Part 24: Kings Dominion’s Old Dominion Line: Just a nice ride through the woods
On May 3, 1975 Kings Dominion formally opened to the public with a grand total of 16 rides and attractions after a “soft opening” the year before to introduce Lion Country Safari, the Scooby Doo roller coaster and a preview center. A quick review of the rides opening that year – the Rebel Yell, Eiffel Tower, Wacky Wheels, Flying Scooters, Carrousel and others – showed the park was firmly planted in and committed to the “family thrills and fun” category.
But one ride, which gave guests a refreshing break from walking as well as (for a while anyway) a chance to see an impromptu show, , was the Old Dominion Line train ride.
The ODL was a full-size, narrow (3-ft) gauge steam train not classified as a typical conveyance attraction, as unlike train rides at such parks as Busch Gardens-Williamsburg it did not stop to let passengers on or off, but only made a loop through the woods. The station was located about where the Skyflyer is today, and the track ran south between the Rebel Yell and Grizzly stations following a free-form circuit through almost exclusively woods. If you liked looking at trees, then this was your ride.
Crown Metal Products in Wyano, Pennsylvania, delivered two engines and tenders – one painted orange and named the Stonewall Jackson, and another painted blue and named the Patrick Henry – in time for that May opening. They were the real deal – oversize and heavy, made with genuine steel, iron and hardwoods.
The Stonewall Jackson also flew Confederate flags. Gulp.
There were some variations in construction and operation from a real steam train, thank the Good Lord. Anyone who has ever had to continuously shovel wood or coal into a full-size train boiler will appreciate the fact that the engines ran on propane gas, supplied by three large tanks hidden in the tenders and camouflaged by slabs of wood.
A massive propane tank located outside the repair shed near the Grizzly entrance supplied the needed gas.
The track was a standard railroad, built almost exactly like those found everywhere else. The rails, ties, spikes and ballast (gravel bed) were exactly like those of RF&P, C&O and others. The 30-ft rails were not welded, but joined with 3-ft splice plates at the joints.
But a railroad track means track maintenance – and trust me when I stress that it was hot, miserable work, winter or summer. Periodically during the operating season the engineer would complain of a dip or a “dog leg” that had developed somewhere. The problem was found, isolated and repairs made, usually by packing more ballast or worse, replacing ties – an astonishingly labor-intensive process. Sometimes old-school railroad guys were hired temporarily to perform this work, and younger punks such as this writer toted boards, shoveled rocks and became versed in railroad lingo as “pack it in” then “dress it up.”
In the swampy outlying areas, such as near the old show stage, smothering humidity and clouds of voracious mosquitoes made the work more like 19th century convict labor. Thankfully around 1986 the park started contracting out track maintenance and punks like me got paroled from it.
The locomotives required two operators – an engineer and a fireman. The engineer physically drove the train and watched in the mirror to make sure guests behaved, and the fireman monitored steam and air pressure, adding and subtracting water or gas as needed to get the train safely around the loop. “Running out of steam” was an embarrassment for any fireman, and if it happened it was always just before the Grizzly crossing, as there was a slight uphill grade there.
Engineers and firemen were almost exclusively retired guys, some with railroad experience and some without. Engineers also had to have some PR skills, as they were frequently asked questions about the train and asked to pose for pictures at the conclusion of the ride. One of the engineers during pre-season operation in the early 1990s had to set the record for commuting to work – every Thursday he drove to Kings Dominion from just south of Jacksonville, Florida. Then on Monday he drove back. He did this for three months then I never saw him again.
A rides employee also rode in the rear car, watching the backs of heads and repeating some trivia about the locomotives during operation.
For years there was a live show on the ride. Originally, a couple of actors or actresses boarded the train in the station and interact with passengers before the train would stop at various points for them to perform a short skit with other actors. This show went on for the first four years. Then, that show was changed to a wild west “stunt show” that ran for another 3 or 4 seasons. The train would squeal to a stop in front of a Hollywood back-lot-style fake set of buildings, and guests would be treated to a most culturally incorrect depiction of western rural life, complete with loud-talking drunks, louts chasing barefoot damsels in distress and gun-toting moonshiners. Finally, all these aggravating factors came to a toothless head, resulting in a shootout with realistic weapons, many loud shots and people falling off roofs into hay wagons.
Please see my entry on Hootin’ Holler for more 1970s-style wince-inducing cultural disasters.
After several seasons the show was discontinued, for many reasons. Park officials realized by 1986 that culture was changing, and portrayals of slack-jawed, gun-crazy yokels shooting each other while cradling jugs of homemade hooch was maybe not so appropriate any more. Moreover, it took a lot of skill for the engineer and fireman to stop a train and keep the boiler stoked and monitored for a 10-minute show, then crank up and return on an uphill grade to the station.
But worse, since there were only 2-3 shows per hour, the mostly college-age actors had too much spare time on their hands alone in the woods, leading to unsavory shenanigans not befitting a family theme park that got many of them fired. So for the last 8 years or so the train just made a safe loop through the woods, finally at the end passing through the Grizzly gate and giving everyone a chance to wave at the crossing guard.
In 1994 the park sold the trains and tore up the tracks in the “Paramount Purge.” One of the reasons for KD getting rid of the ODL, however, was not just because of short-sighted Hollywood tycoons having no idea what people liked or wanted (well, maybe a little), but because of suffocating Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) regulations for high-pressure steam engines. Boiler explosions were always a risk, especially with a careless fireman at the controls, and winter maintenance on the boilers got more intense with each passing year. Let’s not forget the boilers were also wrapped in asbestos (although sealed under fiberglass). All expensive risks Paramount was not willing to take.
The Patrick Henry went to Busch Gardens-Tampa, and I hear the Stonewall Jackson is living out its retirement as a “Christmas Train” somewhere in Oklahoma. Crown Metal stopped making steam trains in 1989, and today makes air conditioning ducts.