Walt Disney's Love of Trains: Part Two

by Jim Korkis, contributing writer

Last week, I discussed Walt Disney's early fondness for trains. This week, I will talk about how that fondness grew into him actually building and operating trains.

Here is an excerpt from Railroad Magazine, October 1965, titled "I Have Always Loved Trains" by Walt Disney talking about his backyard railroad, The Carolwood Pacific.

"I went about it systematically. After serving an apprenticeship in [the Disney Studios] machine shop, I studied metalwork and carpentry before I figured I was ready to start building. Then I built a train to one-eighth scale. The engine and the tender combined was seven feet long and operated on coal and water, like the ones I had known as a news butcher. I fashioned all the cars myself.

"The boxcars were big enough for a person to straddle, and the flatcars could seat two. My special pride was the caboose, which I furnished entirely in miniature, right down to the pot-bellied stove. The engine was designed after one that had run on the old Central Pacific, so I named my little railroad the CP, for Carolwood Pacific, the street I lived on.

"All my planning worked out perfectly except for one factor, my wife. She didn't take kindly to the idea of having a railroad run around our house, and told me so in no uncertain terms. Things came to such an impasse that I went to my lawyer and had him draw up a right-of-way agreement giving me permission to operate the railroad on the property. My wife signed it and my daughters witnessed the agreement.

"I figured out a route around the place, but it required a 6-foot cut in one of the slopes. This time my wife put her foot down. So I compromised by building a tunnel 90 feet long and covering it with dirt. I gave my secretary strict instructions not to tell me how much it cost.

"The Carolwood Pacific gave me many happy hours, but it was not without hazards. Once while experimenting on remote control, I sat on the first car instead of the tender and operated the locomotive with wires. As I was rounding a turn, the front wheel hit a rock and bobbled the engine so that she uncoupled from the tender and I was jolted backward. My hand jerked the throttle valve all the way back, and the engine went racing down the track.

"Leaping off the car, I chased the engine, which was now shooting wet steam 40 feet into the air. She was going too fast for me to catch her, so I raced over to the point where she would come out of the tunnel and go into a tight curve. Just as I reached there, the engine hurtled out of the tunnel, hit the curve, and tumbled off the track. She rolled over, her stack and pilot cracking off. Then she just lay there, hissing and belching steam like a dying monster.

"My wife was in the house. I hollered to her, 'Come on out if you want to see a terrible sight!'

"She emerged from the doorway to gaze at the shattered locomotive and the downhearted engineer.

'Oh, Walt, that's too bad!' she said feelingly.

"Thus I had finally succeeded in getting her on my side in the railroad operation -- but I had to wreck a train to do it. After being repaired, the train continued to provide many delightful hours for our family and friends. But after a while, I no longer had time for the Carolwood Pacific."

Once again, Walt because of space limitations had to leave out so many interesting details, too many details for even me to cram into this column.

The Disney News showcases the railroad at Disneyland.

Walt enjoyed visiting animator Ward Kimball's full sized Grizzly Flats Railroad set-up that Kimball had built in his backyard. At one of the steam-up parties, Kimball introduced Walt to Richard Jackson who was one of the first American railroad fans to build a miniature steam-powered railroad around his house. Seeing Jackson's layout appealed to Walt's love of trains but also his fascination with accurate miniatures and so he was inspired to build his own version.

Animator Ollie Johnston, who later had a full-sized locomotive in his backyard like Kimball, began with a miniature railroad that he helped construct and that also influenced Walt's decision.

Walt decided to learn how to help make the railroad himself. He had the Disney Studios machinist Roger Broggie set up a work bench where Walt could be taught to do things, like lay out patterns, work a miniature drill press, silver-solder, and make parts on a milling machine. Among other accurate designs Walt made himself for his miniature train included two brass flag holders he had painstakingly turned on a jeweler's lathe.

Walt built the caboose (except for the frame and pedestal trucks built at the studio) entirely by himself as well as the hardwood cab for the engine. The interior details including a fully functional pot-bellied stone (that he later built a few copies of as gifts for friends) were all the work of Walt.

Broggie, who is sometimes considered the first official Imagineer, was the main person in charge of supervising the building of the miniature railroad. The Disney Studio machinists worked on the project as time permitted from their regular assignments.

At one of the steam-up parties in Kimball's backyard, Walt had been introduced to Gerald "Jerry" Best, a top sound engineer in the motion picture business but also a modelmaker and railroad fan, with an extensive collection of oil paintings, books, and antiques. When Walt visited to see his pictures of old time steam engines, Walt saw a model locomotive on Best's mantelpiece.

It was an authentic half-inch scale re-creation of the Central Pacific Railroad's engine No. 173. Best built it to operate at the Golden Gate International Exposition in San Francisco in 1939 for two years. Walt fell in love with the model and got the blueprints from the Southern Pacific (that had taken over from the Central Pacific) of the engine that had been rebuilt in 1872.

Walt's backyard layout was named the Carolwood Pacific Railroad after the street address of his home on 355 North Carolwood Drive, and it gave it the same initials as the fabled Central Pacific, which pleased Walt.

Walt, with his background in advertising design, sketched the design for the logo and Disney Studio draftsman Eddie Sargeant produced the final version. Walt issued special passes because, after all the train was on his property, so he didn't want a horde of strangers just showing up each weekend. Many celebrities, including Mary Pickford, Edgar Bergen, Salvador Dali, Red Skelton, and Kirk Douglas, as well as countless others, especially children, rode his train.

The train was 1/8th scale and had a half-mile of track, switches and a long 46-foot trestle that went over Yensid ("Disney" spelled backward) Valley nine feet below. Walt's wife had a problem with the train going through her flower garden, as it would interrupt her card parties (usually Canasta) with her friends, so he buried a 90-foot-long tunnel under the plants outside the big picture window. He also named the engine after her—the "Lilly Belle"—and told her on Christmas Eve 1949 as one of his gifts.

The tunnel also had a name: Rorex Tunnel, named after Jack Rorex, who supervised construction at the studio and suggested doing the tunnel as a solution, as well as including an "S" curve so that passengers who entered the tunnel could only see blackness and feel the rumble of the train until finally seeing a spot of light at the end.

The front of the arch of the tunnel had a keystone with the year "1950" carved on it because the Carolwood Pacific's first began operation in May 1950, after a final cost of over $50,000 for both the layout and train.

Walt could sit on the tender and drive the locomotive around his yard pulling 11 people, who would sit on top of the miniature railcars. By the way, the Carolwood Pacific could haul 2,000 pounds of "freight" at six miles per hour.

"I vividly remember my first ride, straddling one of those freight cars as it rocked back and forth," Carolwood Pacific historian Michael Broggie recalled. "I remember entering a long tunnel, which was absolutely pitch-black. You could hear the chuffing of the engine echoing off of this long tunnel. You could smell and taste the coal smoke. You could feel the vibration of the track. Walt had created an experience that excited every one of your senses."

Walt established the Walt Disney Miniature Railroad Company in 1951 to sell castings, complete drawings, switch lamps, caboose stoves, and track fittings to the many people who saw articles about his backyard railroad. This company later led to the formation of Walt Disney Incorporated (1952) that led to the formation of WED (1953).

In the spring of 1953, Walt was becoming overwhelmed with so many people swarming his backyard to ride the train. He had even considered relocating it to the back lot of the Disney Studios on weekends as a form of entertainment for people who wanted to visit his studio and see something in Hollywood. It was becoming less of an enjoyable hobby and more of another job that was taking time from other things he wanted to do.

He also began thinking of having a full-scaled locomotive like those owned by Kimball and Johnston.

That spring, a guest engineer had the Lilly Belle going too fast and it jumped the track and turned over, breaking the whistle and releasing a jet of hot steam. A 5-year-old girl who was one of the passengers raced over out of curiosity for a closer look and got minor burns on her bare legs. It was not serious and some ice and comforting words from Walt soothed the situation, but Walt was made acutely aware of the growing possibilities of accidents.

He told Roger Broggie to pack up the train and take it back to the studio. Imagineer Bob Gurr told me that the engine was stored underneath his drafting desk where he used it as a foot stool for many years and Walt would occasionally come in and look at it.

The Carolwood Room at the Boulder Ridge Villas at the Wildness Lodge Resort in Florida displays a cattle car, a gondola car, and a stretch of track all from the actual backyard railroad loaned to the area by Walt's oldest daughter, Diane Disney Miller and her Disney Family Foundation. The cars feature the distinctive Carolwood Pacific "Fair Weather Route" logo.

The rest of Walt's Lilly Belle is displayed at the Walt Disney Family Museum in San Francisco. Another car from the train is displayed at the Disney Barn at Griffith Park in Los Angeles, California.

Also on display at the Boulder Ridge Villas in a lucite case is a special limited edition re-creation of the CP 173 Lilly Belle locomotive, tender, gondola car and the yellow caboose from Walt's Carolwood Pacific Railroad.

It was produced in 2000 in garden gauge (1:24 scale) by Hartland Locomotive Works of Indiana. This Limited Edition (1,500 units) was offered only through Disneyland, Walt Disney World (five locations), Disney Direct catalog and Disney Galleries. It originally sold for $595 and came with a solid oak base and an authentic piece of rail from Walt's backyard railroad.

In a May 11, 1951 memo titled "Your Train – Window Display Hecht & Co. Washington" to Walt Disney, his older brother Roy made detailed suggestions about using the Carolwood Pacific in a Christmas window display at Hecht's department store in Washington, D.C., on a turntable with Disney Alice in Wonderland dolls seen in the Christmas TV special "One Hour in Wonderland."

Such a display could help maintain Walt's railroad and promote the little side business Walt was trying to develop.

Roy suggested, "You might even put some cards in the window to the effect that moulds, parts, etc., are for sale—inquire in the Hecht store!" Merchandise presentation specialist Bill Stensgaard had written to Walt from Chicago, on December 27, 1950, after seeing the television Christmas special, asking to take the train "on a nation-wide tour" and to put it in Hecht's window.

Walt wasn't interested as he was spending more and more time on his Disneylandia project. This project would have consisted of intricate miniature scenes that would spring to life when someone inserted a coin like a jukebox. It was Walt's intention to fill several train cars with these various exhibits and then transport them to different cities for people to enjoy.

Walt himself built the Granny Kincaid Cabin scene and work had been completed on a little dancing man on a stage. Work was in progress for a barber shop quartet when it was determined the show would not be able to return the necessary costs for operation and maintenance, the logistics of using the cars could not be worked out because they would have received low priority from the train companies, and that Walt was already thinking bigger.

On the morning of August 8, 1953, Walt reviewed the site map that Imagineer Marvin Davis was working on for Disneyland, picked up a No. 1 carbon pencil and drew a triangle around the plot of land to indicate where he wanted a railroad to be located.

"I just want it to look like nothing else in the world," Walt said. "And it should be surrounded by a train."

The Disneyland Railroad serves two purposes. First, it is transportation to access the extremities of the park. Second, its original intent was to provide guests with a comfortable overview of the layout of the park, a "grand circle tour" so that guests who were unfamiliar with the layout of Disneyland could better acclimate themselves.

During Walt's lifetime, the trains and track were not owned by Walt Disney Productions or Disneyland. They were owned by Walt himself through his private company Retlaw ("Walter" spelled backward.) People who worked on the Santa Fe and Disneyland Railroad received checks personally signed by Walt.

Just a few years ago, an old Retlaw Enterprises itinerary, that was going to be discarded, was fortunately retrieved at the last minute and showed that, in 1957, every Sunday at 2 p.m., Walt would tap out the engineer and, dressed in his overalls and cap that he kept in his Disneyland apartment over the fire house, would take the train around the park for a few hours without the guests ever suspecting.

Walt owned the railroad because there was not enough money to build it, so he sold his first Smoke Tree Ranch vacation home in 1954 in order to get the money for it. The final cost for two locomotives, six passenger cars, freight cars, and caboose totaled $240,065.

The Santa Fe Railway paid $50,000 per year under an initial five-year contract to have their name and logo represented. The second three-year lease jumped the cost to $75,000 and, in the fourth year, up to $100,000.

By 1974, Santa Fe no longer offered passenger service and was disgruntled that Disneyland insisted on significantly increasing the fee, so they terminated the contract.

The Santa Fe and Disneyland Railroad was 5/8th scale (although Broggie and Walt increased the size of the cab to 3/4th for the fireman and engineer). Interestingly, the proportion on a three foot gauge track makes the locomotive appear full size. That 5/8th scale was misinterpreted by host Art Linkletter on the Dateline: Disneyland program July 17, 1955 to include everything in Disneyland, a misconception that was repeated over the years.

The first locomotive, the C.K. Holliday named after the founder of the Atchison & Topeka Railroad, the predecessor of the Santa Fe Railroad, was made directly from the drawings for the Lilly Belle (that were adapted from the original blueprints for the Central Pacific's No. 173). The first complete trip around the park did not occur until July 10, 1955, barely a week before the park opened to the public.

The cost was $0.50 cents for an adult and $0.35 cents for a child.

For the opening day ceremony, Walt was at the throttle of the second Disneyland locomotive, the E.P. Ripley. It was named after Edward Ripley, the first president of the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railway. Ripley's son, grandson and great-grandson were in attendance. This would be the last locomotive to be custom built for Disneyland. All others were restored versions of actual narrow gauge engines with the Fred Gurley added in 1958, the Ernest S. March in 1959 and the Ward Kimball in 2005.

The C.K. Holliday was a freight train and the E.P. Ripley a passenger train. Guests didn't like riding in the cattle car, so the cars of the C.K. Holliday were redesigned in 1958 to become an excursion train with seating facing outward to view the newly installed Grand Canyon Diorama.

Certainly an entire article can be written about the many iconic trains that have appeared in Disney films, just as much more can be written about the Carolwood Pacific and the Disneyland Railroad.

Today, trains remain a living legacy of Walt Disney at every Disney theme park worldwide. Walt's earliest fascination with trains as a young boy continued for his entire life and his love has delighted and inspired millions of people over the years.

Walt was more than just another "train enthusiast". In so many ways, he was always the "Chief Engineer."



  1. By smd4

    Fantastic article, Jim! Very well researched and written.

    The only quibble I have is this:

    The first locomotive, the C.K. Holliday...was made directly from the drawings for the Lilly Belle

    This isn't quite true. The Lilly Belle certainly served as inspiration, but there are significant differences between the blueprints of the Lilly Belle and the Holliday.

    Thanks for doing this series!

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