Don Saager finds old steam locomotives romantic, even intoxicating. Even intensely intoxicating.
Thats why he’s excavating land behind his house for a half-mile railroad for steam engines he’s been building from scratch for six years. He’s calling it the Heavenly Hilltop Railroad.
The engines are 1/8 scale but are exact replicas of original steam engines, work the same way, weigh up to a ton, and can pull passengers.
“I first fell in love with steam engines when I was a youngster,” says the soft-spoken 58-year-old machinist from Stamping Ground, Ky., (pop. 831). “I was a baggage handler for the Sante Fe Railroad in California when I was 18 or 19. I got to see the last of the great steamers back then. They were something else.”
Saager didn’t make railroading a career, though. Instead, he learned a trade as a machinist and lathe operator. He’s now with Commonwealth Tools in Stamping Ground. But the love of trains still drove him. He built an elaborate Lionel model train diorama (a tabletop set) and continued to bone up on railroad lore.
A few years ago, he discovered a group of large-scale railroad enthusiasts while searching the Internet. That group, the Mid-South Live Steamers, based out of middle Tennessee, operated one of the few 1/8-scale steam locomotive enthusiast clubs in the country. Saager was hooked right then on the idea of building his own large-scale train engines.
“I went to one of their gatherings, and I really became excited about the hobby,” he says. “That, for me, got the engine running, so to speak.”
Saager met some of the founders of the Mid-South Live Steamers, including Joe Ed Gaddes, who was responsible for getting the organization up and running.
Gaddes’ son, Brent, also an aficionado, says that since the early 1970s, dozens of like-minded steamers have been gathering at the clubs mile-long railway on the grounds of the Maury County Park in Columbia, Tenn. Members haul their engines by truck in the spring and fall for the gatherings, where kids of all ages get to climb aboard the built-to-scale, fully functional engines.
Rails for the operation are spaced 7 1/2 inches apart, and the engines and their accompanying cars are just big enough to ride, but not too big to transport. The engines weigh up to 2,000 pounds and can pull from one to 50 people, depending on their size.
Almost all engines operate like the real McCoy, burning coal or other fuel in a firebox to heat water until it boils, creating the steam that propels the wheels. And, Gaddes says, the real fun is getting together and riding the trains.
The hobby isn’t for everyone. Kits are available for the engines, but these can cost as much as a new automobile. So, most enthusiasts have to possess the skills to manufacture their own engines.
“I was fortunate in that I already was trained as a machinist and lathe operator,” Saager says. “I bought some plans from members of Mid-South, and then I started to build my own engines.”
Saager says his first effort was all-consuming, but fortunately his wife, Becky, understood. “That first engine took me a year to build,” he says. “Every evening I was in my shop at home working until 9 or 10 p.m., and I worked every Saturday and every Sunday after church.”
“But it was worth it,” he says cheerfully. “I learned a lot from that experience, and now I’m on my second engine. It’s a 1/8-scale version of the Denver Rio Grande, a real steamer built in 1903.”
“This one’s my pride and joy,” Saager says. “When it’s done, it will pull up to 25 cars.”
Which will no doubt make it the crowning glory of the Heavenly Hilltop Railroad.