Sunday, January 15, 2012

Knott's Celebrates 60 Years

Photo by Mark Rightmire,
The Orange County Register
Over 60 years ago, Walter Knott, an enterprising man with many years' experience in the growing tourism industry in California, had a vision. Built to give guests waiting to eat the famous chicken dinners made by his wife, his growing Ghost Town was attracting many visitors in its own right. Yet the Ghost Town didn't feel complete to Knott without a live steam locomotive.

A fan of the Colorado narrow gauge, Knott set out for Colorado with his son with the ambition of purchasing an engine and rolling stock. Returning with both the Rio Grande Southern steam engine #41 and the Denver & Rio Grande Western #340, along with passenger stock and eventually Galloping Goose #3, Knott commissioned his loop of track around the property as the Ghost Town & Calico Railroad. Knott's Ghost Town was the beginning of what would become Knott's Berry Farm, Los Angeles' "other," theme park, the one not owned by a mouse.

Now 60 years later, Knotts Berry Farm is a theme park in every way, right down to corporate ownership. Yet, tradition has kept a lot of it the same, including the train, and even some improvements, like authentic Pullman green on the coaches, minus the arrows. Like Marion Knott, last surviving child of Walter, said in the OC Register, "It's the same train," she said after the ride. "It's beautifully kept up."

Video of the Event

or click for video

After 60 years, a train gathers its own traditions and memories. Without a replacement, it's hard to picture the engines ever returning to their home rails in Colorado. This brings up an issue that I've thought about for years now.

When I first learned about Knott and the purchase, executed many years before I was born, I didn't like that valuable pieces of Colorado railroading history had been turned into a southern California tourist trap, with the cars "pierced" with Indian arrows and other kitsch like a scheduled train robbery. On the other hand, I realized that however Knott had done it, he had still managed to preserve and operate valuable pieces of history which might otherwise be sitting in a park somewhere, cold and nearly forgotten. Like D&RGW Mudhen #464 on the Huckleberry Railroad, Knott's has taken rare, historic railroad equipment and made it accessible to the public experience again, albeit for a ticket price a bit higher than a non-profit museum. Still, I believe it's worth it if folks connect with Colorado railroad history and learn all they can.

We are fast approaching the time when we will no longer have among us those who remember riding behind a steam engine as a common, everyday experience. There may come a day we lose me and the younger riders of the Rio Grande Zephyr, the last intercity streamliner as well. Furthermore, it's one thing to hear and imagine what it was like; quite another to experience the real thing. While preservation is so often married to commercial interests, Knotts, Huckleberry, and even the Durango & Silverton included, it also begins to perpetuate itself when people connect with the memories and experiences they've had. There will be those who will want to see it continued on to the next generation. There is always the question of what it will cost, but my hope is that it will always remain reasonable to future generations.

Sources: OC Register, Wikipedia


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