FISH CAMP, Calif. — A smoke-billowing beast makes daily trips through the sugar pine forest in the town of Fish Camp just outside the gates of Yosemite National Park.
Conductor Karron Bradshaw doesn’t like to brag but she is one of the few people in the world still conducting the very rare Shay Locomotive.
“This engine specifically was built in 1928. She is 95-years-old,” said Bradshaw. “I know that there are only about 20 to 30 Shay locomotives left in the world.”
What sets the Shay apart from other locomotives are vertical pistons and the very noticeable gears connected to the wheels.
“It has an offset appearance but Shays are virtually 12-wheel drive,” said Bradshaw.
That extra traction allowed the Shay to climb steep hills and weave through turns. Unfortunately it also made the locomotive slow.
“They were in the lumber business not the railroad business, so they weren't made to go fast... about 15 mph,” said engineer Ed Mee.
On top of the Shay being slow, the engine runs hot. Today, the steam engine is fueled by used motor oil but originally it ran on wood, which inadvertently put a lot more heat in the small engine room.
“On a summer day it hits 135 (degrees Fahrenheit) in here,” said Mee.
The powerful and hot Shay was necessary for the logging operations in this area. Much like the mighty redwood and the girthy sequoia, the old growth sugar pines in this area were massive. From 1899 to 1931 The Madera Sugar Pine Company used Shay engines to transport trees to the mill. Over the years, they sent 1.5 billion board-feet worth.
“If we had it stacked up next to us, that rough-cut lumber, we would be able to lay it around the Earth's equator and go around the world 11 times,” said Bradshaw.
The Great Depression and diminishing lumber supply ultimately put an end to logging in this area. Today, tourists can enjoy the regrowth of the once clear-cut forest and they are welcome to bring their furry friends on the train.
“We are pet-friendly; dogs ride for free. We’ve actually had other animals, birds and cats,” said Bradshaw.
After your excursion, be sure to tour the logging museum. You can learn what a steam donkey is and look at a section of the old 54-mile-long flume that also transported lumber to the mill.
Yosemite Mt. Sugar Pine Railroad is open daily. See their website for booking.
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