Logging railroads are perhaps the most unique
and interesting aspect of the industry, especially if you were lucky
enough to see them in operation during their peak years during the early
20th century. Several states were home to logging lines, almost
all of which were owned and operated by private lumber/logging
companies. What made these railroads so interesting was the rudimentary
construction and operating techniques they employed, along with brutal
grades that were nearly impossible for conventional railroads to scale
(sometimes topping out at over 11%). Today, there are very few still in operation, most notable of which is the Simpson
Railroad at Shelton, Washington which dates back to the 19th century!
A painting depicting the once common practice of fording streams featuring Elk River Coal & Lumber Company's 3-truck Shay #12 with a string of loads crossing the Lilly Fork in rural Clay County, West Virginia. Artist unknown.
Some of the earliest, true logging railroads date back to the 1860s and 1870s, operating in northeastern states such as New
Hampshire and Vermont. Logging had been a major industry in the United
States for years, practically since the nation's creation. However,
until the development of railroads in the early 19th century there was
really no economical way to log on a large scale, except for the concept of log floating (which essentially meant logs were floated down a waterway to their final destination). Aside from waterways the only other way to move timber was either by horse or mule, a very slow and tedious process.
However, with hundreds of thousands of acres of virgin timber available
across the country in the 19th century the profits were there for the
taking if a more economical means of transporting logs could be found.
Railroad history in America has its earliest beginnings dating back to
1815 when Colonel John Stevens gained the first railroad charter in
North America to build the New Jersey Railroad Company, although it was
never actually constructed until 1832, and would eventually become part
of the Pennsylvania Railroad. Colonel Stevens also tested the first steam locomotive
in the country in 1826, when he showcased his "Steam Waggon" design
(basically a steam-powered horse carriage) on a small circular track he
had built on his estate in Hoboken, New Jersey.
Featured here is Elk River Coal & Lumber 3-truck Shay #19, which appears to be retrieving a log skidder August 16, 1961. This operation also owned the connecting Buffalo Creek & Gauley Railroad, a common-carrier short line that operated between Dundon to Widen long-known for its use of steam power into the 1960s. The unnamed logging line interchanged at Avoca with the BC&G and utilized "trackage rights" to reach the sawmill at Swandale. This scene was taken shortly before operations ceased.
Later, in August of 1829 Horatio Allen, a chief engineer for the Delaware & Hudson Canal Company (later the Delaware & Hudson Railway) tested an early English steam locomotive design on a 16-mile stretch of track the company owned between Honesdale and Carbondale, Pennsylvania. The locomotive used was named the Stourbridge Lion, which was a very simple two-axle machine with a vertical boiler, and it was employed to move coal from the mines at Carbondale to Honesdale. A year after that in August of 1830 the three year old Baltimore & Ohio Railroad tested its famous Tom Thumb designed by Peter Cooper and a month later the South Carolina Canal & Railroad Company tested its noted design the Best Friend of Charleston.
The South Carolina Canal & Railroad Company would also be remembered
by history as it was the first railroad to haul a revenue train with an
American-built steam locomotive when its Best Friend of Charleston, which was built by the West Point Foundry in New York, carried a trainload of passengers on December 25, 1830. With the steam locomotive proving its worth and main line
railroads being constructed on an ever-larger scale it was only a matter
of time before both were adopted by the logging and timber industry.
However, with most logging operations occurring in mountainous regions a
specialized type of locomotive was needed that could both haul heavy
loads up (and down) steep grades while also being able to navigate
rickety and circuitous track. What resulted was three unique types of
geared steam locomotives, the first of which was the Shay.
Another view of Shay #19 which appears to be loading logs deep with Mountain State's "hollers" on August 16, 1961.
The Shay steam locomotive had its
beginnings dating back to the late 1870s when Mr. Shay realized that he
might have a new design that could greatly benefit the timber industry.
After working with Lima Locomotive Works (based in Lima, Ohio) Shay
sold his first locomotive in 1880 to a small railroad in Michigan. Soon
after this others saw the advantages the locomotive provided and sales
The second geared model to debut was the Climax. The Climax steam locomotive has its beginning dating back to 1884 when Charles Scott of the Climax Machinery Company unveiled the first of his own geared steam locomotive
design. The significant advantage of the Climax over the Shay was that
it was not as complicated to maintain and could accommodate a larger
boiler, thus allowing it produce a bit more horsepower and adhesion.
These features along with a lower price tag made the Climax an enticing
choice over the Shay for many logging companies. However, for whatever
reason the Climax was just not as successful in terms of sales as the
Shay with only around 1,100 built.
The final significant geared steam model was the Heisler. The
Heisler was the creation of Charles L. Heisler, which put his geared
locomotive on the market in the 1890s being sold first by the Stearns
Manufacturing Company and later in the first decade of the 20th century
the Heisler Locomotive Works. The Heisler steam locomotive, while
similar in appearance to the Shay was almost identical in operation to
the Climax save for its piston rods were angled at forty-five degrees
instead of the twenty-five degrees on the Climax.
Another display of fording with Shay #19 easing through the Lilly Fork late in the day on November 24, 1961.
Seeing these, and other types of geared steam locomotives in action
was a true sight to behold. Not only could they operate over rough,
uneven, and poor track conditions without a hitch, for the most part
(Shays did have an inherent flaw in that the poor track conditions could
cause drive line length change which could cause the locomotives to run
right off the rails for what appeared to be no reason at all), but also
geared steam locomotives were designed in such a way that all wheels
provided traction which afforded them tremendous levels of adhesion
(thus they could haul logs up torturous grades).
With the development of the Shay in the 1870s logging company's
began rapidly lying down either private or chartered railroads to serve their timber interests. Given the locomotive's flexibility
one could commonly see geared steamers fording streams and creeks as
logging companies would lay down track right through these bodies of
water! The reason for doing this was that logging companies were after
making money as quickly and as cheaply as possible. Thus, once a tract
of land had been logged, they simply picked up the rails and moved on
elsewhere, laying down a new line in the same fashion.
By the early 20th century about half of the states in the country
featured at least a few such railroads although they were most
prevalent in the largest timber tracts such as the Appalachians,
Northeast, and Pacific Northwest. Most often timber companies would
build saw mills near or right beside the railroads which they owned, as it was the most efficient and economical
means to turn the raw logs into lumber, veneer, and other timber
products. Additionally, these little private operations usually
connected to a larger, main line railroad, which could transport the
finished goods to market. Perhaps most notable of these through lines
was that which was the Chesapeake & Ohio Railway's Greenbrier Branch
in West Virginia.
Elk River Coal & Lumber Company Shay #12 pulls a fresh load of logs eastbound along the BC&G main line as a caboose follows along faithfully during the summer of 1958. The train is headed for the nearby mill at Swandale.
The line followed the Greenbrier River northward from Ronceverte and
into the state's rich virgin timber regions of the Appalachians where
numerous private logging companies operated. As the 20th century
progressed with better highways and automobiles being constructed
logging companies found the versatility and efficiency of trucks more to
their liking. Not only could they save money by not having to maintain
a railroad and its equipment but also trucks could be operated
virtually anywhere a road could be constructed (even one plowed out of a
hillside with a bulldozer), saving additional time and money.
By the early 1960s nearly all of the classic logging lines
had been either shutdown or sold with those still operating retiring
their geared steam locomotives and replacing them with small, switcher
diesel locomotives. Today, one of last of these operations is the
Simpson Railroad located west of Tacoma and north of Olympia,
Washington, and dates back to the 1880s. While the railroad now
operates just a fraction of its original main line it continues to move
timber products for its parent, Simpson Investment Company. Given that
most such systems were small, private operations the information
regarding them can be sparse, at best. As such, this section will
attempt to briefly cover as many as possible in a state-by-state
fashion, which are listed above.
ERC&L Shay #12 picks up equipment during the summer of 1958.
For more information about logging lines please click here.
While the website does not cover them in specific detail, it does give a
general listing of many which operated across the
United States and is probably the best single source online regarding
the such. Also, if you are interested in reading more about the unique
geared steam locomotive please click here.
While the geared steamer was most commonly found in industrial
operations, such as in the timber industry, a few Class Is did find a
use for them (including the Western Maryland) along steep branch lines.
Today, several variants of geared steam locomotives survive and even
remain in operation.