Heber Valley Railroad steams ahead
Ride into several generations back in time, to a period where time was measured in days and weeks and not minutes and seconds. Fresh mountain air mixed a spice of smoke wafting from the pot bellied stove, becomes a part of the Heber Valley Railroad experience. As it winds through the mountain passes, the railroad train whistle blows, echoing off the mountains of Provo canyon.
After years of struggles to keep on track, and even closing down for two years in 1990-1992, the lean years have gradually been replaced by solid bookings, spurred on by fortuitous events like the movies Thomas the Tank Engine and Polar Express, which fueled the Heber train into the stratosphere. That coupled with an array of promotions that are downright fun, bring riders back sooner than later.
The non-profit organization is supported by ticket sales, donations and concession sales, which pay the railroad’s way. The state of Utah granted right of way to the railroad, reaching 16 miles down Provo Canyon.
Thursday, Dec.28, the 11 a.m. train departs the Heber Valley station on a tube-n-ride adventure. After a 20 minute ride to Soldier Hollow, passengers who want to experience riding the tubing hill, get off the train. Those who want more of a train trip through scenery, continue the journey to the Vivian Park station in Provo Canyon. The train climbs back up the canyon and picks up tuckered-out tubers for the short ride back to Heber.
Richard Knight, and his wife Mona, took their daughter Kaela, 10, and son Stephen, 6, on HVR as Richard is a self described train fanatic, and sees his passion continuing in his kids.
Diane Dray, Public relations for the Heber Valley railroad, came to Utah in 2002 by Amtrak, she said, via Australia. She feels her joining the railroad was meant to be, as she moved to Heber, and after hearing the train whistle every day, applied for a job with the railroad, and has been with them ever since.
Dray said that the train works closely with restaurants, hotels and shops in the community.
With the four new cars, the Polar express train can hold 500 people in the holiday spirit, who are treated to the reading of the Polar express daring the trip, as they are warmed by woodstoves or a pot bellied stove in every car of the train, just as in the days when trains were in their heyday.
Three of the four early 1900 vintage cars came from Punxsutawney Pennsylvania. The coaches were hauled cross-country on the track, using special couplings to connect them to the freight train pulling them. Once they had arrived in Provo from Denver, a crane lifted them on flat bed trucks, to be hauled up Provo Canyon. The next day they were in service for the 2005 Polar express train. Dray said the people work with the railroad out of love.
Passenger Michael Kearns, can cite old train routes like a historian. He brought his camera equipment on this trip, was disappointed that no one told him the diesel locomotive would be pulling the train. "It’s not about diesel, it’s about steam," he said. Kearns, from the Salt Lake Valley, has a model railroad layout based on Salt Lake City and Park City, he said. He has 13 steam locomotives for his tracks.
The steam engine which is temporarily out of service, number 618, is a turn-of-the century shiny black Baldwin. It was receiving a valve job in shop, housed next to the station. Many of the parts can no longer be found, and have to be machined in the shop.
Fewer people know how to restore trains, and some of the ones who do are now in their 70s Dray said. The companies who made the engines, like Baldwin, are long ago out of business, so some spare parts are brought from as far away as South America, where some old steam engine locomotives are still in service. But what is no longer made, and can no longer be located, must be manufactured in the Heber Valley Railroad shop.
Engineer Bryan Morris has worked off and on for the HVR since high school. He said he had model trains as a kid. "The great part of my job, he said, is you get to play with a real train." He said the train averages 15 miles-per-hour, which is why it used to be affectionately called the Heber Creeper, before the railroad changed hands.
Maybe gentle speed is a reason why some animals on the tracks sometimes don’t seem intimidated by the approaching 800 tons of steel. "I don’t know what it is about horses, but they’ll just stand there and look up at you," Morris said. "Horses will walk up the track instead of getting off it. The train whistle gets a lot of use. Morris said that deer get off quickly, and he sees a moose or two passing the time on the tracks.
The strangest experience Morris related was when the train hit a boat. The story has become lore. years ago a car was pulling a boat on a trailer on a road above the train, and the boat and trailer came loose. The boat slid off the trailer, and like a sled went onto the tracks right in front of the train. That was the end of the boat.
Morris said one of his highlights was carrying passengers during the Olympics to the venues in Soldier Hollow. Once at Soldier Hollow, passengers were transported to the venues by horse-drawn sleighs.
Trains can run during snowstorms. A plow leads the way, clearing the tracks.
Steel wheels can slip on the steel tracks with snow and Ice, and even wet leaves, so sand is dispensed on the tracks as the train moves.
In the summer the opposite concern keeps conducto0rs on their toes. Locomotives, both diesel and steam, can spew out sparks, so a fire car follows the train to put out any small fires.
The quality of the coal makes a difference in the way the steam engine runs.
The HVR climbs up to a four percent grade, and if the locomotive doesn’t have a full enough head of steam, the train can stall on the grade.
Popular gift shop items include whistles, engineer caps and anything with the Heber Valley Railroad logo on it.
A couple hundred of gallons of oil are used in a locomotive oil change
A taste of trips available seasonally: comedy murder mystery, casino gaming, campfire sing-along, Dutch oven meal trips, barbeques, bike and hike, raft ‘n rail, chartering trains for weddings, parties or conventions, and the list goes on.
The Heber Valley Railroad depot is located at 450 South, 600 West, Heber City. For information on upcoming events, visit http://www.hebervalleyrr.org or call (435) 654-5601, or in Salt Lake, (801) 581-998. For tickets, call 800-888-tixx (8499)
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Public comment was split on the proposal for a massive new development at Kimball Junction during a public hearing Wednesday. Summit County councilors did not vote and indicated they would work to negotiate further with the developer.