Disney fans can name them without missing a beat: Broggie. Baxter. Coates. Gracey. Kimball. McKim. They can list their achievements and creations like a sports fan rattling off their favorite players’ stats. Disney fans know them as “Imagineers,” those creative and enormously talented individuals responsible for designing and building the most-beloved attractions and experiences in the Disney theme-park world. Their imaginations know no bounds.
But as the word “Imagineer” suggests, creativity and imagination are only half of the equation. The other aspect of Imagineering requires technical and engineering expertise, and often, those who possess these skills are forgotten.
Earl Vilmer is one of these people. “Earl who?” you ask. Earl Vilmer—the man responsible for fulfilling one of Walt Disney’s primary edicts about Disneyland: “It should look like nothing in the world. And it should be surrounded by a train.” Earl Vilmer is the man that made sure that Disneyland was surrounded by a train, supervising construction and eventually operation of the Santa Fe & Disneyland Railroad. And later, he repeated the feat at Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom. Vilmer’s contributions to the two domestic Disney theme parks cannot be overestimated, but for far too long, those achievements have been eclipsed by other Imagineers’ higher-profile projects. Now, after months reviewing and researching Vilmer’s personal papers, news paper clippings, magazine articles and memorabilia, his story can be fully told for the first time.
Recognize this gentleman? No? Well, hopefully this article will change that.
Earl R. Vilmer was born in 1906 and grew up in Pittsburg, Kansas—a Midwesterner who had been bitten by the railroad bug at a very early age, much like another Midwesterner named Walt Disney. Earl, like Disney, began his railroad career on a local line, the Kansas City Southern. There, he learned railroading from the ground up, starting first as a machinist and working his way up the ladder, eventually becoming a roundhouse foreman on the railroad—a position he held for 20 years. Working in the cavernous, smoke-filled lair of the massive Iron Horse taught Earl about every detail of running a railroad. Walt Disney, who worked briefly as a “news butcher,” selling snacks and newspapers on commuter trains, stated that his own railroad career was “brief, exciting and unprofitable.” Profits aside, Vilmer also found railroad work challenging and exciting. Trains and railroading would play important roles in both men’s lives, and would eventually bring them together in a way neither would have ever dreamed of in their youth.
From their humble beginnings in the Midwest, Vilmer and Walt Disney took different but parallel paths through their lives. In different decades, both would travel the world during wartime. Both sought adventure and better lives beyond the horizons of their dreary Middle America youths, but their sensible, no-nonsense upbringing imbued each with a strong work ethic that assured that quality would come through in all their endeavors. And while their wanderlust would take them to many different parts of the world over the years, their paths would one day converge in the fragrant orange groves of a small American town 22 miles from Los Angeles.
In 1943, Vilmer joined the U.S. Army with a Captain’s commission, and as Battalion Commander he oversaw the construction and operation of a railroad from the Persian Gulf to the Russian Front in order to move supplies. The barracks and facility were built on the barren sandy plains in the shadow of an imposing rocky mountain range, a landscape that must have been as foreign to the Midwesterner as the surface of the moon. Later, promoted to Major, he was attached to Military Headquarters as inspector of Railroad Shop battalions in the European theater.
Earl Vilmer, on the right, with his crew in Persia, making sure
trains were available to supply the Russian Front.
In March 1946, Vilmer was discharged, and like other veterans he went back home, settling into domestic family life in Kansas. Life back in the Midwest was quiet, if a bit mundane for the adventurous railroader, but in 1947, the Vilmers welcomed a baby girl into the world. As Vilmer’s daughter Judith Parker recalls, “When he came back to the states my mother talked him into having a child, something he said he would never do unless he had a million dollars. He used to say that he realized how little money meant in Persia because even if he had had a million dollars, he wouldn't have been able to buy an ice cream cone!”
One would have thought that building and operating railroads in the Mid-East during wartime would have satisfied any longing for adventure, but exotic railroads continued to call to Earl. In 1952 the Bechtel Corporation hired Vilmer. It seems Bechtel had some iron ore mines in the jungles of Venezuela, and needed a railroad built to extract the ore. Vilmer packed his wife and daughter up, and they leased a small house near the work site.
Earl has his photo snapped in front of the gnarled trunk of an exotic tree, somewhere in Venezuela.
Two years into the project, Vilmer concluded that he could not stay in Venezuela. Judith, nearing school age, would soon be requiring an education, and so Vilmer decided to head back to Pittsburg, KS. But for a man who had seen so much of the world, Pittsburg didn’t offer much. Once again the spirit of adventure called to Earl, and once again he packed up his young family for another journey. This time, the Vilmer’s Nash Rambler headed west to California, as Walt Disney had done so many years before. Earl enjoyed the warm weather in the Golden State, and the prospect of embarking on another adventure invigorated him. The Vilmers soon found an apartment in Pasadena, and Earl began thinking about what he was going to do next.
It was one warm fall morning in 1954 that Vilmer picked up a copy of the LA Times. Before scanning the help-wanted ads, Earl sipped his coffee and began reading an article about a project that the rest of the world was also just learning about: Studio mogul Walt Disney was building an amusement park in the sleepy little town of Anaheim, just south of Los Angeles. Not much of the article intrigued him; he had been to amusement parks before. Merry-go-rounds and donkey rides didn’t particularly interest him. Perhaps he could take Judith there next summer, when it opened. And then, he read something that was to change his life for the next 17 years: A steam railroad was planned to operate around Disneyland. Suddenly, Earl heard his calling—“like the clang of a bell to a retired fire horse,” as was written about him some years later.
Earl put down the paper and coffee, grabbed his wife and Judith by the hands, and walked from their apartment down the street to a pawnshop in Old Town Pasadena. There, he purchased a well-used portable typewriter and headed home. On September 22 1954, with seven-year-old Judith watching quietly nearby, Earl composed a letter to Studio machine shop head Roger Broggie that began unassumingly: “Dear Sir: In a manner of introduction, I am greatly interested in the Disneyland project and would like to offer my well-rounded experience in railroading and railroad equipment.” The letter went on to lay out Vilmer’s vast and varied experiences with railroading in minute detail, which surely must have appealed to the meticulous Broggie. But the sentence that probably sealed the job with the “top man,” Walt Disney, stated simply, “I have always been a firm believer that the steam locomotive would never become useless – Disneyland will substantiate my belief.”
And so it would.
Back in the Park’s formative years, often all it took to get a job at Disneyland was to write a
letter. Oh, and have a lifetime’s worth of experience! This letter landed Vilmer at Disney.
That letter resulted in a an invitation to lunch with Roger Broggie, a lunch that ended with Broggie grabbing the tab and offering Vilmer the job of overseeing the construction of the Santa Fe & Disneyland Railroad, as well as the horse car tracks that run the length of Main Street. Vilmer’s determined square jaw, calm military bearing and trademark flattop haircut seemed to tell Broggie that Earl was a no-nonsense railroader who would know how to get the job done, and done right. As the May 1958 Disneylander put it, “Roger Broggie put Earl to work when our Santa Fe & Disneyland trains were still on the drawing boards. That was the day Earl went back to railroading…with his know-how affording pleasure to every guest who ever boarded a train at Disneyland.”
In the new Roundhouse, Earl Vilmer, far left, inspects the
Park’s first two engines as they come together.
Earl worked directly under Broggie, supervising workers as they surveyed the track right-of ways, laid down the wooden cross ties, and spiked the rails into place. When not overseeing the track gangs, Earl would venture into the newly constructed roundhouse to check on progress as teams of machinists and mechanics constructed Disneyland’s first two steam locomotives, the C.K. Holliday and the E.P. Ripley.
Earl, left, checks the width, or “gauge,” between the horse car rails on Main Street USA at
the site of the spring switch that automatically routes the cars in the proper direction.
(Keep this shot in mind when you read part two of this article.)
Work on the railroad progressed rapidly, no doubt in part because the trains were so close to Disney’s heart, and in part because the man supervising the construction knew precisely how to build a railroad from scratch. The railroad was the first attraction completed at the Park, and on June 18, 1955, Earl stood by proudly with other spectators, snapping photos with his instamatic, as Walt Disney himself posed for pictures in the cab of the E.P. Ripley during her first “steam-up.” A month later, the Park and the Santa Fe & Disneyland Railroad opened to the world. Earl was given three Silver passes so that he and his family could attend the opening day festivities, but they remained unused. Perhaps Earl was just too tired from the massive project to attend the gala press event, instead watching it on TV from the comfort of his restful easy chair.
This neat photo of Steam Train Superintendent Earl Vilmer on the handcar was taken June 7, 1957.
But Earl didn’t rest for long. The task of building the railroad had been completed, but there was still much work to do. Roger Broggie asked that Vilmer stay on at Disneyland, supervising the steam train operation. The congenial work atmosphere that existed at Disneyland was indeed infectious, and Vilmer agreed to run the railroad. He supervised a crew of four locomotive engineers and three “junior” engineers, laying out work shifts and supervising mechanics that worked on the trains. Vilmer wrote what may even be the Park’s first “SOP,” or Standard Operating Procedures manual—a two-page list of 22 instructions governing how the railroad would be run. Such edicts included, “Engine men will be attired in the prescribed uniform while on duty” and “Signal to proceed from Conductors signify only that train is loaded and ready. Movement to main line is Engineer’s responsibility.” In 1957, Earl was ready for his close-up, appearing on the Tuesday, March 26 episode of the Mickey Mouse Club to explain the workings of one of the Disneyland locomotives.
As the Park grew in popularity, its need for experienced managers grew as well. In 1959 Admiral Joe Fowler promoted to Earl to General Superintendent of Construction and Maintenance. These were heady times at the Park; there were employee bowling, golf and softball leagues, cast member magazines edited by the likes of Wally Boag, and a sense of camaraderie that infused every aspect of work there. And always, Walt was present through it all. In 1965, Walt and Roy Disney hosted a dinner to honor all the Disneyland employees who had been with the Park since opening. Walt Disney himself presented Earl with his 10-year service plaque.
At a gala banquet celebrating Disneyland's 10th year, Walt Disney hands
Earl his 10-year service plaque as Roy Disney looks on.
Just a year later, the company seemed to change. We conclude the story in part two.