The Handy Dandy Railroad in Denton, NC – “A Labor of Love”
The route from the highway to the Handy Dandy Railroad, located in Denton Farm Park, is country, rural and scenic. As you’re driving down highway 109 in southern Davidson County, NC, you may notice a slight puff of gray smoke rising gently above the tops of the trees. You know you’re getting closer.
As you come around a bend in the road you hear the faint sound of a train whistle. Getting closer all the time. Then, as you pull up to the park you notice the tracks that go straight across the front yard and the driveway in front of you. Careful not to cross without checking because off to your right, through the woods and around the corner comes old engine #9, pulling it’s tender and 3 coaches full of moms, dads, grandparents, neighbors and yes…tons of kids who all have smiles on them as far as their mouth’s can reach.
What most folks don’t realize is that it takes days, weeks and months of hard labor and maintenance to not only get one of these engines going, but to also keep them going at all times. Many of our beloved NC steam engines are in the process of being repaired. The NC Transportation Museum in Spencer’s shay locomotive is currently “in the shop.” In addition, the giant steam engine “1702” owned and operated by the Great Smokey Mountains Railroad is also out for repair. That leaves us with the one and only Tweetsie Railroad, right? …..Wrong.
Built in 1942 for Bethlehem Steel, engine #9 ran for several years in a Norfolk, Va shipyard. The locomotive ran in Greenville, SC and was then taken up to Burnsville, NC for a tourist line, which never came to fruition. The engine was then trucked to Denton, NC from Burnsville, NC. The 1.6-mile loop of track was added at the park after the engine was brought in and coaches were built out of flat cars. The engine only operates a few times per year. However, companies and other civic organizations may rent the park and train. The depot and water tank were added to the park. The log cabin, which the depot was expanded upon, dates back to the mid-1800’s and the whistle on the engine was at one time, part of the Great Smokey Mountain Railroad’s engine. At one point, locomotive #9 even went to California and beat a Shay in a race and thanks to the hard work and efforts of a handful of people, the engine is in better and better shape year after year.
The engine started out as a saddle tank, but the folks in Denton wanted a tender. So, they used a big, round water tank and ran over it with a steamroller in order to construct the tender car. Tons of work was done and after awhile they had to put in a liner, which made the quality of the water go up, hence the engine ran much better. In fact, the tender was even used as a swimming pool for a while on July 4th.
The Handy Dandy Railroad is incorporated with stockholders. Howard Latham put a 2nd mortgage on his house in order for the engine to be hauled to Denton. Former employees from Spencer Shops in Spencer, NC are all decision makers and operators of the train. Head engineer, John Barden, is a wealth of knowledge when it comes to the engine, the park and steam engines in general. With a never-ending list of work to be done, including railroad ties, work on 3 coaches and track repairs sometimes until midnight, Barden and his crew work painstakingly all winter just to have the engine ready to run for spring and summer. The highlight of the year comes over the July 4th weekend at The Southeast Thresher’s Reunion. Another popular day for the train to run is during an event at the park called Horse & Mule Day. What most people don’t understand is the amount of work that goes into preparing the engine during the winter is more than you can imagine. Also, it costs $500 per day just to make the train run. Barden says he and his comrades, including Tim Hill and Chris Lainas, work on the engine on weekends or twice per week and proudly referred to it as a “labor of love.”
Brown Loflin, who owns the park, wants the train to be profitable but will only run for festivals because of the politics that start flying around when steam engines get fired up and people start coming out of the woodwork. More and more people come every year just to ride the train and the demand is there. Recently a letter was written to Denton Farm Park asking for train to run during The Annual Bluegrass Festival. One problem is that people come to the park all the time asking to fire the engine. However, consistency is all too important and only the same people are allowed to operate the locomotive. There is no margin for error and if the boiler explodes it could end all steam rides in NC forever. According to Barden, operating a steam locomotive takes years to master and you must practice hard to develop your skills as an engineer.
A man by the name of Jim Measmer taught Barden how to run a steam engine on the “Little Bullet.” In fact, John used to run the 604 in Spencer, but the people in Spencer changed power players and chopped up 604, which ended up costing over $500K to put the boiler back in shape. Barden even went to New Orleans to work on the legendary engine, 745. One thing he is adamant about is cab rides for children. John likes to give as many people as possible the chance to ride in the cab. However, he doesn’t want rail fans hogging the cab. He’d rather reserve that magical ride for the children and gets a huge kick out of seeing the looks on the kid’s faces. According to Barden, the difference between Denton Farm Park and Spencer is straight politics. Engine #9 needed some paint and Brown Loftin asked John, “What do you need?” John asked Brown, “Don’t you have to go in front of a committee and vote, like we did in Spencer?” Brown replied, “We’re having a meeting right now!”
A year or so ago, some cowboy actors called Brown the owner and wanted to do a holdup on the train. The cowboy act was a success and no live ammunition was used. Their plot was foiled though, as staff members drove golf carts up to the holdup scene to check out the action. There are many, many more stories Engineer John can share with you. Just walk right up to him when he climbs out of the cab of old engine #9 and he’ll oblige with a story and a smile.
Steam train lovers of North Carolina unite! Unite around Denton Farm Park and the owners of the Handy Dandy Railroad. Continue to show your support for all the workers and the intense labor they pour into engine #9 on a regular basis. There is hope that the train and park could one day become a statewide tourist attraction much like Tweetsie.