The Heber Creeper, in former glory, rolls through the Heber Valley.
When the 5 o'clock whistle blows in the cavernous Heber Valley Railroad shop, Mike Manwiller, flips up his welder’s visor and takes pride in being a low-tech man. Spread out around the fourth-generation railroader are the guts of a steam locomotive. Made 104 years ago at the Baldwin Works in Philadelphia, No. 75 labored through most of the 20th century on the Great Western Railway, hauling sugar beets out of Loveland, Colo.
When Manwiller and his crew finish overhauling the locomotive, a job that began in 2003, it will return virtually new to hauling tourists and railroad buffs through Provo Canyon in a glory of smoke and steam as the Heber Creeper—top speed 50 mph.
“Steam locomotives are pied pipers—they attract people,” explains Manwiller, who is chief mechanical officer for the Heber Valley Historic Railroad Authority. “Locomotives impact all the senses—sight, sound, smell, touch. They do something to the human imagination unlike anything else.”
Michael Manwiller, chief mechanical officer for the Heber Valley Historic Railroad Authority.
The Winchester rifle famously may have won the West, but it was the railroad that tamed it. “America was built with locomotives,” Manwiller says. “Every small town in America is where it is because of the railroad. A locomotive is a living connection with the past.”
And when Manwiller says a locomotive lives and breathes history, he means it almost literally. “No piece of equipment more emulates life than a steam locomotive,” he says. “It breathes, it’s warm and the sounds it makes are individual to each engine. It makes a very deep connection with humans.”
You can’t say that about your MacBook Pro.
No. 75 is a bonafide movie star, having appeared in more than 30 films. The iron horse had major roles in Heaven’s Gate (with Kris Kristofferson and Christopher Walken), A River Runs Through It (Brad Pitt), The Professionals (Burt Lancaster and Lee Marvin) and Breakheart Pass (Charles Bronson). Like any good character actor, No. 75 is open to a wide range of roles, with its own collection of fake smokestacks, headlights and vintage parts.
Because locomotives were essentially custom built, replacement parts are impossible to find. Manwiller and his four-man crew and volunteers are forced to machine or blacksmith most parts one-by-one from lumps of steel, bronze and sheet metal. And taking apart a steam locomotive is no tinker-toy project. The frame alone weighs 110 tons, too heavy for Manwiller’s overhead crane. “I kind of move the frame the way the Egyptians did,” he says of the levers, rollers and brute force required. “You’d be surprised what you can move when you get creative.”
Heber Railroad worker Greg Udolph edges off No. 75's engine cab.
It says something about the irresistible lure of trains that buffs volunteer to help with the maintenance. “It’s heavy work. It’s dirty. It’s hot. It’s uncomfortable,” Manwiller says. “People who are willing to do that kind of work are disappearing. Our high-tech society today doesn’t teach the necessary toleration and patience.”
Manwiller earned his love honestly through a linage of railroad men. His great-great-grandfather was a conductor on the Pennsylvania Railroad, his great grandfather a Baltimore & Ohio conductor and his grandfather a B&O engineer. To be around trains is all Manwiller ever wanted. “One of my first memories is sitting on my grandfather’s lap while he drove an engine. It’s my earliest memory of anything.”
With grit, patience and a little luck, Manwiller and his crew hope to have No. 75 rolling again in a year or so. “That’s the nature of these projects,” Manwiller says. “It’s not something you do fast.”
If you're a train lover, history buff or would just like to catch a train to Soldier Hollow or Vivian Park in Provo Canyon, the Heeber Creeper runs year-round. In addition to the scenic excursions, Heber Valley Railroad offers a chocolate-lover's special, a magic train and an on-board fiddle festival. The trains' schedules vary, so visit hebervalleyrr.org.