The Lilly Belle – Carolwood Pacific Railroad #173 and train,
now on display in Gallery 9 at the Walt Disney Family Museum.
Image by Roger Colton
So, a legendary locomotive and train there. Walt Disney’s Carolwood Pacific Railroad number 173, the “Lilly Belle“.
Built to run on the railroad around the new family home in Holmby Hills. A part of the hobby Walt took up as a tonic to the pressures of running the Studio in Burbank.
As with all legends, a bit of the story tends to get left behind in occasional tellings. Allow me to illuminate the subject with a bit of history from both the prototype and model perspectives.
The American or 4-4-0 (that is 4 pilot wheels, 4 driving wheels and no trailing wheels) type of steam locomotive was a workhorse for much of the early history of transportation by rail in this country. It is estimated that over 25,000 of this type were built here in the United States; the last was built by the Baldwin Locomotive Works in 1945 for export to the United Railways of Yucatan. Interestingly enough, Locomotive Number 4 of the Walt Disney World Railroad, named the Roy O. Disney, is a 4-4-0 from the same railroad; originally built by the Baldwin Locomotive Works in 1916.
The type has quite a history. The Civil War’s Great Locomotive Chase in April of 1862 was between the Texas and the General, both 4-4-0’s. At Promontory Point, Utah when the Central Pacific and Union Pacific completed the Transcontinental Railroad in May of 1869, the Central Pacific #60 Jupiter and Union Pacific #119, were 4-4-0’s. In 1893, New York Central’s 999 (now on display at the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago) managed a top speed of 112 miles per hour; a record it held for almost 12 years.
Central Pacific Railroad steam locomotive 173 in 1872.
Image courtesy Wikipedia.
One of California’s earliest users of the 4-4-0 in quantities was the Central Pacific Railroad. With a railroad heading east from Sacramento in 1869, it needed the best available locomotive technology to move freight and passengers over the Donner Summit for points east.
One such locomotive was numbered 173 and named Sonoma. While later Central Pacific’s records listed this number 173 as a CP built engine, the engine was in fact built in 1864 by Norris-Lancaster for the Western Pacific Railroad; who had it designated “H”. (The WP had its engines lettered rather than numbered.) It was shipped from Pennsylvania around Cape Horn as parts in 1864 and assembled upon arrival in California. The original WP was organized in 1865 to build a line from Sacramento to San Jose. The locomotive became Central Pacific’s #173 after railroad acquired the Western Pacific in 1869.
Railroading in those early days was anything but safe. An incident occurred at Alameda Junction on November 14, 1869. Involved were locomotives 173 and sister 177, Atherton, It was the first serious accident in the railroad’s history. Because of negligence by a railroad employee responsible for the signals and switches at that location, the two trains collided head-on. Fifteen people, including the locomotive crews, died. Both locomotives sustained heavy damage. They were placed on flat cars and were brought to the railroad’s extensive shops in Sacramento for storage.
Two years later, Central Pacific master mechanic Andrew Jackson “A.J.” Stevens was faced with the need for more locomotives for the growing railroad. Though extensive damage was sustained from the wreck, Stevens found many of the 173’s parts to be reusable. Between May and November of 1872, Stevens supervised the project that saw a rebuilding and redesign of the locomotive. In the end, the locomotive gained weight (and importantly tractive effort) with 54 inch driving wheels and larger 17 x 24 inch cylinders.
The rebuild was extensive enough that the Central Pacific listed itself as the builder in subsequent records. The rebuilt 173 was well received by the railroad, and soon the shops produced twelve engines based on its design.
Three of these were sold to other railroads, among which was Virginia and Truckee Railroad’s number 18, Dayton – the only preserved example of 173’s design. The Dayton eventually ended up in Hollywood in many classic films. It even was the Chicago Railroad Fair in 1949 as Union Pacific locomotive 18. It and another V&T steam locomotive were at Promontory Point, Utah in 1969 as the National Park Service commemorated the 100th anniversary of the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad. It was acquired by the state of Nevada in 1974.
The locomotive was cosmetically restored by the Nevada State Railroad Museum. It is now on display in Virginia City, Nevada at the Comstock History Center – not far from where it once ran in service. The locomotive is one of two locomotives built by the Central Pacific known to have survived.
The 173? Southern Pacific retired it in 1909, having been in service for 37 years, mostly in Northern California. What an accident failed to do, a scrapyard succeeded.
Walt Disney’s Miniature Steam Locomotive
So, enter Walt Disney into our tale. Looking for relief from the pressures of running the studio, he took up the sport of polo. by all accounts, he enjoyed the competitive nature of the game on horseback. But after one too many injuries, he needed to switch to something else. Next came golf, but it proved too frustrating. Lawn bowling replaced it and was a sport Walt enjoyed for the rest of his life.
His passion for collecting miniatures was something he had always enjoyed. Whether it was something acquired on a trip or from another collector, the collection became quite impressive. (A small portion of which is on display at the Walt Disney Family Museum today outside of Gallery 7.) Railroading became part of that after Walt gifted several nephews with train sets. For himself, he arranged a layout in his office at the Studio, which became quite elaborate. Ollie Johnston and Ward Kimball, among the folks at the Studio who had the bug for trains like Walt did. And they both helped show Walt what was out there. Visits to other miniature railroads to see who was doing what.
On one such excursion, Walt, daughter Sharon and Roger Broggie visited the Little Engines business owned by Martin and Irene Lewis. It was Bob Harpur (who later would go to work for Walt Disney Imagineering to oversee the rebuilding of steam locomotives for Walt Disney World and more) who spent an afternoon showing them the various products the company offered. The hobby of a miniature railway was attractive to many people with all sizes of railroads. It seemed that everyone had interesting ideas. Walt was in good company. Yet, he was looking to model something more from the Victorian age of railways in America. More “polished brass and scroll work”, he said.
In looking for a locomotive design that was more along those lines, Broggie recommended that he meet with renowned railroad historian Jerry Best. Best had built a half-inch scale Central Pacific 173, which became part of a model railroad display for the Golden Gate International Exposition at San Francisco in 1939.
Jerry Best had been fortunate enough to become friends with David Joslyn. Among the many roles Joslyn had filled working for the Southern Pacific at the company’s Sacramento Shops complex was a draftsman and the official company photographer. His help had been invaluable in creating the model of the CP 173.
According to Michael Broggie, in his fine book, Walt Disney’s Railroad Story:
Walt wasted no time getting to the machine shop with the pictures Jerry Best had provided, At 7:15 the next morning, he walked into Roger Broggie’s office and placed the photo’s on Roger’s desk. “I’ve found the design I want to build,” Walt said. “We can get the blueprints from Southern Pacific which, Jerry Best told me, took over the Central Pacific.”
Roger agreed to start on it immediately, knowing that Walt didn’t like giving directions more than once. Eddie Sargeant contacted his friend Dave Joslyn at Southern Pacific, and received a complete set of No. 173’s blueprints within a few weeks. On September 20, 1948, he began making meticulous drawings for the 1/8th scale model. He completed these drawings on January 20th, 1949.
Next, the locomotive’s scale model plans required 35 separate, highly detailed engineering drawings. Upon completion of these, Roger divided the various building tasks among the shop’s machinists. Gene Foster worked on fashioning the boiler out of high grade copper. Dick VanEvery machined the rods, pistons and cylinders. Willie Gillis worked on the sand dome, steam dome and backhead controls, while Roger machined the frame. Wooden patterns for the castings were made by George Bauer and Ray Fox in the studio prop shop. Castings for the wheels, backhead, smokebox, and pilot (cowcatcher) were poured at a foundry, then precision-machined in the machine shop.”
So much for the often repeated myth of Walt building the locomotive all by himself. Give him credit though, as Walt did take on a good deal of the work remaining on the locomotive project himself. After all, those guys in the machine shop had their own jobs to do, building and maintaining camera equipment for animation and live action films. And Walt didn’t think it fair that they had all the fun.
After chatting with Roger, he was all set to be a “rookie” machinist. Michael’s book relates how Walt took on projects such as patterns for the smokestack, headlamp and even the wooden cab for the locomotive. He didn’t stop there, taking up the challenges of making the flag stands, whistle and hand rails using a jeweler’s lathe. He also became proficient in the use of the miniature drill press and milling machine. There was sheet metal work, silver-solder and brazing to keep busy, too. Roger is quoted in Michael’s book as saying. “I guess we made a pretty good apprentice machinist out of him.”
Months later, the finished product was a team effort. Christened with a name, Lilly Belle, the miniature CP 173 made it’s first runs on Stage One at the Studio on December 24th, 1949. Indeed, something all involved could be proud of as it ran around the Carolwood Pacific in Holmby Hills in May of 1950. And today enjoyed on display in Gallery 9 of the Walt Disney Family Musuem.
Walt Disney’s Carolwood Pacific Railroad #173
Image by Roger Colton
Word of Walt’s hobby in miniature railroading got out. A series of articles in the various hobby magazines shared the story of the locomotive and the railroad. It wasn’t long before letters began to arrive at the Studio asking about details of all kinds. Eventually, those requests outgrew time and efforts easily spent. The Walt Disney Miniature Railroad (and later known as the Miniature Locomotive Company) was formed to handle the inquiries. It offered those same Eddie Sargeant drawings for hobbyists. Later came castings used for the locomotive, freight cars, switch stands and even the caboose stove Walt had created for the interior of his caboose.
This was the start of Walt’s personal business activities, which led to WED (the development company for Disneyland) and RETLAW (the management company for Walt’s family businesses including the Santa Fe & Disneyland Railroad).
In addition to the products offered by MLC, other companies in the hobby business later took up the production of this type of locomotive. Very popular with modelers, all with differences making them unique; variations on a theme. Railroad Supply Company offers their own version of a Baldwin 4-4-0. Little Engines also offered their own version of this locomotive. It continues to be available today.
Popular then and still popular now. Since first designed in the US in 1836, the American type or 4-4-0 steam locomotive continues to be a favorite of hobbyists and theme parks. Even Disney Imagineer Tony Baxter has one, customized for the Thunder Mountain Railroad.
Artist Patrick Michael Karnahan with his own Little Engines 4-4-0.
Image courtesy Patrick Michael Karnahan
I hope you have enjoyed learning a bit more about the Central Pacific steam locomotive number 173. Walt Disney’s passion for railroading has been enjoyed by folks around the world, thanks to the motion picture and theme parks of the company that bears his name. Gratefully, this bit of Victorian engineering that inspired Walt Disney played a role in that passion and continues to inspire others still today.