The sound of train whistles once again echoed through Fish Camp last weekend as one of Madera County’s most loved attractions - the Yosemite Mountain Sugar Pine Railroad - kicked off its 50th year of operation - an operation started by a Swiss immigrant and his family in 1965.
The railroad operates two historic steam locomotives called Shays. Both locomotives were built by the Lima Locomotive Works in Lima, Oh. Shay No. 10 was built in 1928 and weighs in at 84 tons (the largest narrow gauge Shay built), and came to Fish Camp in 1966, via the Westside Lumber Company in Tuolumne. The 59-ton Shay No. 15 was built in 1913 for the Sierra Nevada Wood & Lumber Co. near Truckee, and was purchased from the Westside Lumber Company by YMSPP in 1986.
The two locomotives represent the original Shays that worked in the forest from 1874 to 1931.
The business usually opens Easter weekend, but this year’s unusual ‘spring’ like weather allowed for an early opening. The four-mile train ride, in open log cars, comes complete with belching steam from the engine, beautiful scenery, and a narrative of the area’s history - an area where mighty lumberjacks once felled trees, and steam-powered locomotives pushed and pulled cars loaded with massive logs through the mountains, to water flumes that carried lumber to Madera in the distant Valley below.
Over the years, thousands of visitors, many from all parts of the world, have enjoyed the steam train excursions through the Sierra National Forest. Current features include the daily one-hour narrated steam train trips, Moonlight Special complete with a New York steak barbecue and musical entertainment, and gold panning for the ‘little’ ones.
Among the nearly sold-out first trip of the season March 7, was Dustin and Teri Smith, who along with their two children, Emilie, 6, and Bryce, 4, rode the train for the first time, along with nana, papa, and cousins.
“We all loved the train ride,” Teri said. “Bryce said his favorite part was watching the steam come out of the train and Emilie said her favorite part was seeing all the pretty trees in the forest. We love the mountains so this was a fun experience for all of us, and a great way to spend time with family. We will definitely be coming back again.”
Another family, Lane and DeeAnna Stein, and their two children, Heather, 10, and David, 8, were staying in a hotel in Merced where they picked-up a Sugar Pine Railroad brochure. They were on their way to Yosemite, and decided to come through Oakhurst to ride the train instead of entering the park via Highway 140.
“It was an enjoyable and relaxing train ride,” DeeAnn said. “The kids loved it.”
Lane said learning about the area’s lumber industry history was very informative and the train ride took him back in time with visions of rugged lumberjacks cutting and hauling timber out of the forest nearly 100 years ago.
Greg Haywood is one of five engineers for YMSPRR, a job he has enjoyed for 33 years (the first 12 working weekends only). A retired auto-body repairman, Haywood said he loves his job.
“It’s a line of work that few people have the skills for,” Haywood said. “Hopefully this job won’t disappear in this technological age.”
He also loves the people, young and old, from all around the world who show a genuine interest in steam trains.
“Older folks remember growing up with them and most of the young children have never seen a living dragon breathing air and spewing fire and steam,” Haywood said. “When this steam engine fires-up, the faces on both both young and old light-up - becoming young again or remaining young at heart.”
From Hungary to Wisconsin to Fish Camp
How the Yosemite Mountain Sugar Mountain Railroad came about 50 years ago is a story of a Swiss immigrant who was determined to make a better life for his young family in America.
After being forced to leave the Stauffer and Sons cheese business behind in Hungary in 1944, Rudy Stauffer moved his family back to his homeland in Switzerland. Forming a new cheese business in Switzerland was a difficult task and proved unsuccessful. With the opportunities offered in the United States, the family decided to immigrate and start a new life.
In 1950, with belongings in hand, the family (Rudy, wife Luce, and sons Guido, 6, and Max, 3, and cousin George) boarded the Queen Mary and started their journey to their new home. Wisconsin, the dairy state, seemed the obvious destination to begin anew the cheese business. It was in Wisconsin that youngest brother, Bob, was born in 1952. The business was started in a small kitchen in an old two-story building and developed into a major cheese producer supplying products for a number of national companies.
Rudy and his brother, Alex, were looking forward to a long life in the Midwest producing cheese under the Swiss Bear label, a throw back to the Hungarian times when their ancestors began the business in the 1880s. Rudy, having spent many days skiing and mountaineering in Switzerland, longed for the mountains. His godparents, Dr. Clarence and Liliane Wells, lived on a large mountain ranch near Yosemite, where Dr. Wells was the resident doctor at the Sugar Pine sawmill and had told many stories about the steam trains that hauled logs from the forests of Central California.
Rudy, being intrigued by the stories and the chance to see real mountains again, moved his family to property purchased from the Wells. With the idea of opening a resort near the national park, Rudy and Luce, in 1954, began developing the land and eventually built the Swiss Melody Inn. The resort was located on the old right-of-way of the Madera Sugar Pine Lumber Company, which ran logging trains through the mountains to supply the nearby mill. The Inn with the obvious Swiss theme became an extremely popular stop for Yosemite bound tourists, and Luce’s Swiss restaurant cuisine soon become known throughout California.
Luce will celebrate her 97th birthday in May, and helped prepare and serve meals at the railroad up until a couple years ago.
More than 140 miles of narrow gauge track and a 54-mile flume were spread over the central Sierra Nevada. The flume sent lumber to Madera, where it was distributed to a worldwide market. As this history unfolded to Rudy, he became more and more interested in preserving this part of California’s early days.
It all started in 1965
Railroad logging equipment from an old lumbering operation near Sonora became available in 1965. So Rudy, purchased a Shay locomotive, logging railcars and tons of spare parts - deciding that this was the perfect opportunity to see history relived in the mountains north of Oakhurst, near the southern entrance to Yosemite National Park. With the help of his wife and sons Max, Guido, and Bob, the Yosemite Mountain Sugar Pine Railroad was born.
An engine house, ticket office, and museum were built, and two miles of narrow gauge track was re-laid. In 1967, the inaugural run was made providing the public with a “ride into history” behind an authentic steam engine. In 1968, the Stauffers sold the Swiss Melody Inn, which later became known as the Narrow Gauge Inn.
In 1981, Rudy and Luce’s son, Max, took over the railroad business. Since that time, another Shay, more passenger cars and a diesel electric locomotive were acquired. The two Shay locomotives, both approaching 100 years old, as well as the passenger cars are maintained in the railroad machine shops.
“Of course, at the time I had no idea I would still be operating these steam locomotives 35 years later,” Max said.
Max credits his parents for having the vision to move to the Mountain Area, and starting and struggling with both the restaurant and railroad - two businesses no one thought would succeed.
“It was their entrepreneurial spirit that made all this possible,” Max said proudly. “As the economy improves, I expect the railroad, with our great employees and a lot of hard work, to not only continue, but to grow. We’ve been very fortunate, and we are grateful for the success we have had and the support we have received over the years from many friends and the entire Mountain Area community.”
Stauffer is well-known in the community having served as director of the Mountain Area Ski School for 20 years (a program originated by his father in the late 50s), past president and 30-year board member of the Yosemite Sierra Visitors Bureau, and 22-year member trustee of the Bass Lake Joint Union School District (formerly Oakhurst Elementary School District).
NOTE: For additional photos, see sierrastar.com.