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 railroads, 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 logging railroads still in operation, most notable of which is the Simpson Railroad at Shelton, Washington which dates back to the 19th century!
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.
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.
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 were off.
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.
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 railroads began popping up almost overnight. 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 logging 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.
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 railroads 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 logging railroads 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 below (of note, just because a state may not be listed it does not mean logging railroads did not operate there, simply that I have not been able to locate any information about them).
(A deep thanks to the Museum of the Rockies at Montana State University for allowing Ron Nixon's historic collection of historic logging operations to be featured here. Please note that the photos featured on this page feature their corresponding image number so that you may quickly and easily find more information about it from their website. To view Ron Nixon's entire collection please click here.)
For more information about logging railroads please click here. While the website does not cover them in specific detail, it does give a general listing of many logging railroads 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.