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Written by Paul D. Race for Family Garden Trains(tm)

Unique Features of the Little River Railroad

This page highlights the unique features of the Little River Railroad that make it an especially good candidate for modeling, including:

Unique Environment

Most model railroads that have logging operations or mountainous scenery model either the far North or the Rockies. The Smokies have their own character - the mountains aren't generally as steep as the Rockies but they get very high. If you've ever been to Clingman's Dome, so has the Little River Railroad, so you can imagine what that climb was like. Not to mention the Appalachian culture of many of the workers and of the communities that the LRRR served. If you can find it, the book Last Train to Elkmont should give you a wealth of ideas for "local flavor."

Unique Business Plan

At first glance, the Little River Railroad might look like a hundred narrow gauge industrial railroads running Shay* locomotives deep in the mountains to bring back hard-to-reach resources. But the Little River Railroad ran on standard-gauge track, so it could exchange cars with the "big boys," and it was chartered as an independent company - a "common carrier." How many industrial railroads had locomotives custom-built just to serve its passenger business? On the other hand, how many common carriers had a fleet of Shays* dedicated to one company's logging efforts?

Here's a site you wouldn't see on many railroads - a logging locomotive pulling an observation car full of paying customers. On the trickier parts of the railroad, Shay locomotives like this one even pulled L&N passenger cars. Click to see a slightly larger photo.In model railroading, "experts" often pooh-pooh model railroads that have log trains running on the same track as passenger trains. But on the LRRR, this happened every day. And the relationship between the train and the industries it served had a wide range of side effects. The train enabled the industries to establish in places that were virtually unreachable before, then communities grew up around the industries, then the train delivered passengers, mail service, groceries, and household goods to those communities, and so on.

Unique Approaches to Getting the Logs Out of the Hills

As much as we like to talk about the trains, there wouldn't have been a railroad if it wasn't for the lumber company. The business opportunity of harvesting first-growth timber and selling the bark to Fisher's tannery for an additional income stream led to the first spike to be driven on the railroad. This steam-powered crane was driving a network of cables and pulleys that 'flew' great logs from the cutting site to the railroad. Click to see more photos of the Little River Lumber Company's skidders at work.

Technically, the LRRR's responsibility for the logs didn't start until the logs were on the train. But the same engineers who planned the railroad also spent a great deal of time figuring out how to get the logs out of places where even the trains couldn't go. As described in our History article, the Little River Logging Company pioneered various uses of steam power. For a short time they used "skidders" that dragged the logs from the logging site to the railroad tracks, then they went to "overhead skidders" that suspended the logs completely in the air as they moved across difficult terrain. Imagine modeling a logging railroad that shows logs being moved through the air like skiers on an impromptu ski-lift.

Click to see a page with more information and a bigger photo.The point at which the railroad became more directly involved was probably the strangest point of all - they used a hanging bridge that they would winch log cars across using a steam-powered crane. If you model this, make certain you have a printout of this photograph handy for when people think you're getting your inspiration from Dr. Seuss instead of a real railroad. See our History page's section on Moving Logs from the Farthest Reaches for more information on these groundbreaking techniques.

Unique Construction

As we mentioned in our "History" article, the LRRR's founders violated "common wisdom" for lumber railroads when they chose to use standard gauge (4'8.5" between rails). This improved service and cut the cost of shipping to customers served by the "big" railroads. It also allowed passenger cars from the L&N to run on the LRRR's sightseeing excursion trains. But except for the gauge of the track, much of the LRRR's construction resembled that of many industrial, narrow gauge railroads, including steep climbs, tight curves, and rough trackage. And that forced some odd compromises in the LRRR's choices of equipment.

Unique Equipment

Because the LRRR was a standard gauge railroad that was largely built and operated like a narrow gauge railroad, it required some unusual locomotives to provide "full-service" railroading on its curves and climbs. Ironically, a railroad that ran some fairly large logging locomotives also ran some of the smallest standard-gauge passenger locomotives ever built.

Shay #9 at Elkmont. Click to see a larger photo.Shays - On the LRRR, Shay locomotives did the majority of the logging runs. While these locomotives may seem "exotic" to folks used to side-rod-driven steamers, the LRRR's Shays were similar to the Shays built for many other railroads. So we won't say much about them here except to note that even the sure-footed Shays had trouble with the LRRR's rough trackage from time to time - by the time the railroad shut down in 1939, all of their original Shays had been wrecked, scrapped or both.

Shay 2147 in her youth. Click to see a slightly larger photo.In 1935, the LRRR acquired used three-truck 70-ton Class C Shay #2147. That Shay ran on the LRRR until 1939, when it went to Craig Marble company, still in running condition. After a long journey, it has returned to the Smokies and is now the most impressive display of the Little River Railroad and Lumber Company Museum.

#2890, the largest Shay that ever ran on the LRRR.  Click to see a slightly larger photo.The largest Shay the LRRR ever ran was a three-truck, 90-ton Class C (#2890) that they acquired used in 1935. As you may be able to tell from the photo, she was pretty patched together when they got her. When the railroad closed down, she was scrapped.

Note: As the tourist business heated up on the LRRR, there was a demand for passenger/sightseer service over rails that were owned by the lumber company - rails that only the Shays could handle. So passenger trains pulled by Shays were very common in the summer months between 1909 and 1926 - another way in which the LRRR "broke the rules."

Locomotive #1 - The first locomotive on the Little River Railroad was not a Shay, but a second-hand 0-4-0T Pennsylvania A-2. She had both a saddle tank and a slopeback PRR-style tender - a combination you would probably not have seen on the PRR. This locomotive from the PRR was a precursor to the A-4 and A-5 locomotives that were very successful for PRR's switching operations. Sadly, the museum has removed their larger photo of this locomotive from their web page.Pennsy probably used her as a "yard goat," putting together trains for larger locomotives to pull. But on the LRRR she was used for logging and longer hauls, including passenger trains. Eventually, though, she was replaced by locomotives that were better suited for specific purposes.

Trial and Error - When the LRRR decided they needed a larger locomotive to take the long hauls, they ordered a Mogul** from the Baldwin locomotive factory. But her fixed wheelbase (the distance between the first and last drive wheels) was too long to handle the LRRR's tight curves, and they sent her back. Then they ordered a Prairie*** type with a shorter wheelbase, and they had to send her back as well.

Number 105 was one of the LRRR's most successful locomotives. Note the very short fixed wheelbase. Click to see a slightly larger photo.Locomotive #105 - Finally, the LRRR ordered an even smaller Prairie type locomotive that seemed to work very well. So well, in fact that between 1904 and 1928, #105 was used almost constantly on passenger, freight, and switching duty. Eventually, however, she was replaced by even more specialized locomotives.

Number 110 was the LRRR's pride and joy for many years.  Note that, though the locomotive is longer than #105, she still has a very short fixed wheelbase. Click to see a slightly larger photo.Locomotive #110 - Bouyed by #105's success, and feeling the continuous need for more power, the LRRR ordered a Pacific-type locomotive whose fixed wheelbase was barely longer than #105's. In fact #110 is the smallest Pacific-style locomotive ever built for a standard gauge railroad." Her short fixed wheelbase was made even more flexible by leaving the flanges off of the center pair of drivers, a trick toy train manufacturers still use so their trains will run on ridiculously tight curves. Consider that on the LRRR's tightest curves, only four of the six drivers were even on the rails!

Like her big sisters on the L&N and other railroads, this Pacific was used mostly for passenger runs. She was the pride and joy of the LRR, running right up until the railroad was dismantled. For a few years toward the end, she also hauled some log cars to the mill. After the LRRR shut down, she ran for a time on another sight-seeing railroad in the Smokies. Then she was trapped by a crumbling bridge in the mountains, abandoned for a time, then rescued. Thankfully, she is in running condition now on the Little River Railroad near Coldwater, Michigan.

Big Power on a Tiny Footprint - By 1906, the LRRR was looking for something that could pull big trains faster than their Shays or the little ex-PRR 0-4-0T that was still in service at that time. Most of the "big railroads" were using 2-8-2 "Mikado" locomotives to pull heavier trains. Some railroads were even experimenting with "articulated" locomotive like 2-6-6-2s. Those had hinged frames and two sets of drivers, each set with its own cylinders, pistons, and drive rods. But the LRRR's tight curves seemed to make anything with eight or more drivers impossible. Unless, perhaps, you could "articulate" a Mikado. Separate the eight drivers into two sets of four, the same way 2-6-6-2s were separating twelve drivers into two groups.

Before the LRRR's next locomotive was designed, the whole reason for building articulated locomotives was to make them bigger, not smaller. But Baldwin was up to the challenge.

Number 126 was one of only three 2-4-4-2s Baldin ever built for logging purposes.  Unfortunately, she was a tad too big and heavy to run on the track in the Little River Gorge. Click to see a larger photo.Locomotive #126 In 1908, at the LRRR's request, Baldwin produced the first-ever 2-4-4-2 locomotive, LRRR #126. Unfortunately, like the LRRR's first Prairie-style locomotive, that locomotive failed to navigate the LRRR's trackage. She went back to Baldwin, was resold, then had a long career on industrial railroads out West. When she was on the Columbia River Belt Line, she earned the nickname "Skookum." She is now in pieces but is slated for restoration in Tillamook, Oregon. For more information, as well as many photos and drawings about "Skookum," visit her listing on the Logging Mallet page.

Number 148 was the heaviest locomotive on the LRRR, but it was the smallest and lightest 2-4-4-2 ever built for standard gauge.  Click to see a larger photo.Locomotive #148, the second 2-4-4-2, was much smaller and was a success on the LRRR. She hauled the railroad's longest and heaviest trains from 1909 until some time in the mid-1930s, when she was loaned to Alcoa****. While she was in service on the LRRR, she also spent almost every summer weekend hauling sight-seers in passenger trains, an odd duty for a logging locomotive.

Even on loan, #148 did not outlast the LRRR - records show that she was scrapped about the time the railroad was closed down. For more information about #148, please check out her listing on the Logging Mallet web site.


The LRRR's unique enviroment, business plan, and equipment combined to create a "spunky little railroad" that "violated common wisdom," "broke the rules," and "pushed the envelope" of what could be done by a railroad that was built to serve a logging company and provide common carrier functions at the same time. Though very little remains of the railroad's physical presence, its history reminds us that challenging "common wisdom" isn't all bad.

This is the plan for a two-truck narrow gauge Shay. The Shay on display at the Little River Railroad and Lumber Company Museum is a much larger three-truck standard-gauge Shay. Click for a bigger picture of this plan.* A Shay was a locomotive that used gears to translate its steam power to the drive wheels. This helped reduce the pounding that the rails took. It also geared the locomotive down for incredible power, at the sacrifice of speed. One of the largest Shays that has been preserved is on display at the Little River Railroad and Lumber Company Museum.

This beautiful light Mogul found service elsewhere after she struggled to stay on the LRRRs trackage. Click for bigger photo.** A Mogul locomotive had one pair of 'pilot' wheels and six drivers. Moguls were popular on many railroads between 1880 and 1930, but not on the LRRR.

Prairie #103 had a much shorter turning radius than the #77 mogul they tried out first, but she was still too clumsy for the LRRR's sharp curves. Click to see a slightly larger photo.*** A Prairie locomotive had one pair of "pilot" wheels, three pairs of "drivers" and one pair of trailing wheels (which were especially useful on the LRRR, because they functioned as pilot wheels when the locomotive was backing). Unfortunately the first Prairie locomotive the LRRR ordered could not handle the LRRR's track very well.

**** Rick Turner, current president of the LRRR&LC museum has learned that while #148 was running for Alcoa, the LRRR's prize passenger locomotive #110 took over some of the log-hauling duties, "breaking the rules" once again.

Return to the Little River Railroad index page.

Links for More Little River Railroad Information

The Museum's Home page:

'Last Train To Elkmont' - describes the people who built, worked on, and were served by the Little River Railroad. Click here see this book on the museum's internet bookstore.

'Whistle Over the Mountain' - the best available reference on the Little River Railroad, includes maps to places you can still see traces of its infrastructure.  Click here to see this book on the museum's internet bookstore.

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