides of the A-frame pump support, “Kalamazoo Manufacturing Company” was painted in decorative script. Pin striping adorned the wheels and A-frame, and a large calligraphic “K” was painted in red on the A-frame ends.

The commonly circulated story is that the handcar was a gift from the people at the Kalamazoo Manufacturing Company in 1964. Because of its elaborate decoration and brass names plates (the Disney handcar is the only Kalamazoo car known to have these plates), it is possible that Kalamazoo donated it to Disney knowing it would be a showpiece for the company. It is more likely, however, that it had been a gift from Walt’s friend Jerry Best. Where the date 1964 comes from is a mystery; it may have begun with the Birnbaum Disneyland travel guides, and has often been repeated in other books and histories. David Smith, the Walt Disney Company’s former archivist, has searched through Disney’s correspondence from the period to see if there might be some sort of mention of the handcar, perhaps in a “thank-you” letter, but has not been able to find anything conclusive.

We have a slightly easier time affixing a date when the handcar arrived, and indeed, we can come within eight months of a positive date. Through the study of old photographs, we can see that the 1964 date is a fabrication with no basis in fact.

This photo, while undated, gives us some clues:

Walt Disney on the handcar.

In this publicity photo of Walt on his handcar, we can see that the Plantation House is still in the background. When Frontierland Station moved in March 1956, this view wouldn’t have been possible, giving us an approximate date that Walt received the handcar.

The biggest clue can be seen just to the left of the engine’s headlight. Those turquoise stairs and railings belong to the backside of the Plantation House restaurant, what once was Frontierland’s premier dining spot. As you can see, it’s quite close to Frontierland Station.

In March 1956, however, the station was moved to the west, and away from the Plantation House. In later photos, the restaurant isn’t even visible. So, we can logically assume that Disney received the handcar between opening day and early 1956—roughly an eight-month span.

When the car gained its permanent home on the siding in front of Main Street Station can also be rather easily deduced, but not precisely. The passing siding at Main Street was once functional in the park’s early history, allowing one train to pass around another train that was stopped at the station. This practice probably ceased sometime in 1956, when the Fantasyland Station was constructed.

While the handcar is fully functional and is maintained on a regular basis, it is seldom used. In the past, this was not the case, and there are cast member stories of “hijacking” the handcar for impromptu spins around the main line. Al DiPaolo recalls:

Late one night after the park closed and the railroad was going to be closed for a short rehab, I arranged with some of the conductors to take the handcar out for a spin. Even though there were four of us aboard, it was a real workout to climb the Big Thunder grade. It was still a lot of fun to go around the park in the darkness with the only sound being the clickety-clack of the rails and the meshing of the gear teeth…and of course the panting of the four guys pumping!

The typical handcar can be brought up to nearly 25 miles an hour, with four strong backs pumping and a good tailwind pushing it. The Disney handcar, like all handcars, relies only on the pressure of wooden brake shoes applied by foot pressure from a pedal on the handcar deck. The Disneyland Railroad Kalamazoo handcar has been a fixture at Disneyland since nearly the beginning. Like many things at Disneyland, it is unique to the California park, a detail closely associated with Walt Disney himself. You may not have given the contraption a second thought, but the next time you ride the trains of the Disneyland Railroad, try to catch a glimpse of the handcar. It’s just another detail Walt Disney wanted you to enjoy.

The speeder, on the other hand, is a small motorized, modernized version of a handcar. It is used much like an automobile on flanged wheels, transporting workers and materials around the main line. The current speeder is a battery-powered Taylor-Dunn golf cart-style vehicle, with flanged wheels installed from the previous speeder. That speeder, manufactured by Kalamazoo and painted yellow for safety, blew up its engine in the mid-1990s and was not deemed repairable. The electric speeder is capable of pulling a small trailer or two of tools, spikes, or re-railing frogs anywhere on the system. Disney animator Ollie Johnston owned one of the original park speeders that had been built by Fairmont.

Continued in "The Disneyland Railroad"!

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