When I was growing up in New Hampshire, we lived in a 200+ year old house that was heated partly by a huge coal stove that sat in the living room. It had a window that sported an eerie orange glow from burning coals, and a cast iron pan of water sat on top to add moisture to the air. My father always seemed to be feeding the stove with buckets of coal he’d bring in from the shed. I’d dress by the stove on cold mornings, warming my clothes first, and sometimes I’d help by emptying the ash bin in the driveway to melt the ice and snow. We might use four or five tons of coal in a long winter, which was delivered in 40 pound bags.
I was thinking of that old coal stove when I was speaking with the engineers who run the Dollywood Express- Dollywood’s steam-powered train fueled by coal. I learned they can burn up to three tons of coal in a busy day- all of it shoveled by hand!
The Dollywood Express is one of the park’s most popular attractions, and with good reason. A busy day might include a dozen or more trips carrying more than 5,000 passengers! It’s a ride that entire families can enjoy together: infants and elderly, chickens and daredevils—all are united for a leisurely five-mile tour through the beautiful Smoky Mountains. It’s wheelchair accessible and one of few rides safe for pregnant women, and my personal go-to ride at Dollywood when I want to relax for a while.
Dollywood owns two coal-powered steam engines, both of which are veterans of WW2. They rotate regularly and depending upon when you visit, you might ride Cinderella or Klondike Katie. Unlike today’s computer-driven models, these trains run on water, coal and muscle. It’s a job that requires mechanical competence and strength, and a team of ten men keep the trains running smooth and in good repair.
Dollywood’s Train Shop Lead is Tim Smith, who grew up learning about trains from his grandfather. Tim remembers being taken to see the trains when they came to Pigeon Forge as a boy, and has held an interest ever since. He manages the trains and team in a program that resembles an apprenticeship. It’s a job that requires starting well before park guests arrive, when the men fuel up the engines, check the tracks, and make any necessary mechanical tweaks. They work in pairs and take turns shoveling coal in the same way generations before them have done. Tim said it takes years to learn the mechanics of each train and master driving them. He can even tell who is driving based on their whistle calls! Each engineer has a unique “pattern” and I’ve caught one on a short video for you here.