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Where the Geese Wear Pants

Bucksgahuda & Western, September 2016

Pennsylvania has a remarkable variety of steam railroading, from the venerable for-profit Strasburg to the all-volunteer Project 113.  While the narrow-gauge East Broad Top no longer runs, the even-narrower amusement park rides at Knoebels and on Harrisburg's City Island do boil water to make their trains go, and way out in Elk County, just south of the borough of St. Mary's, the Bucksgahuda & Western operates on more than a mile of two-foot-gauge track.  I'd never heard of this one until fairly recently; through Project 113 I met one of the members of the Bauer family, who have built the railroad more or less from scratch over the past half-century.  In September of 2016 I visited the railroad on one of their annual open-house days.


I had spent the last Saturday of the summer on the Everett Railroad, chasing their lovely 2-6-0 on a special train to Martinsburg and back, and after supper at Claysburg Pizza with some of the other chasers I headed north, tuning from one public radio station to another as the two-lane roads wound around the hills and through the little towns in the dark.

Sometime after midnight I found the small sign on the side of Pa. 255 pointing to the B. & W. (yes, I missed it the first time by), and I drove down the gravel road to a parking area bordered by tracks, a depot, a wooden locomotive water tank, and a few steel buildings.  After managing to get a trickle of water from a hose on the tank to brush my teeth, I unrolled the sleeping bag in the back of the van and turned in.  "Roughing it" this way keeps me young, or at least reminds me very pleasantly of all of the many, many nights my father and I camped in his van by railroads, 1971-80, and of the many nights I did it in my own van in the late '80s (including a largely sleepless night next to the Union Pacific mainline at Dale, Wyoming; perhaps I should have parked a little farther from the tracks, because every train that passed, and they passed every 15 minutes all night long, sounded and felt like it would come right through the windshield).


No trains roared through the B. & W. yard that Sunday morning, but before it got light another vehicle drove past mine, and I heard footsteps in the gravel, then a diesel engine firing up, so I got dressed and climbed outside to see whom I could introduce myself to.  I found Scott Bauer, third-generation railroader and my contact at Project 113, and another young man opening up doors and turning on lights and starting to move equipment.  They made me welcome and while they went about their tasks I looked around in the main shop building, four tracks wide and stuffed solid with tools and railroad artifacts, from whistle signs to a full-size wooden foundry pattern for casting a driving wheel.

By 8 o'clock, many other people involved with the railroad had arrived, and a whole collection of two-foot-gauge locomotives sat outside the enginehouse: "Otto", a 1939 Henschel 0-4-0 that Scott's grandfather and great-uncles imported from Germany in 1966; a homemade two-truck Shay-pattern steamer; and a couple of industrial "critter" diesels (which I must confess I paid much less attention to, compared to the steam engines).  Although officially a 501(c)(3) non-profit, the railroad runs effectively as an extension of the Bauer family, and everyone old enough to walk, it seems, has a chance to help make the trains go; the youngest to take the throttle of #2 looked about 12.  Older boys -- young men, I suppose -- took charge of getting Otto hot, starting with a wood fire.

While some people worked on the engines, others set out doughnuts and coffee in the enginehouse and yet others moved picnic tables inside, preparing for church.  A devout Catholic family, the Bauers would not let Sunday morning go by without a mass.  Mary Pat Fleming conferred with Noah Crissman about the reading that he would do --

​​-- and then everyone crowded inside and a local priest led the service.  After making a few photos I put the camera down​; yes, I had already removed my hat.

So, why "Bucksgahuda & Western", and why do the geese wear pants?  According to the railroad's Web site: "In Germany, where both the founding Bauer family and the railroad’s first steam locomotive came from, parents told their children a fairy tale of 'Bucksgahuda'.  If the children didn’t mind their flock of geese and do their chores, the story goes, a giant gander would swoop down and cart them off to another place.

In this place, the gander would turn the children into baby geese, still wearing their little boy knickers, who never grow up.  Our Bucksgahuda is the place where the little trains never grow up."  This hood ornament adorns one of the critters; note the suspenders and pants:

The Bauer family welcomes non-relatives to help on the railroad too, and on the morning of my visit Jamey Rickens, whom I had met at the Everett, had charge of the oil can.  Jamey engineers at an Altoona TV station in real life; on his first day as oiler here, he worked under Scott Bauer's supervision.  Gabriel Mihacevich, in Otto's cab, spends his weekdays as a locomotive engineer for the Buffalo & Pittsburgh.

Oil-fired Shay #6 has a non-traditional firing arrangement, with the burner at the front of the boiler, aimed to the back, so it heats all of the water in the boiler from underneath as well as through the tubes that pass through from back to front; it drafts through the smokebox and smokestack in the usual way.  As it heated up, patriarch Bill Bauer, one of the B. & W.'s founding generation, checked on the flame.  In the cab, a genuine Lima Locomotive gauge showed the rising steam pressure.

Lima built about 2770 locomotives to Ephraim Shay's design, both standard and narrow-gauge, but a man named Peter Lear built this one in New Hampshire for his own private railroad; when he died, in 1994, his daughter gave it to the B. & W., and the B. & W.'s Tony Weber reboilered her, built a new cab, and built new trucks and got both of them powered (only one had connected to the two-cylinder "motor" before), so the railroad can take pride in this homebuilt.  Oddly enough, though, #6 does not have the guts to tackle the main B. & W. loop, with its 14% and 22% grades (yes, you read that right) pulling a train, so ordinarily on operating days she runs out and back on the stub-end branch, part of it built on the right-of-way of the long-gone St. Marys & Southwestern logging road.  (The access road to the railroad, by the way, parallels the right-of-way of the Pittsburg, Shawmut & Northern, which went out of business on April Fools Day 1947, and the B. & W. has P. S. & N. caboose #186 restored and on display under cover next to the Gillen station.)


This "route map", also borrowed from the B. & W. Web site, shows the location of the station (Gillen); the turntable and shop; and the main loop and the branch:

​The 22% grade drops down from Hill (running clockwise); then the track runs roughly level from South Switch around the horseshoe curve and over the Bridge, then starts climbing again; between Well and Cinder it climbs at 14%, then levels out again around the curve to the station.  Out at the very end of the branch, the railroad has built a wooden gallows turntable, but I did not see it in use.

From ground level, the Shay's mechanical workings look sturdy enough, while Otto's running gear up close looks like any other Walschaerts-equipped locomotive, only really, really small.  The drivers measure somewhere under 24" in diameter.

Getting Otto ready for the road means lubricating above as well as below; Mitchell Smithbauer took care of the dynamo, Scott Bauer the linkages atop the steam dome:

The first train of the day, a little after 10 a.m., ran with one of the diesels and three cars: a "stock car", a flatcar with sides, and a caboose.  I tore myself away from the steam engines and took a seat at the front of the gondola.  Since the B. & W. operates innocent of air brakes, each car's brake wheel gets a good workout on every trip, with third-generation Bauers and their contemporaries doing the work to restrain momentum on the drop down the grade; once past South Switch, they can generally relax.  ​Lest one think that only the boys get to have fun here, the railroad offers equal opportunities to the girls and women; Scott's sister Erica had command of the flatcar's brakewheel on a later trip; photo made at "Hill", where the branch splits off from the loop.

Before Otto left the house track, Tom and Scott Bauer compared watches.  (Actually, Scott had to show his father how to use some feature or other on his phone.  The user of an old, dumb phone myself, I have every sympathy for Tom.)

With trains running on the loop and the branch all day, and gray skies eliminating worrying about which way the shadows would fall, I had plenty of time to explore the property, so I walked the loop.  The bridge definitely serves as the scenic highlight, and after a first attempt from ground level I went back to the van and got the ladder; the extra elevation helped with the side-on view, getting me above the ferns:

Coming up the hill above Well, Otto put on a great show; this video on Youtube, made in 2015, has a scene filmed here at the 5-minute mark.

At the top of the hill, the track turns sharply to the west, passing another of the equipment sheds and a signal, relocated from along one of the "real" railroads in the region:

​On her first attempt this day, Otto did not make it up the hill; perhaps the rails remained a little damp from the morning's dew.  In any event, it took a large crew spreading handfuls of sand for her to keep her feet on the 14% (you can see the residue on the rails and ties in the photos above).  The same video ends, by the way, with a trip made at the end of that 2015 operating day, with family and other volunteers aboard, as Otto brought a train "wrong way 'round" on the loop, climbing the 22%; turn your speakers up starting here!

When I took a ride behind the Shay, Mary Pat Fleming had the throttle; the manifold in the cab supplies the throttle's steam, as well as the other appliances', and the throttle lever in Mary Pat's hand attaches to a regular ball valve.

Sitting right behind me in the open car behind #6, Bill Bauer relaxed with a friend, just out for a ride --

-- then later, while #6 sat again on the turntable, Bill took the oil can to her:

One of the longtime volunteers, the North Shore Railroads' chief marketing officer, Todd Hunter, watched Bill work, then struck a timeless pose in the cab.

Before my last ride of the day around the loop, Mitchell Smithbauer filled Otto with water from the tank at the station, -- but the injector on the fireman's side did not want to behave.

Scott made things right with an adjustable wrench while Mary Pat "cut coal" in the bunker:

At a few places on the railroad, the B. & W. has signals, and a green beckoned us at Well; for some reason, we stopped here, possibly to build up steam, and the light from the tiny firebox lit up Mary Pat's face while we waited:

-- and I could not resist trying just a couple more pan shots, of the Impulse roller-coaster:

​We made it up the hill without further incident, and once safely back at the station I got the ladder back out of the van and walked to the junction at Hill, where I could see trains on both tracks.  Again the extra elevation helped the compositions.  Here too the railroad has installed a former mainline signal, this one from the ex-Pennsylvania Railroad:

The Shay led its trains outbound and shoved east; on the outbound leg, the engineer blew the whistle long and loud for the crossing ahead -- "Old Shawmut Grade Road".  One of the equipment sheds has a wonderful large-scale hand-painted map of the P. S. & N. hanging on the wall, and I wish I had photographed it.  As you can see in the two photos below, the position-light signal functions:

It had gotten on towards 3 o'clock now, and I had three hours on the road ahead of me, so I found a few of my hosts to thank them and bid them adieu; in one last photo before leaving I caught Tyler Fenderson, another Project 113 volunteer, about to ride the loop on the caboose:

As I like to do when time permits, I stuck to the blue highways most of the way home, in this case Pa. 120, which got me as far as Lock Haven.  Between St.Mary's and Emporium, the road parallels a former railroad grade, now a trail; once upon a time the Pennsy's branch from Emporium to Erie, the Allegheny & Eastern abandoned the line in the early 2000s, and the West Creek Recreational Trail Association spearheaded the conversion.  A Pennsy caboose sits at the trailhead in Emporium, close to the former junction with the Buffalo Line, this latter now operated by the Western New York & Pennsylvania, one of the last users of Alco diesels in daily revenue service.  On a Sunday afternoon, I found two locomotives in town, shut down across from the yard office, and I photographed them under the now-inactive position-light signals; sic transit gloria mundi.

From here on east the clouds got thicker and lower, and by the time I got to Renovo the rain came down in buckets.  I saw miles of wet rails, but no trains, and some lovely clouds hanging below the hilltops near Hyner View -- and I should have stopped to photograph them, but by now I had grown eager to get home.


Nonetheless, I hope to see you somewhere at trackside sometime soon --

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