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In 1973, as a scrawny second-grader imbued with a love of trains since birth and a nearly equal fondness for Disneyland, I learned about something that sounded very nearly like Heaven to me. My best friend at the time, Steve Ustach, had returned with his family from a place that seemed, by its description, to be nearly incomprehensible to my young mind. Walt Disney World, Steve told me, was just like Disneyland, but on a massive scale. Not only were there trains running around the Park, just like at Disneyland, there was also a campground nearby—a campground where tracks snaked through the woods and steam trains whistled from dawn to dusk!

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A campground with steam trains. Who was the person, the genius, that conceived of such a magical playground? Steve gave me a wall map of the Magic Kingdom, which I studied nearly every night before bed, but the thought of the little trains of the Fort Wilderness Railroad inspired dreams of far-off adventures, of sleeping under the stars while steam whistles echoed in the distance…

Until the advent of the Internet, I knew very little of the Fort Wilderness Railroad. It was dismantled long before I ever had the means to be able to visit Walt Disney World, and I would never be able to fulfill those magical dreams of a wide-eyed eight year old. The first real description I read about the little trains was found in Michael Broggie’s book, Walt Disney’s Railroad Story. And aside from articles that would appear here and there in places such as the Carolwood Chronicle, and websites devoted to the line, there really just wasn’t much written on the subject.

Until now. Author David Leaphart, in the first volume of a planned two-volume set to be written about all the trains of Walt Disney World, has just released Walt Disney World Railroads, Fort Wildneress Railroad, along with a companion volume of photographs. The main volume is a softbound, 8.5” x 11” book comprising 144 pages of text, maps, photographs and drawings that cover the Fort Wilderness Railroad in meticulous detail. The book follows the format of an old-time picture show; the contents are divided into two “featurettes,” focusing on a short biography of Walt Disney followed by a brief discussion of the railroads of Walt Disney World. The “First Feature” then delves into the origins of the railroad. An “Intermission” is followed by the second “Feature,” which takes us on a close examination of the railroad equipment and operation.

It’s clear that David has really done his homework on the subject. There are color photographs, maps and drawings on nearly every page—often multiple images per page.  In many of the photos, callouts point out details and offer further explanation. David has managed to find several veterans of the Fort Wilderness Railroad, and these folks offer lively descriptions and insight into the railroad that would be nearly impossible to obtain through documentary research alone. I have never seen such a vast collection of photographs of the railroad taken while it was in operation. Many of the photographs were taken by guests and crew of the railroad, and for obvious reasons are not “professional,” but this does not detract at all from the book at all. Instead, these photos lend a sense of genuineness to the book, an honesty that can be lacking in “official” photos sanctioned by the Disney PR machine.

The text comes off as if David was talking directly to the reader, and flows in an amiable, casual way from subject to subject. There are no dry recitations of facts and figures here; there are massive amounts of detail, to be sure—but it is presented in a way that will not overwhelm or confuse casual readers who may not be fluent in the mechanical “language” of steam train operation. The style and layout of the book reminded me in a way of Van France’s book, Window on Main Street: folksy, friendly, honest and accessible.

It takes people to run any railroad, and David gives credit whenever possible. For perhaps the first time, we are told the names of many of the people who not only designed the railroad, but the young men and women who worked on and ran the trains in the 1970s and 80s. It must have been a monumental task to discover these names, and I am glad that they have been remembered. Too often, the people responsible for the day-to-day operation of a railroad are forgotten by history.

One of the real treats of this book for me appears near the end. In the final chapter, David delves into the details of the trains and infrastructure of the railroad through a series of absolutely fascinating drawings. I have always been a fan of detailed “blueprint” style drawings, but David takes the concept one, or even three, steps further: Over the course of eight full-color renderings, for instance, David “builds” a Fort Wilderness locomotive from the ground up:

Starting with the locomotive’s frame in the first drawing, David adds components, hardware, the boiler and cab, drive wheels and other details through successive images, which really allows even the novice steam locomotive fan to see how an engine is put together, and how all the parts relate to each other. A fairly complete set of dimensions are given for the locomotive, cab and a typical coach as well, so that a modeler so inclined would have no problem building his own Fort Wilderness Railroad.

Later artwork presents, in beautiful, crisp full-color detail, the paint scheme of the engines. There are separate drawings showing the water tank sides, the cab and the tender. The Fort Wilderness locomotives were unusually colorful, even by Disney standards, with elaborate pinstriping and lettering devised by Imagineer Bob McDonnell, and the re-created artwork presented here allows us to savor all of McDonnell’s beautiful Victorian scrollwork in full, rich color.

Further drawings that will appeal to die-hard steam locomotive enthusiasts detail the various plumbing systems of the engines in isometric views. Other drawings lay out the cab interior with callouts, the internal workings of the wooden water tower on the line, and the various grade crossing warning signs found along the right-of way. There’s even a drawing showing the roadbed profile of ballast, crossties and rail!

David had so much material that it was not possible to put it all in one book, so he created a companion volume of photographs. The 57-page book is the same size as the first, and is loaded with scores of photographs taken when the line was in operation, often three or four to a page. They are nearly all in color, with a few very-nicely-done black and whites thrown in for good measure. A series of neat “Then-and-Now” photos show views of the railroad when operating, and contrasts them with photos of the same locations as they appear today.

There are even some “3-D” images in the book, seemingly created with computer software, that allow the reader to see the railroad in three dimensions. This can be accomplished with a little practice, and the effect does work.

The main volume sells for $39.99, and the companion volume of photographs is available for $19.99. Both can be purchased through the publisher’s website at http://www.steelwheelonsteelrail.com/

This set of books is a must-have if you’ve ever wondered about the celebrated little Wilderness Line. The Fort Wilderness Railroad disappeared many years ago, but thanks to these two books, its memory will live on far into the future.

Steve DeGaetano is author of Welcome Aboard the Disneyland Railroad! Steve’s latest book, the history of Disneyland’s newest locomotive, the Ward Kimball, is now available. You can read more about From Plantation to Theme Park, the Story of Disneyland Railroad Locomotive No. 5, the Ward Kimball, and place an order for it, by using this link.

© 2010 Steve DeGaetano


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