Trains are a labor of love for many, and that's readily apparent when making a visit to the historic Heber Valley Railroad.

Mike Manwiller, chief mechanical officer, has been with the railroad for "just over 10 years," but his fervor for trains runs lifelong.

"Fourth generation in the family. My dad used to take me around to see steam locomotives all the time when I was a kid," he said.

Conductor Kerry Ellertson has been with the railroad since 1971.

"It was a summer job for me when I was in high school," he said. "And I loved it, I love trains."

On the other hand, Mark Nelson, executive director, has been with the Heber Railroad for two years and concedes that he "had no train experience before that."

"I think business management and funding is the reason they brought me in," he said. "But trains really grow on you and the reason I'm still here is because I want to see this place be successful and the railroad be preserved for future generations."

All about steam

The Heber Valley Railroad has two steam locomotives, both built in 1907. The No. 75 "has been in the shop for 10 years," said Nelson. "And it's undergoing a major, major rebuild. It was completely worn out, had not been well maintained.

"When it's finished will be a million dollar project."

The other steam locomotive, the No. 618, has been out of service for four years and should be back on the tracks later this summer.

"Steam locomotives have an almost alive feeling about them.


They just have a character and a personality with the steam rolling out, the 'chug' and everything else," Ellertson said. "It's something that diesel just doesn't have,"

Manwiller has a similar take.

"It's a living, breathing way to touch the past," he said. "You know, it was a time when America built everything and it was all part of the industrial revolution that took place in this country and there are a lot of things that are really neat - the craftsmanship, the skill that was put into it, the pride that was put into it.

The No. 618 steam locomotive, built in 1907 and one of Heber Valley Railroad s two steam-powered engines, has been off the tracks for four years and is
The No. 618 steam locomotive, built in 1907 and one of Heber Valley Railroad s two steam-powered engines, has been off the tracks for four years and is expected to be back in service later this summer. (Photo by James Belmont)

"These locomotives are what built America. A lot of people don't realize that, but it was when the steam locomotives came around in the early 1800s, and then railroads as they grew throughout the 1800s, are what built the United States. It was the ability to move large quantities of goods from two different points," he said

"Anybody that likes anything that's mechanical can easily appreciate a steam locomotive," said Manwiller.

Ellertson noted that steam sells.

"We find that steam actually brings in more passengers," he said. "So when we can offer steam it's going to increase our ridership. A little more expensive to run - you have to have another crew member, you have to have a fireman and I think it costs a little more in fuel, but not a lot."

Preserving history

"The Heber Valley Railroad is owned by the state of Utah," said Nelson. "But it's what's called an independent state agency, and that means we don't get any funding. We survive on ticket sales."

Nelson spearheads fundraising efforts for the railroad and he recently enjoyed a big win in that department.

"I've been trying now for three legislative sessions to get the state legislature to give us some one-time money to help bring the steam locomotives back. And this year we succeeded. The legislature appropriated $250,000, one-time money, for the Heber Valley Railroad to apply to the steam locomotive restoration project," he said.

"And that's been one of the biggest challenges that we have, is getting the steam locomotives back, so we're terribly excited about that.

A pair of steam locomotive engines have each been undergoing years of refurbishing in the  shop  at the Heber Valley Railroad. (Alan Maguire/Park Record)
A pair of steam locomotive engines have each been undergoing years of refurbishing in the shop at the Heber Valley Railroad. (Alan Maguire/Park Record)

Nelson credits Rep. Kraig Powell and Sen. Kevin Van Tassel, whose respective districts each include Heber, with securing the funds. He said the $250,000 appropriation "would never have happened without their full support and both of them had much to do with it."

The railroad is similar to an arts organization, said Nelson.

"When a couple of my daughters were really into ballet," he said, "I was the board president of Utah Regional Ballet and it was like we were always dying for funding. That's what the railroad is like.

"It's so expensive to operate them that funding is always a big challenge."

The No. 75 steam locomotive will benefit from some of the $250,000, Nelson said, "and it probably has a year to 18 months of work to go," before it returns to service after more than a decade of refurbishment.

The No. 618, however, will be the quickest beneficiary of the new funds. Steam locomotives need to undergo periodic, detailed inspections that take time and money.

"And so this No. 618 has been sitting idle for four years, waiting for the funds to do the inspection," Nelson said. "Last October we pulled the 618 into the shop, even though we didn't have the money to do so, and started the inspection process. And we're about 50 percent through the inspection process. That process is probably about a $200,000 expense.

"We won't be able to complete that until after we get the funds from the state that the legislature allocated, and then we'll go as quickly as we can. We anticipate that the No. 618 will be back on the tracks late this summer - August or September."

The shop

Heber Valley Railroad's "shop," where it works on its trains, is a cavernous building that resembles an airplane hangar filled with hulking equipment.

"Our shop is one of probably only five or six in the country that has the expertise and the tools to rebuild a steam locomotive," said Nelson. "We're very fortunate to have that facility here."

Manwiller, who runs the shop, is a veritable renaissance man when it comes to train work.

"Inside this shop we do woodworking, we do ironworking, steel, fabrication, machine work, boiler work," he said. "There really almost isn't any craft that we don't really touch in one way or another. I mean, even down to upholstery, doing a coach or even the simple things like the seats inside the cab of a locomotive."

Though the trains Manwiller works on have all been around for decades, the work itself never gets old.

"Every day you come to work and you might have a general idea what you're going to be doing but you never really know 100 percent what you're going to get into," he said. "Maybe we gotta go out and we gotta dig up a slide or maybe we gotta unload a car or maybe we're gonna lift a locomotive or maybe we're gonna make new parts."

The shop even does work for other railroads around the country that don't have the equipment and expertise that Heber does.

"There's just a huge variety of stuff," Manwiller said. "It's never boring. Never, ever is it boring. It's always interesting, it's always something new and it always kind of stimulates your mind, constantly. "

Summer schedule

The Heber Valley Railroad operates seven days a week. Though its busiest season is winter - Ellertson said over 18,000 people rode its North Pole Express this past December - summer is chock full of events.

Tuesdays through Sundays, the Provo Canyon Limited train takes a three-hour round-trip along the banks of the Provo River to Vivian Park starting at 11 a.m. and the Deer Creek Express takes a 90-minute round-trip starting at 3 p.m. that goes alongside Deer Creek Reservoir to Decker Bay. Both trips include live on-board entertainment.

The regular Monday Night Train departs at 7 p.m. for a "rowdy and fun" 90-minute ride that features some sing-along music.

There are also many special trains and events that combine train rides with all manner of other activities. There are trains that take passengers to float trips on the Provo River, BBQ dinner events, trains featuring "oldies" bands, "Date Night" trains and even a Harry Potter-themed train in late July.

"Over Memorial Day, we have a family-oriented event called Wild West Days," said Nelson. "And we are going to slightly modify that to make it a steam locomotive fundraising-flavored Wild West event. So we'll have gunfighters and train robberies and lots of things like that. And all of them will be kind of angled towards the 'bring the steam back' message."

When the No. 618 returns to service, Nelson intends to hold a big event.

"They'll come from all over the country to see that, because it's quite a historic locomotive and there just aren't very many of them."

The historic Heber Valley Railroad is located at 450 South 600 West in Heber City, Utah. For more information on the railroad, for full schedules of train rides and events or to buy tickets, visit or call 435-654-5601. The railroad recommends reserving tickets in advance of its more popular events, such as Wild West Days, May 23, 24 and 26.