The giants of Heber Valley Railroad were sleeping the day I visited them. Standing in majesty, quietly waiting for another day when the crowds would throng to join them on the platform. Grand engines and breathtaking cars rested silently in the yard as soft snow settled around them. Mount Timpanogos stood like a sentinel on the west, smiling down gently on the railroad yard, a friend of many years. In the calm, I imagine the distant echoing of times past and future; excited crowds awaiting their turn to present their ticket to the conductor, the crack of gunfire and puffs of smoke fired by the Salt Water Bunch, and laughter ringing from passengers of all ages. History and a love of heritage run deep in this little valley.
Heber’s railroad of yesteryear, built by Denver & Rio Grande Western Railway almost 125 years ago, delivered products, supplies, and passengers to Provo and back. Today’s trains deliver a different product. Adventure. Excitement. Wonder. Exclusively a tourist railroad now the Heber Valley Railroad carries an assortment of passengers offering a range of experiences. Bouncing little ones bursting with anticipation can meet Princesses, Pirates, and even Santa Claus. Nostalgic history buffs can take a ride aboard historic cars. Adventure seekers can enjoy a combination of riding the rails and rafting the great Provo River. Passengers full of wanderlust can escape and soak up Utah’s pristine beauty and breathe our high mountain air. There’s a little something for everyone on the train Heber Valley calls her own.
Running Towards A Bright Future
Not long ago, Heber Valley Railroad’s future seemed blocked. Mayor Connie Tatton didn’t want the trains sitting or walking; she wanted them running. She approached the President of the Midway Boosters, Mark Nelson, in a conversation that went a little like this: “Mark, the Heber Valley Railroad is struggling. We’re deeply in debt, the recession has not been good to us, and we’re afraid we’re going to have to close. You have a background in business and marketing. I wonder if you would come to one of our board meetings and just listen and see what you think?”
A stroke of luck came their way when the Heber Valley Historic Railroad Board roped in a man with a vision. Within a year’s time, Mark Nelson transformed from a consultant for the board in 2011 to Executive Director. His vision included two main products, Scenic Daytime Trains and Special Events. Now with those products firmly in place, Heber Valley Railroad is up and running in all sorts of new directions.
As a man trained in marketing, Nelson began speaking to directors of successful tourist railroads around the country. He compiled a list of the top five elements successful tourist railroads possess: a steam engine, a dining car, open-air cars, high-quality equipment, and a first-class car. Of these elements, the Heber Valley Railroad had none. Faced with this daunting information, Nelson began with what the railroad could control right away — cracking customer service.
“I had no background in tourist railroads, no background in trains. I didn’t know anything about anything, but I knew a lot about customer service and marketing.” Reaching out to the two million people living within an hour’s drive to our valley seemed like a great place to start.
Pirates, And Flappers, And Santa, Oh My!
Heber Valley Railroad began offering Train “Specials” catering to a price-sensitive market whose ticket grants them a unique experience. Mark’s eyes twinkle as he talks about the BEST employees rooted out of Wasatch High School’s drama department to facilitate these experiences. Throughout the year, these young employees take on any number of exciting roles: Harry Potter characters, a Taylor Swift lookalike, Santa’s daughters, hippies, flappers, or World War II-era characters. These themed trains are all about what’s going on inside of the cars. Now, Heber Valley Railroad has other tourist railroads asking them how they’re getting so many people to ride. Mark’s answer? “The magic is the young people that we’ve integrated into all of this.”
“This makes lots of jobs for lots of kids in Wasatch County.” Mark gushes about these kids as if they were his own, “The passengers just love them because they have so much energy, so much positive! They’re happy! They’re excited to be there. We have the most talented kids. If you’re not a happy, smiling person, you can’t work here. If you’re grumpy, you can’t work here. We tell our employees that all the time. They’re wonderful, they’re amazing! We have fantastic customer service. We have the best employees!”
The goodwill created through the railroad within the valley is phenomenal! For the Christmas Season’s North Pole Express alone, the railroad hired 150 young people and bought 40,000 cookies from a local cookie company. The special boxed lunches provided with some ticket packages are purchased through local eatery, Dotties Kolache.
For customers looking for a historical experience or wanting to admire the gorgeous local scenery, Heber Valley Railroad also offers Scenic Daytime Train excursions.
Two Years, Plus Three Million Dollars, Equals One Amazing Collection
Ever working on completing the top five elements on his list, Nelson reports, “Over the past two years, we have purchased 20 passenger cars and three locomotives. Where before we had one of the worst collections of the tourist railroads, we now have one of the best collections of equipment! We’re really excited about the future!”
My boots crunched through the snow and tapped on the rails as Mark and I made our way to visit the cars resting in the snow-covered yard. My hand clasped the cold metal rail as I climbed the steps to the entrance of a 1925 car. This particular car had been parked for 40 years before being lovingly restored to its former glory. Stepping into the car was like stepping back in time. With its open floor plan, perimeter seating, and player piano with inlaid stain-glass, I could imagine a stunning bride and groom welcoming guests to their wedding reception. I can picture a social event or corporate recognition taking place in this welcoming space, maybe an intimate soirée or my family’s next gathering — Utah family-style. My eyes stayed wide open, as I daydreamed of dancing the night away, swaying in time to the music playing in my imagination. This quaint 1920’s car is not only for dreamers but for everyone here and now.
Next, I visited the stunning Coach Storage Building. Recently erected to look and feel as though it has jumped out of the 1930’s it will house as many as seventeen cars. The brick edifice touts a feel of age as does the car I see next. Before I step foot into this car or even know its name, I can feel it is unique. Shades are opened one by one to reveal an exquisite scene. My eyes jump from the ornate woodwork to the decorated ceiling and light fixtures. It takes my breath away. I can’t help but stroke the aged varnish on the rounded woodwork corners and marvel at the opulent feeling of this car. The very smell is old and rich. It’s an exceptional car — the 1913 Presidential Car — and it has not yet been restored. It has been meticulously preserved and is entirely self-contained with heating and air conditioning. Visually, it is in the same state as when President Truman toured Colorado and Utah. He gave speeches on the back deck of this three-bedroom car. Would you care to rent it? Remember the list of the top five items successful tourist railroads have? This is number five — a first-class car steeped with history, and its home is right here in Heber Valley.
As I step away from the Presidential Car, the shop seemed to crackle with energy and urgency. The excitement is palpable for the complete restoration of the No. 618 steam engine expected later this year. From number five on the list to number one – a steam engine. Built 113 years ago to serve the Oregon Short Line Railroad Company, I couldn’t help but give it a quiet moment of reverence. The railroad’s pride and joy is currently dismantled, carefully tucked in the shop, patiently awaiting its conversion from being coal-fired to oil burning. I had the honor of standing beside its enormous newly built iron wheels and admiring the intricate pipework of the boiler. The nearing completion of the locomotive’s restoration will undoubtedly be worth celebrating.
I say my goodbyes to the grand old engine and wander back through the buzzing shop. Mechanics bustle around, each consumed in their work. Mike Manwiller, Heber Valley Railroad’s Chief Mechanical Officer, is at the heart of the entire setup. The railroad would “be nowhere; be nothing without his genius.” He is a fourth-generation ‘railroader.’ The man knows trains. His skills come from the very fiber of his genetic makeup. He is an irreplaceable gem in the pocket of Heber Valley Railroad. It takes his expertise and grit, along with six other technicians, to keep all these immense metal beasts running productively. The shop has already turned out several restoration projects, but there are more slated. Seventeen cars and a locomotive recently rumbled in from Canada. Even though these are practically ready to roll, and already have, these pieces need their electric systems converted from their original 1925 32-volt systems along with heating upgrades.
The List May Be Complete, But It’s Far From Being Finished
Just a few short years from when the list was originally compiled, Heber Valley Railroad can proudly check off each of the top 5 elements of a successful tourist railroad this year. The completion of historic steam locomotive No. 618 will be the last check. Expanding the depth of experiences is the current goal of Heber Valley Railroad. Filling all the newly acquired equipment with laughter and smiles and running them down the line is what’s happening now. With equipment that spans centuries, customer service, and a first-rate location, Heber Valley Railroad falls in line as one of the largest tourist railroads in the nation.
Crunching back through the snow, I turn into the crisp air and admire this landmark of Heber. The station stands as a stately reminder of how far we have come. This is a saga of our western roots and a memoir of our ancestors. Each snowflake that falls is like a memory of a passenger throughout time. The past, present, and future all compiling, layer upon layer, to wrap the yard in joy – I foresee the railroad being around for my children and their children. I pray it will forever stand the test of time. May it always be an icon of our Heber Valley.
Heber Valley Railroad’s Gunslingers
Guns blaze like fireworks on the 4th of July every Monday and Friday evening during the regular Heber Valley Railroad operating season. The “Salt Water Bunch” fire over 100 rounds of self-made blanks in a gunfight skit. Living Historian gunfighter, Ryan Brown chuckles, “Every kid wants to grow up and be a cowboy running around yelling and shooting guns in the air.” There’s certainly a bit of that, but the experience is richer if you look closely. These men have a deep respect, love, and passion, for the unique period of time in our Western heritage they represent.
Leo Wood speaks from the heart about donning his late 1800’s hat, boots, and Coach Gun; the authentic regalia to go “shed the day.” For a short time he’s able to tune the world out and be “just right there, in the moment.” As a child Leo would watch from his grandparents’ home in Charleston. “I always liked to see the train go past, all the people having fun in the open gondolas, and wave at them. It was one of my highlights.” Now he is a part of the camaraderie Heber Valley Railroad offers their employees.
The rails built the West, but gunpowder and lead tamed it.
Did You Know?
Living Historian gunfighters are trained in the art of aiming safely during reenactments. Distance and direction are a big deal. Even though no bullet is fired, they take safety seriously.
If there’s no bullet in the cartridges and shells, what is? Cream of Wheat or floral foam is carefully loaded with black powder. The boys reload together, as another built-in safety precaution.
Gunfighters are using modern remakes of guns used in the 1870-1880 time period. A replica black powder Remington 1858 revolver, Colt Army Model 1860, Colt Navy Model 1861 and Model 99 1887 Coach are small samplings of the fire power used on site.
It all started with a Wild West Days themed Special Train. The gig stuck and today it’s become a mainstay of the railroad.
The gunfight is considered “a good ‘un” if when the firing is done they can’t see each other through the gun smoke.
On special occasions they fire a “candy cannon” packed with salt water taffy. “It’s like a piñata going off!”
Many of Heber Valley Railroad gunfighters come from reenacting backgrounds. Part of the fun is doing the research for their attire. They aim for the 1880-1890 sort of look.
Notice the little things like the cuffs, spurs, holsters, the style of hat, even the silk fabric of their wild rags. It’s this level of detail that makes history come to life.