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Yosemite Mountain Sugar Pine Railroad Bounces Back After Railroad Fire

The fires burning in Northern California have now grown to over 200,000 acres and have killed more than 40 people. Closer to home the area off Highway 41 near Yosemite is recovering from the Railroad Fire that threatened communities, resorts and even a large grove of giant sequoias.

"The fire went right around us. Even on our main line of track there's only a portion that is affected by this fire." - Shane Blackwell

But perhaps the most iconic feature at risk of being lost was the historic Yosemite Mountain Sugar Pine Railroad.

Credit Ezra David Romero / Valley Public Radio
Valley Public Radio
Shane Blackwell, manager of the railroad, says without the help of fire crews the railway would of been lost.

Josh Trayor conducts train rides every couple hours along a four mile route in the Sierra National Forest. It’s all part of the Yosemite Mountain Sugar Pine Railroad. In late August the fleet of trains and historic buildings almost went up in smoke.

“As you guys can probably tell we did have a little fire here a few weeks back,” Trayor says.

On large portions of the ride both sides of the forest and a little bit of the railway are charred. The wildfire started not too far away from the railway. General Manager Shane Blackwell was on site that day, August 29.  

“We were preparing to board for our second run of the day, a 12:30 p.m. run,” says Blackwell. “One of our employees had spotted a plume of smoke across the street from our entrance. We went into immediate action.”

Blackwell then knew this historic property was at risk burning and his crew tried to put the fire out themselves.   

“We took the pump truck up saw that it was out of our range,” says Blackwell. “We came back to the railroad and the fire was right on the highway’s edge.”

Blackwell and the rest of the staff were eventually evacuated and fire crews moved onto the property to actively protect the railway on all sides. Blackwell says if it wasn’t for crews choosing to stage here, the railroad would’ve been lost.

Credit Ezra David Romero / Valley Public Radio
Valley Public Radio
Officials with the railroad say without the effort of fire crews the line would of been lost.

“The fire went right around us,” Blackwell says. “Even on our main line of track there’s only a portion that is affected by this fire and I think it’s a gain attribute to those men trying to preserve this piece of history.”

The company's operated here since 1965 at the site of the old Madera Sugar Pine Railroad, which operated from 1899 through 1931. The train was used to carry lumber that was logged here.

"We're just happy it didn't stop our season. We were able to get one little go before we shut down for winter." - Shane Blackwell

Today the company operates two historic geared steam locomotives called Shays, which run off pressurized steam and fuel oil. Because there weren’t enough tourists today to fill the 200 person train, we’re riding what’s called a Jenny Railcar that can go about 20 miles per hour.  It’s a Ford Model A automobile converted for rail that kind of looks like a small version of a San Francisco cable car.

Credit Ezra David Romero / Valley Public Radio
Valley Public Radio
The railway has multiple locomotives called Shays.

“They were taxis, you could say, transporting men to and from mill sites to works sites,” says Blackwell. “Rather than firing a steam locomotive, which is rather labor intensive.”

Now a month later Blackwell says the railroad is still feeling the effects of the fire. Parts of the forest around the line are charred and he says the company lost revenue because of the blaze.

“We did lose a substantial amount of business,” says Blackwell. “We missed one of our busier weekends, Labor Day weekend in September. And we’re just happy it didn’t stop our season. We were able to get one little go before we shut down for winter.”

But for the other riders and I the fire damage is adding to the experience. As we head back to the station Blackwell points out an area scorched by fire.

“This wasn’t a purposeful burn here. This was just something they were trying to maintain,” says Blackwell.

For visitors who weren’t able to make it up because of the fire the railroad will be open through October and maybe into November if weather permits.

Ezra David Romero is an award-winning radio reporter and producer. His stories have run on Morning Edition, Morning Edition Saturday, Morning Edition Sunday, All Things Considered, Here & Now, The Salt, Latino USA, KQED, KALW, Harvest Public Radio, etc.
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