Howdy everyone, and welcome aboard the GHP Scenic Railway, a short-runs-on-time-(almost)-all-the-time-fair-weather-route-railroad of a column. I’ve been thinking a lot about railroads and trains lately, and how my company (Garner Holt Productions, Inc.) has been part of a number of them in some very unusual locations, from theme parks to private estates, and more. ALL ABOARD!
Our hero Walt Disney once said, “In one way or another I have always loved trains.” That’s true for me, too, and I’ve found that lots of people love trains (especially old-fashioned steam locomotives) in the theme park business. It was the same way back in Walt’s day, where a couple of his animators—Ward Kimball and Ollie Johnston—had impressive train collections and even operating steam equipment at their homes. Those incredible artists (two of Walt’s vaunted “Nine Old Men”) inspired Walt to get into the live steam train game, too, with his famous Carolwood Pacific Railway around his home in Holmby Hills, California. Of course, Walt’s later railway pursuits are even more well known…
When I was a young child, and all the way to my high school days, I drew pictures constantly of all sorts of things. But the two things I drew the most (and my mom kept a large number of my childhood sketches to prove it) were robots and trains. As you may know, I built my career and my company on robots of a sort—although animatronics are quite different from what we typically imagine as robots—and have had a hand in some train-related attractions over the last forty years.
I think the first railroad we worked on at GHP was Michael Jackson’s Neverland Valley Railroad at his Neverland Ranch in Central California. He wanted to replicate some of the sights of the Disneyland Railroad, so he asked us to create a series of Native American figures to populate some scenes along his train line. In fact, it was another railroad that got me the work: the guy that Michael hired to operate his steam engines had a day job as an engineer on the Ghost Town and Calico Railway at Knott’s Berry Farm. As we’d done some work for the old Kingdom of the Dinosaurs ride there, he recommended me to Michael for work on his train layout. I remember something funny about one of the figures: when we were finished I sent some pictures of what we’d created to Michael and his team so he could make comments before they shipped. For the tribal chief character, Michael’s lead guy on site called me one day to say that Michael didn’t want to see pictures of the real natives who inspired our work, but of the actual animatronics! Needless to say, having our work mistaken for actual people is pretty neat and the ultimate compliment for our line of work.
Not long after working at Neverland Ranch, GHP created five animated figures for the classic Calico Mine Ride at Knott’s Berry Farm. I’ve said in this space before that I think the Mine Ride is among the best dark rides ever created anywhere, and its railroad ride system is key to its success in terms of authenticity and visual interest. Years later, in 2014, we totally reimagined the ride and added more than a hundred animated and static figures to the attraction, along with lots of special effects and other technical wizardry. But by far my favorite part was getting to work with Bud Hurlbut’s beautiful little locomotives (they look like steam engines, but are actually battery-operated) when we placed our custom RFID-based audio narration system inside the boiler of each engine on the line.
I think the most famous locomotive in the world is probably Thomas the Tank Engine, the English export that has taken the toy, television, and even video game markets by storm since he and his pals were introduced in 1946. In fact, I understand that Thomas and Friends is the largest and most profitable division of Mattel, Inc., who manufacture the hundreds of various toys and related items featuring the smiling blue engine. A few years back, Mattel asked us to create a series of animatronic faces of Thomas and his pal Percy for their traveling “Day Out with Thomas” shows. These feature a full-scale version of Thomas that really rides the rails to different train museums and other venues all over the country. Later, we created for full-size engines of Thomas’ friends Percy, Emily, Gordon, and James for the Edaville, USA amusement park near Plymouth, Massachusetts. Percy is actually an interactive element, too, where kids can climb into his cab and press various buttons, move levers, and turn knobs to activate sound a lighting effects. All four of the characters feature animatronic faces and perform in a series of shows alongside real live actors. They are a really beautiful feature in the Thomas Land area of the park and we enjoyed working with Mattel tremendously in creating them.
In addition to working on railroad-themed projects, I’ve been a collector of certain items myself. For many years, I owned a miniature live steam locomotive very similar to Walt Disney’s Lilly Belle engine from his Carolwood Pacific Railway. Mine was called Peanut, and I kept it out in my shop, and restored a few elements on it, always intending to put in some track around the GHP headquarters. Eventually, I traded it to one of my employees who promised to give it a good home and actually steamed the little engine up for the first time in a decade or so. Just like Walt, lots of my employees are train fans, too. My creative director Bill Butler is one of the biggest—he has train models in his office and original 19th century railroad posters, a G-scale model train layout in his backyard, and even an authentic name plate from the cab of an engine from the much missed Mine Train Through Nature’s Wonderland attraction at Disneyland. He and I have talked about the possibility of purchasing a full-scale steam engine for years (at one point I was pretty close to purchasing one of the former Fort Wilderness engines from Walt Disney World), and recently a unique opportunity arose.
Through our work with Knott’s Berry Farm, I’d heard for several years that the park planned to have an auction of some old historic items to clear out storage space. I knew the park had the Jennie K. locomotive, formerly of Knott’s sister park Cedar Point, which had been slated for an overhaul but instead sat on siding of the Ghost Town and Calico Railway for many years. When the auction was officially announced in late 2016, the engine was slated to be one of the key lots. I mulled it over, and told Bill I wanted him to go for the engine at the auction in March 2017. When he called me during the auction, I figured it was going to be an expensive phone call…
Bill was at the auction to bid on a few items for his own collection (including the original sign from the Calico Mine Ride, which is his favorite attraction anywhere—he got it), and I gave him a ceiling of $30,000 for the Jennie K. There were a few other bidders vying for the engine as well. $30,000 came and went, but Bill kept going—he has a tendency to do this at auctions—up just a bit to a hammer price of $34,000.00. That’s a significant purchase, and with taxes and fees, was quite a price for a non-operational, rusty, and in need of lots of love locomotive. But, after wanting one my whole life, I finally owned a real steam engine!
The Jennie K. was built in 1940 by the H. K. Porter Locomotive Works in Pittsburg, PA for the Acme Brick Company of Perla, AR. After working at the brickyard for many years, the engine was sold to several new owners before winding up at Cedar Point Amusement Park in Ohio in 1964. There, the locomotive was totally restored and went back into service as a passenger engine on the Cedar Point & Lake Erie Railroad (I know I’m leaving out lots of details on her life at that park, but I’ll leave that to the Cedar Point experts). After years of carrying millions of passengers at the park, the engine was sent to Cedar Point’s sister park Knott’s Berry Farm in 2010 for an overhaul with the intent to use it at Knott’s on slower days when that park’s much larger engines weren’t required. Ultimately, Jennie K. was put on an unprotected siding and left to deteriorate in the elements. Interestingly, another engine from Cedar Point, the Maud L., was traded around after leaving the park and ended up at Disneyland, where the engine is now Disneyland Railroad number 5, the Ward Kimball.
I’d heard from some friends within the railroad collectors’ community (absolute proof that little boys never outgrow the need for toys) that some of the other bidders for Jennie K. wanted to use the engine for decorative purposes, and not to restore it to operating condition. In wanting a real steam engine my whole life, I certainly had actually running it as a primary motivation to own one. And so, my team here at GHP has already begun the process of restoring the engine to operational condition. In the years ahead, we’ll be tearing through every bit of the locomotive and totally restoring and in some cases re-imagining the workings and looks. Jennie K. has changed quite a bit since rolling off the line in 1940, so I’m being careful to get the engine looking totally right. I don’t plan to restore it to a saddle tank configuration and will be fabricating a tender to trail behind the engine—I’ve always loved the balance of that look. I’ve already acquired an antique headlamp and some other little bits to help bring the engine back to life. I’m totally committed to restoring this beautiful piece of railroading and theme park history—I can’t wait to get behind the throttle one day and pour on the steam in my own engine. Who knows, maybe one day it’ll end up back at Knott’s, hauling passengers…
I will be making one very significant alteration to the engine: we’re changing the name to B. C. Holt in honor of my late father Burlin Cornelius Holt. Some of you may know he was a race horse trainer by trade—I think it’s totally fitting to name a fire-breathing, stream-belching iron horse after him.
Stop by and say hello to Garner Holt and Crew during the D23 Expo in Anaheim, July 14th – 16th. They’ll be located between the MiceChat and Walt Disney Birthplace booths during the full run of the show (Booth spaces 712-718).