HEBER CITY — Two steam locomotives are surrounded by puddles of oil and large machinery dating back to World War II. Nestled between old wheels and broken bolts, the No. 75 and the No. 618 sit quietly in a workshop — just as they have for years.
Since 1899, trains have been traveling the railroad tracks between Heber City and Provo. As times, economies and transportation methods have changed, so too has the purpose of this railroad, which since 1992 has been operated by the Heber Valley Historic Railroad Authority.
These days, the railroad caters to tourists and families, focusing on preserving pieces of history while entertaining. Trains operate year-round, regardless of the weather, for visitors of all ages. Themed trains and events reflect different seasons and holidays, including spring Easter trains, the Pumpkin Festival and the North Pole Express. Monday night fares are reduced to accommodate families, and select Friday night trains include special events such as food tastings and magic shows.
But what about the No. 75 and the No. 618? Mark Nelson, executive director of the Heber Valley Historic Railroad Authority, sees these classic machines as a key component of the organization's future.
“Kind of the heart and soul of this historic railroad, and most historic railroads, are steam locomotives,” Nelson said.
Trains on the Heber Valley tracks have served a variety of purposes, including transporting both animals and working commuters through the mountains. According to the pamphlet “Heber Valley Railroad History in Pictures,” the Heber City railroad station dispatched more sheep than anywhere else in the country during the 1930s.
Many Utahns continued to travel by train for nearly half a century. But by the 1940s, new roads made driving the more popular option — and in the 1960s, the railroad fell into disuse and its tracks were abandoned.
Railroad enthusiasts worked alongside business and government officials to save the trains, however, and by 1971, the tourist line known as the “Heber Creeper” was up and running. Two decades later, the Heber Valley Historic Railroad Authority was established.
Nelson described five essential elements that he says every successful tourist railroad has: steam locomotives, open-air cars, a first-class car, an old-fashioned caboose and passenger cars. During the 1990s, the Heber Valley Historic Railroad had all of these elements.
“People come from all over the country,” Nelson said. “It’s amazing how many people love steam locomotives.”
Using burned combustible materials to power their steam engines, these locomotives are known for their old-time appearance and lifelike sound. Because steam locomotives represent a particular era in history, railroads that offer them for rides are at an advantage, according to Nelson.
“There’s nothing else quite like it,” said Michael Manwiller, chief mechanical officer for the Heber Valley Historic Railroad Association, and whose family has worked for railroads for four generations. “It’s a direct connection — of something you can look at, you can listen to, you can touch — from the past. It’s a time machine. A steam locomotive allows a sort of time travel. It’s this living, breathing thing you can experience.”
Financial issues, coupled with normal mechanical wear and tear, have meant saying goodbye to many of the features that Nelson says are important to visitors, including the steam locomotives. Although there is currently plenty for families to do and see on Heber Valley’s trains, steam locomotives are the main attraction that railroad visitors want to see and interact with, according to Nelson.
The Heber Valley Historic Railroad is considered an independent state agency, meaning that it essentially operates as a nonprofit business owned by the state. The organization receives no financial assistance from the government, and it could be sued, bankrupted or closed.
“For various reasons, at the same time the economy really tanked in the country and in Utah, things were also happening here at the railroad,” Nelson said. “The Heber Valley Railroad has kind of been in a decline since 2007 in revenue and ridership.”
Although business is improving and things seem to be looking up, the key is the restoration of these out-of-order steam locomotives, according to Nelson.
A small team of full-time employees currently runs the Heber Valley trains, along with a significant number of part-time workers and volunteers. These volunteers, many of whom are retired mechanics and engineers, primarily work on inspecting and restoring parts of the Heber Valley Historic Railroad’s two steam locomotives.
In order for the locomotives to be legally operable once more, they must meet the safety and maintenance regulations placed on other commercial railroads. Meeting these regulations means taking apart the cars entirely, inspecting and cleaning their individual parts, and replacing any unsafe or worn-down pieces.
The No. 75 has been off the tracks and in a workshop for years. According to Nelson, the workshop in Heber City is one of only five or six in America that still build and repair steam locomotives. The work can be done in Utah on-site — for a price.
The No. 75 locomotive alone requires $1 million in repairs. Since its temporary retirement in 2002, $750,000 has been invested — but progress has been slow in recent years.
The No. 618 locomotive, which has been off the tracks since 2010, was moved into the workshop last October. Even though funding for the project was unavailable, the Heber Valley Historic Railroad team took a leap of faith in hopes of restoring the locomotive.
“We think that we’ll have it (No. 618) back on the tracks by July,” Nelson said.
Through several different financial approaches, including fundraising and potential loans, grants and donations, the Heber Valley team hopes to make up the money needed to repair the steam locomotives that is not provided through ticket sales.
The Heber Valley Historic Railroad will celebrate its 115th anniversary this fall. Those who have dedicated years to the steam locomotives hope to see their efforts pay off by that time.
“Steam locomotives are what built this country that we enjoy," Manwiller said. "There’s nothing else like it.”
For more information on the Heber Valley Railroad, visit hebervalleyrr.org.