A different look at Disney...

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Will It Go Round in Circles

Editor's Note: Won't you join me and the MiceAge/MiceChat staff in welcoming Steve DeGaetano back to the site, this time as a regular columnist. His previous guest columns were among the most read and complimented that we've ever run. As you probably already know his expertise and passion for the Disneyland Railroad has already made for two wonderful books, so be sure to visit his site by clicking on the links provided below to find out more about them. - Al

It's cold and dark at 6am, even at Disneyland. There aren't too many folks walking around backstage at this hour. Maintenance people in their dark uniforms move like phantoms under the dim lights. An occasional cast member whizzes by on a bicycle, a mere shadow on wheels. The moon casts a pale glow over the area, giving hazy definition to old ride vehicles and parade floats and the esoterica of a living theme park.

Turning the corner, one is confronted with a large green-painted industrial building. The structure's windows glow warmly from the lights within. An illuminated sign attached to the side of the building, showing a hard-hatted and overall-sporting Mickey Mouse, tells what this imposing facility is: Roundhouse Facility--Monorail/Steam Trains.

Sign - Roundhouse Facility--Monorail/Steam Trains

Walking towards the front of the building, one becomes vaguely aware of strange sounds emanating from within. A hissing, rumbling, pounding sound. The sound of metal striking metal. The sounds of hammering and banging. Muffled voices.

Coming around to the font of the building, one is confronted with an awesome sight. The steely faces of four looming locomotives stand guard at each of the four open stalls of the roundhouse, peering out resolutely into the gloom. Their commanding presence causes visitors to speak in hushed, reverent tones. You are guests here, and the steam locomotives that live here seem to demand respect.

As light begins to brighten the skies, more and more cast members arrive. It's the beginning of a new day at Disneyland, and another day in the life of the Disneyland Railroad. Roaring fires have been built in the bellies of the ancient steam engines, and steam pressure is building--the powerful vapor that will propel these conveyances throughout the day, and that which gives them effusive life. Smoke and steam billow up the smokestacks, and up through the ceiling vents placed directly above the stacks. The air compressors thump and pound loudly as cast member polish the paint and brass on their venerable steeds.

Soon, each engine scheduled to operate today will make its way out of the roundhouse, where the boiler will be "blown down;" the time-honored method of blasting boiler-damaging scale and sediment from the engine's bowels. The sun climbs higher in the sky, and it's nearly time to send the first train out to the main line.

Daybreak on the Disneyland Railroad.
Daybreak on the Disneyland Railroad. Photo courtesy Preston Nirattisai.

The facility is a veritable beehive of activity now, as engineers, firemen and conductors arrive to operate Walt's railroad. Polishing continues to the very end. Engines are coupled to trains; safety chains are connected, brakes tested. Crews climb into cabs, conductors onto trains. And then, with two ear-splitting blasts of a whistle, the first train of the morning creaks and groans and strains against the weight of her eight cars. Steam and water, mixed with oil, spray the ground and the guttural roar of the fire increases. "Chuff" is followed by "chuff, " and another, and another, and slowly the train snakes its way along the yard tracks in front of the roundhouse, wheels clicking over rail joints, gliding onwards towards the Park.

Soon, the other trains follow, and when the last one vanishes around the bend, its whistle echoing in the distance, the facility becomes quiet again. Once more, one hears the occasional sound of metal striking metal. The occasional sounds of hammering. Muffled voices.

This is the Disneyland Railroad roundhouse, and this is its story.

It's certainly a legitimate question, so we should answer it right at the beginning. Why "roundhouse?" Obviously, the Disney facility isn't round in any sense of the word. Well, it all has to do with history...

Steam locomotives differ from diesel engines in that they are designed to operate in one direction only--forward. Diesels, on the other hand, can operate efficiently in either direction, and frequently do. This need to have steam locomotives properly oriented on the track led to the invention of the turntable—sort of like a large Lazy Susan with railroad tracks on it. The steam engine could roll onto the turntable, and be rotated 180 degrees. In the early days, the rotating was done manually, but later on, air or steam powered engines powered the turntable.

Back in the glory years of steam railroading, every major terminal had at least one turntable. But the railroad also needed facilities in which to repair and store the steam engines of the line. The solution was the roundhouse.

Fanning off the turntable were the many storage tracks of the railroad. Roundhouses were round because they were built to follow the curve of the turntable. Some roundhouses, like the Baltimore & Ohio's 1884 Mount Clare facility below, were built to completely surround and enclose the turntable, with storage tracks radiating from the turntable in the center. These were truly "round" houses!

The Baltimore & Ohio roundhouse is now a railroad museum in Mt. Clare.
The Baltimore & Ohio roundhouse is now a railroad museum in Mt. Clare.

Later, roundhouses were built that did not completely surround the turntable, and were semi-circular in design.

An overhead view of a typical late-steam era roundhouse and turntable.
An overhead view of a typical late-steam era roundhouse and turntable.

Much service and maintenance occurred in the roundhouse. Here, locomotives were oiled and wiped down, inspected, minor problems attended to, and often, a steam supply was connected to the engine to allow the steam pressure in the boiler to remain without needing to have someone monitor a fire in the engine's firebox. Here the engines would rest until called upon to once again take to the road with freight or passengers.

Roundhouses truly were the "stable" of the iron horse. Railroad photographer and author Don Ball Jr. Had this to say about the steam locomotive roundhouse:

If you were ever inside a roundhouse, it was an experience you'll never forget. Inside this cavernous home, the first thing that struck you was the size of the locomotives! Close up...right next to you! And the noise! Everywhere you could hear the banging and pounding of hammers, the chit-chat, chit-chat of alemite guns, and the ear-splitting hiss of steam. A whistle from a far stall echoed through the murky air, and the roar from open cylinder cocks could be heard as an engine backed out onto the turntable. Most of the engines remained in their stalls for routine inspections, some for boiler washouts and repairs, other simply awaiting their assignments.

The Disneyland roundhouse is, of course, rectangular, but it performs virtually all of the same functions that took place in the "real" railroad roundhouses of a century ago. In railroading, tradition often trumps reality, and the name of the Disneyland roundhouse reflects that concept. Walt Disney, you see, had a thing about railroading tradition.

Walt Disney loved trains, and was an avid rail fan. As has been documented many times, Walt's passion for trains served as a sort of catalyst in congealing his ideas about family entertainment in an outdoor environment into a place he called "Disneyland." Walt was so enamored of trains that even the very first concept drawings of the little park that he envisioned, existing on a sliver of land across from his studios in Burbank, California, featured trains.

Those early drawings, however, lacked one thing every steam railroad required: Some sort of service facility. It was at least three drawings removed from the original plan that we first see a roundhouse to care for the trains. It was a typical semi-circular design surrounding a turntable, with a rectangular adjoining shed to store the cars. Later, when Marvin Davis drew the first drawing to include the Hub, the roundhouse and turntable were kept.

Concept art
The semi-circular roundhouse can be seen in the upper left corner of this Marvin Davis drawing.

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Davis' "second generation" hub plan started looking more and more like the Disneyland we know today. However, by this time, the roundhouse facility had been moved to the lower left hand corner of the Park—where the Jungle Cruise exists today. It's interesting to note that in all these early plans, the facility was always inside the berm.


© 2007 Steve DeGaetano

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