Yosemite Mountain Sugar Pine Railroad

This summer, as a special treat to celebrate our 21st wedding anniversary, we went on holiday to California. Our holiday was planned around tourism and family things but, by sheer coincidence, one of the places we stayed was two miles from the Yosemite Mountain Sugar Pine Railroad. Honestly, it really was a coincidence!

I arrived on a brilliantly sunny morning, and collected my ticket from the ticket office.

In the early 20th Century the original railroad was constructed by the Madera Sugar Pine Lumber Company. At one point it had seven locomotives, over 100 log cars, and 140 miles of track through these mountains. The company operated by clear cutting, the removal of every tree in a parcel of land. As a result the track was laid into an area, all the trees were felled and the track was removed and relaid in a new area. They had a sawmill a couple of miles from the present railroad and they transported the lumber 54 miles to Madera county using a flume, a man made water channel. Unfortunately, the depression and a lack of trees caused the logging operation and the railroad to close in 1931. It is said that if all the trees that were removed from this area were laid end to end they would stretch three times around the equator.

Fortunately, the trackbed, gradients and rights of way remained in existance and the current railroad was established in 1961.

My train didn’t depart for some time so I could look around the depot. The train was headed by this Shay…

Number 10 is a 3 foot gauge Shay built by the Lima Locomotive Works in Ohio in 1928 . She is a huge locomotive. she weighs 81 tons and I was told she is the largest narrow gauge Shay ever built. Originally owned by the Pickering Lumber Company she worked for the West Side Lumber Company from 1934, until being purchased by the YMSPRR in 1961.

Number 10 is oil fired with three pivoting trucks (one under the tender) and drive to all 12 wheels. Here’s the front truck and part of the drive mechanism. The large cylinder is for the Westinghouse air brakes.

Here’s a close up of the bevel gears used to drive each axle.

Here is one of the longitudinal drive shafts. You can see the square sliding prismatic joints to allow the drive shaft to contract or expand to accommodate the rotation of the swiveling trucks.

Here’s one of the universal joints and part of the reverser shaft.

A close up of where the three cylinders connect to the drive shaft, and more of the reverser shaft.

On the other side of the loco is the pump for the air brakes.

Ephraim Shay was a schoolteacher and a civil servant before becoming a logger and a railway engineer. Also, he was a shrewd business man. He obtained several patents to cover this unique loco design. No 10 has a plate listing some of the patents, presumably to remind anyone that it might not be a good idea to copy the design.

After inspecting the Shay I looked at the passenger cars, some were covered…

…and others were open air log cars.

I walked down the depot past No. 402, a centre cab diesel.

This is the engine shed. Inside on the left is the line’s other Shay locomotive, No 15, built in 1913 and acquired by the YMSPRR in 1988 after she had been on static display for a number of years. On the right is one of the lines Jenny Railcars, Ford Model A automobiles converted for rail use. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find anyone to ask for permission to enter the shed and take some photos.

Outside the shed was every railroad modeller’s favourite accessory – a classic American pick up.

I boarded the train. With a lovely, deep whistle and the sound of the bell  ringing we headed off into the forest. The Shay has a very different exhaust note from the English engines I am used to. The whistle, bell and exhaust sounded fantastic and for the first time I understood why some modellers want to use DCC sound.

The first part of the line is downhill. The engineer told me he applies light braking downhill, this stretch out the cars slightly to give him more control. The locos use local water which is full of minerals. To stop the pipe work becoming blocked they blow out pipes once every journey. It’s an impressive sight. The steam is released at 450 psi and over 300 degrees F.

About half way round the tour we made a 10 minute stopover at Lewis Creek Canyon. The tender took on water…

…and I got the opportunity to talk to the engineer. (He’s the one on the left in case you were wondering 🙂 )

The return journey was mostly uphill. You could feel the power of the Shay and the sound of the engine was great.

After our hour long journey we arrived back at the main depot. I visited the Thornberry Logging Museum. They had this steam donkey engine that was used to pull logs to the railway or to the sawmill.

This gas (petrol) powered dragsaw was used to cut logs to size. These were the forerunners of the modern chainsaw.

Finally, I took a walk down the line and found some of the other stock. Firstly, this impressive snow plow (plough).

I’m told that is was the West Side Lumber Company’s plow No. 2 and it is rare to see a narrow gauge snowplow.

I think it would make a super model.

There was this enormous bogie tank wagon. Look at the aged wooden frame.

A simple bogie, flat wagon.

Finally, I was surprised to find No. 5, a two axle diesel switch engine built in 1935.

No. 5 didn’t seemed to have moved for a while and I was told she’s not operational at the moment.

Visiting the Yosemite Mountain Sugar Pine Railroad was an unexpected surprise, and a great pleasure.

Yes, I can say ‘I’ve been there, and I got the T shirt’.






    • Hi Paul Good to hear from you. Yeah, the sound of the Shay was lovely. They opened it up to climb the hills and you can feel the raw power of it. Having said that I don’t think the passenger train was really testing her, she had plenty in reserve! Glad you like pick ups too – my dream run around is an American pick up…


  1. Brilliant Steve. You lucky so and so! I only ever saw a stuffed and mounted Shay on my trip to the States. Have an HOn30 one to build though! See you Sunday!



    • Hi David, Yes the Shay was great. A real monster of a loco! Looking forward to seeing your US HOn30 layout (Joking!!). Unfortunately I wont make Sunday my shoulder is still not right. Hope to see you in October.


    • Hi Michael
      Yes, you’re right. It would make a great ‘preservation’ layout. Lots of atmosphere. On the day I visited there were 2 coach loads of tourists – so you’d need to paint a lot of figures 🙂


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.