|Grinders Switch and El Paso Station
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Here's 3 videos pulled
from the same source
of what it was like to
ride around on the
trains. You'll notice
mention in the
background of these
that they were shot
Howl-o-ween in the
Hope you enjoy, and
my thanks goes out
once again to Lisa for
great videos. THANK
YOU THANK YOU!!!!!!!
Click play on the
videos to watch them!
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Normally I'd write my memories on the trains here, but Michael Parham, a former engineer has wrote the most
descriptive narration of the trains I've ever seen, I felt the need to let him tell the story. Thank you Michael for
sharing your vivid memories in great detail with us. You also need to see his narration of the Skyride which is
equally impressive. I will say, former employees are who made the magic and Michael's story is a perfect example.
The Opryland Railroad was a loop of 3 foot gauge track connecting two stations in the Opryland USA
park. The total length of the railroad was slightly less than a mile. One or two trains were operated,
depending upon park attendance.
Including station stops, it normally took about 20 minutes for a train to make a complete circuit around
the park, travelling in a counterclockwise direction. The train was the only ride in the park that
generally allowed guests to ride as long as they wanted. Occasionally, if the park was extremely
busy, the train would become a one-way only ride to accommodate as many guests as possible.
The Opryland Railroad had several corporate sponsors. Colonial Bread was a sponsor for many
years, and their jingle played on the train station’s PA system. Sponsor signs were also placed in the
train coaches and in the stations.
There were two stations: Grinders Switch and El Paso. Both stations were of similar design with a
central enclosed “office” area leading to open air covered waiting areas to each side. Two sliding
metal gates controlled access to the loading platform areas.
The Grinders Switch station was located in the Hill Country Area. The original cast iron sign from the
real Grinders Switch location near Centerville, TN, was placed just in front of the station. The El Paso
station was in the American West Area. Turnstiles were placed at the station entrances to count
Since the Hill Country Area was near the front gate, the Grinders Switch station was busier when the
park first opened for the day. Later in the day, as guests were heading to the front of the park to
leave, the El Paso station was busier.
The Grinders Switch station was situated on the outside of the loop, while the El Paso station was
inside the loop. This resulted in guests entering and exiting the train on different sides at the two
stations. There were instances of guests becoming confused and stepping off the outside of the train
into the bushes at the stations. Many amusement park trains only load and unload from one side,
with the other side closed off to prevent such accidents.
LOCOMOTIVES AND COACHES
There were three locomotives: Beatrice (#1, later renumbered to #4), Rachel (#2), and Elizabeth
(#3). Rachel was a steam locomotive, Beatrice was a steam locomotive that was later converted to a
diesel/hydraulic, and Elizabeth was built for Opryland as a diesel/hydraulic replica that had the outline
of a steam engine. Elizabeth and Beatrice were of the 2-4-0 wheel arrangement (two pilot wheels,
four driving wheels, no trailing wheels), while Rachel was a 2-4-4T (T is for “tank locomotive” – no
Beatrice was originally built in 1916 as a 2-4-4 T steam engine by the H. K. Porter Co., and was used
for nearly 50 years on a plantation in Patoutville, LA. It was rebuilt for use on Opryland Railroad, with
a new mahogany cab and brass fittings added. In 1980, Beatrice was taken out of service and rebuilt
on-site as a diesel hydraulic with a 2-4-0 wheel arrangement. A new tender was constructed and
utilized to house a diesel engine, which drove a hydraulic pump. This pump transfers fluid to a
hydraulic unit located inside the area once occupied by the firebox. This hydraulic unit powers one of
the driving axles, and the other axle receives power via the side rods. The diesel engine operates at
a constant speed, and the speed of the train is controlled by the engineer’s throttle lever, which is
connected to the hydraulic transfer unit. Beatrice was renumbered to #4 as a result of the
rebuilding. After the park closed, Beatrice was sold, and is now used at Six Flags America in Largo,
Rachel was built in 1920 by The Vulcan Works in Wilkes Barre, PA. This steam engine was owned for
many years by the Stine Coal Company in Pennsylvania, and was later sold to the Southern Clay
Company in Georgia. After being retired from service, it was bought by several collectors and
eventually sold to American Keystone for rebuilding into Opryland #2. As with Beatrice, new brass
fittings and a wooden cowcatcher were added. Fuel and water bunkers are on the rear of the
engine. Fuel capacity is 200 gallons of #2 diesel, and 800 gallons of water. Rachel was retained by
Gaylord after Opryland closed. It was loaned for a while to the Tennessee Central Railway Museum
in Nashville for display. It then spent 2001 - 2003 at the Doe River Gorge Ministries youth camp in
East Tennessee and operated on a rebuilt section of the former narrow gauge East Tennessee and
Western North Carolina Railroad before being returned to Gaylord. It was then sent to Grapevine,
TX, where it now resides in a warehouse in poor condition after being stored outside for an extended
period without protection from the weather.
Elizabeth is a type of engine known as a “steam outline” locomotive, which is specifically built to
cosmetically resemble a steam engine. It has a diesel hydraulic drive system similar to that of the
converted Beatrice. It was built in 1977 by Custom Fabrications in Johnson City, Tennessee, and was
designed to resemble Beatrice and Rachel. It was placed in service in August 1977. She was named
after the wife of one of the NLT Corporation executives (NLT owned WSM, The Grand Ole Opry, and
Opryland at the time). Since it was primarily built of thinner sheet steel instead of the heavy iron of
the other two engines, it was necessary to fill the inside of the front of the engine with scrap metal to
give it enough weight on the driving wheels to function properly. Elizabeth’s tender houses the diesel
engine and hydraulic pump. After Opryland closed, Elizabeth was sold to Six Flags Astroworld in
Houston, TX. When that park closed, it was sent to Six Flags over Georgia, where it now sits unused
outdoors, in need of mechanical work.
There were eight coaches, each having seats that faced both directions. Two of the coaches were
designated as end units, with an elevated seat for the rear train host. Trains usually consisted of four
coaches (3 regular plus one end coach). Occasionally a train would only have three coaches if two
trains were being run and one or more coaches were out of service for repairs. The coaches had
standard “knuckle” style couplers. The locomotives had knuckle couplers on the rear, with solid
drawbars on the front (due to the cowcatchers) in case they needed to be towed.
All engines and coaches had functioning air brakes, with brake hoses connecting the cars. The
engines also had an independent brake, which meant it was separate from the coach brakes.
Therefore, there were two brake valve handles in the engine cab, one for the engine and another for
the coach brakes. The engine brake was primarily used for holding the train stationary, and the
coach brakes were used to slow the entire train. Extreme care had to be used when moving Elizabeth
light (that is, with no coaches) as the engine brakes were the driving wheels, and most of the weight
was on the tender wheels (the diesel engine and hydraulics were very heavy). The brakes on the
driving wheels were easy to lock up and the wheels would slide along the rail with little reduction in
speed. There were several minor accidents in the shop track area caused by a light engine sliding
on the rail and striking another engine or coach.
Air brakes are generally slow operating, as it takes some time for air pressure to drop to the point
where the brakes begin to apply to the wheels, so any braking had to be planned in advance.
Likewise, releasing the brakes required time for the air pressure to recover in the coach brake
cylinders. In an emergency, the brake valve handle could be swung around to the emergency
position (known as “dynamiting the brakes”) which would bring the train to a very quick stop, and
cause a loud bang. However, this would result in a complete loss of air brake pressure and it could
take several minutes for the air pressure to rise enough for the brakes to release.
There were manual brake wheels on the coaches, but they were not operational since they could
potentially be applied by guests on the train.
The diesel hydraulic engines also used compressed air from the main air reservoir for the operation
of the whistle. An engineer had to be careful not to use the whistle too much, or the main air
reservoir pressure would drop to the point that the train brakes would start to apply. Rachel’s whistle
(and Beatrice’s whistle before the conversion), was steam powered.
All three locomotives had decorative “loads” of wood visible to imply that they were wood burning
The locomotives were operated with an engineer and fireman. The engineer was responsible for
running the engine, and for the steam engines he controlled:
The steam throttle lever which controlled the amount of steam to the cylinders
The Johnson bar that adjusted the valve gear to control when the steam was admitted into the steam
cylinders and acted as a power transmission (all the way forward when moving from a stop, notching
back to top center as the speed increased). There were five forward positions, one neutral, and four
Sanding lines: this poured loose sand onto the railhead to increase traction and prevent slipping.
The fireman was responsible for maintaining the fire and proper steam pressure in the boiler of the
steam engines, and ringing the bell. When running the steam locomotives, the fireman controlled:
The fuel and atomizer valves to control the fire in the firebox. The fuel valve controlled how much fuel
was used, the atomizer adjusted how finely the fuel was sprayed into the firebox.
Injector levers (there were two for safety reasons) which added fresh water into the boiler. One of the
injectors was on the engineer’s side.
Blowdown valves, which were opened periodically (away from guests for safety) to force scale and
sediment out of the bottom of the boiler under pressure.
Cylinder cock valves, which were used to let condensed water escape from the steam cylinders.
Bell cord for ringing the bell
The sight glass and gauge cocks showed how much water was in the boiler. The sight glass gave a
visual indication of water level, and the gauge cocks were a backup system. The gauge cocks were
weighted to keep them closed and raising up the weight would allow a tiny amount of steam and water
to escape. If the water level was normal, the top gauge cock would release steam, the middle one
would release a steam/water mixture, and the lower one would release water only. If the lowest one
released only steam, that meant the boiler was extremely low on water. It was vitally important to
maintain the proper water level in the boiler. Too much injected water would cool the boiler and also
reduce the available volume of steam available for use. Too little water in the boiler could result in
the crownsheet becoming dry and this would result in a boiler rupture and explosion. The fireman also
had to keep a check on how much fuel and water was available in the rear tank. When the water and
fuel ran low, a water stop was made to replenish the tanks.
In normal operation, the boiler pressure was in the 120 – 135 psi range. The safety or “pop off” valve
automatically released steam pressure if the pressure exceeded 145 psi.
Occasinally, the crew would “sand the flues” in the steam engines by throwing a cupful of sand into
the firebox. This would scour soot and other debris out of the flue pipes and could cause a lot of
black smoke. This would be done at the back of the park to avoid getting soot on the guests.
On the diesels the fireman only rang the bell.
Since the train operated counterclockwise around the track, and the fireman was on the left side of
the cab, he usually had a better view of the track ahead - the boiler out in front of the cab restricted
the field of vision. There was a requirement for at least one crew member to remain on board the
engine at all times at station stops.
There was also a rear train host that rode the end of the last car on an elevated seat. The main
responsibilities were to give the train “spiel” over the microphone and make sure the guests were
seated safely during the ride. A cassette player with a taped spiel was also used, but the life
expectancy of these cassette players was very short due to the rain/heat/vibration/dust to which they
were exposed. The cassette was flipped to play two different spiels, depending on which station the
train was departing. When (not if) the cassette player failed, the train host would recite the spiel over
the microphone. The train host also had an emergency switch that could alert the engine crew if the
train needed to be stopped for any reason.
There was a station host for each station, responsible for loading the trains.
The engine crew was separate from the station/train host crew until they were combined into a single
crew around 1981.
ENGINE HOUSE AREA
The Opryland Railroad had its own dedicated maintenance building, a two track engine house. This
was a rectangular green metal building with roll up doors on each end. The dead end tracks inside
the engine house featured below track level pits which allowed for working on the underside of the
engines and coaches. The track closest to the mainline was extended beyond the far end of the
building in 1980 for use in rebuilding Beatrice into a diesel. Fueling the locomotives was done on the
main track, not the engine house tracks. All engines used #2 diesel fuel, and an elevated water tank
provided treated water for boiler use. The spout for the water tank was pulled down into the water
hatch in the steam locomotive, and a valve released water by gravity into the engine tank. The water
tank/fueling area was located on a downgrade, and it took some skill to stop a loaded train in exactly
the right position for the water tank spout to align with the water hatch. The margin of error was less
than one foot. Diesel fuel was delivered by a pump and hose with a locking quick connect. All
locomotives had fuel sight gauges; steam locomotives also had holding tank water gauges. Bags of
sand were dumped into the sand domes for use in sanding the rails.
The engine house tracks converged into a single track outside the building, and this track was
connected to the main track by a trailing point switch. This design required that an engine stop and
reverse direction to access the engine house trackage. This feature prevented an incorrectly aligned
switch from diverting a moving train off the main and into the engine house at speed, which would not
be a good thing! Another trailing point switch led to a track that held the extra coaches inside a
separate building when only one train was being run. In later years, this plain metal building was
decorated to resemble a railroad freight house, as it was visible to guests on the train.
The track switch mechanisms featured a swiveling post that showed a green target toward the
engines approaching on the main track when the switch was aligned for the main track and red when
the switches were aligned for the engine house or extra coach track. It was the fireman’s
responsibility to ensure that the switches were aligned properly when passing the engine house
area. There were no turning facilities (such as a turntable) so the engines and coaches always faced
the same direction. The mechanics did have to jack up the coaches in the engine house and reverse
the wheels periodically to even out wheel wear patterns.
There were four guest walkway track crossings (listed in order from Grinders Switch): First Grizzly
Area crossing, Western Area crossing, State Fair Area crossing, and Second Grizzly Area Crossing.
The two Grizzly crossings were added in 1981 when the Grizzly River Rampage opened. These four
crossings were controlled by manually activated electric gates with warning bells. There were also
two wooden trestles that carried the trains over guest walkways: one near the Gaslight Theater at the
entrance to the 50’s area, and another near the entrance of the Tin Lizzies/Hangman. Additionally,
there were numerous employee/maintenance crossings, mostly unprotected. The
maintenance/employee crossing next to the engine house was updated with flashing lights and
railroad style crossing signs. This gate was automatically activated by a train crossing sensor light
beam near the crossing, and it replaced a single revolving red light on a pole.
A RIDE AROUND THE PARK
A train leaving El Paso would give two short whistles to alert the Western Area Hostess (AH) to start
the crossing bells and lower the crossing arms at the Western Area crossing. Only after this gate was
lowered could a train leave the station, since it was just a few feet ahead of a train stopped at the
station. The train would then be on a curve to the right, travelling around the Raft Ride/Old Mill
Scream Lake to the right. The State Fair Area crossing was just ahead, and a State Fair AH would
also listen for the whistle and activate that crossing gate and bells. Visibility around this curve was
severely limited once the Old Mill Scream was built, so a revolving green light was installed along the
right side of the track in this curve and would be on to let the engine crew know the gates were down.
It was the engine crew’s responsibility not to go through a gate that was left open. Once the State
Fair Area crossing was activated, it automatically started the bells ringing at the second Grizzly Area
Crossing, and the Grizzly AH would then begin to lower those gates too. Another revolving green light
beyond the State Fair Area crossing would let the crews know that the second Grizzly Area Crossing
gates were down, and it also let other employees in the area know to be cautious at the employee
crossing near the Theater by the Lake. When passing the Theater by the Lake, the show there
included a train song, and the show’s performers liked for us to blow the whistle if we passed by
during that song. Otherwise, they got a bit irritated if we blew the whistle during other parts of the
Once clear of the Second Grizzly Area crossing, the tracks curved to the left in a half circle around
the bump cars and Wabash Cannonball. This area was where it was recommended to use the blow
down valves on the steam locomotives because the area was fairly open and no guests were nearby.
Just before the Cannonball there was an employee crossing protected by flashing lights. This
crossing signal was activated automatically when the second Grizzly Crossing arms were lowered.
After passing the Cannonball, the train passed the petting zoo to the left, and the Cumberland River
was off to the right beyond an access road. Just at the end of this long straight stretch, the train
lurched to the left on a very short, very tight curve at the Showboat/Durango Theater, and another
employee crossing that was very hard to see until the train was nearly on top of it. This employee
crossing and the one near the Theater by the Lake were the most dangerous due to poor visibility.
Once clear of this crossing, the train passed over the trestle at the Tin Lizzies/Hangman. After
crossing the trestle, the track was on a significant downgrade all the way into the Grinders Switch
station, passing the Kids Stuff area to the right. It was recommended to begin a brake application
when on the trestle so that the train would be under control when approaching the station. It was very
easy to overshoot the station at Grinders due to the downgrade leading to it, especially if the rails
were wet or covered with leaves. Just beyond the station was the main employee access road
through the center of the park, and it was not good to go beyond the station and enter this crossing
with the train, as park employees were accustomed to the train stopping and would not be expecting a
train to sail on through the crossing. Stopping at the Grinders station was best done with power
braking, that is having the brakes partially applied when approaching the station while using the
throttle to power the train to the proper stopping point. Once the throttle was shut off, the train would
then stop almost immediately. Not following this procedure could easily result in a train not stopping
Once the train was unloaded and loaded back up, it was time to depart Grinders. Two short whistles
alerted employees in the area that the train was leaving the station, and the train went through the
access road crossing and began the upgrade to the 50’s/Gaslight trestle. The train passed the Rock
n Roller Coaster to the left and the Plaza Cafeteria on the right. During the spring months, the train
would brush through the willow tree branches here. Once the train reached the trestle two short
whistles would alert the train mechanics that the train was coming by the engine house. If the train
was making a “water stop” for fuel, the train would give four short whistles. Once the train reached
the water tank, it crossed an electric eye that activated the crossing signal at the main employee
crossing. Once clear of this crossing, the train went through a half circle curve to the left, passing the
Grizzly River to the right. It then passed the First Grizzly crossing, another employee crossing behind
the 50’s skyride, and then a slight curve to the right. The train then arrived back at the El Paso
station, completing the loop.
The railroad was operated with one or two trains on the line at a time, depending upon park
attendance. When one train was being run, operation was simple. The train departed a station
whenever it was ready. After the access gates were closed and the engineers and rear train host
signaled they were ready, the station host waved a green flag and the train departed the station. It
was hardly possible for one train to run into itself.
Two train operation, however, required coordination between the stations. The plan was to dispatch
a train at the same time from each of the stations to prevent collisions. Each station had two phones:
a regular park phone that could call any other location in the park, and a hotline phone that rang the
other station when the handset was lifted. The Grinders station host started the dispatch process,
since it took much longer for a train to make the El Paso-Grinders run as opposed to the Grinders-El
Paso trip, and thus getting the train ready to leave at Grinders Switch would be the limiting factor on
when the trains could depart. Once receiving the “thumbs up” signal from the train crew (signaling
that the engine was ready to depart), the Grinders Switch host would pick up the hotline to call the
other station and announce, “My train is ready”. If the El Paso train was ready to go, that host would
reply, “My train is ready too”. Then the Grinders host would say, “I’m sending my train”, to which El
Paso would reply “I’m sending my train too.” Then both station hosts would wave the green flag, and
the trains would depart their respective stations simultaneously.
If, for any reason, a train was unable to leave the station after dispatching in two train operation
(locked up brakes, overheating engine, no steam/fire, etc.), there was a very real possibility of a rear
end collision when the other train showed up. So if a train was unable to leave a station, a “red flag”
situation existed. After being notified by the engine crew, the station host would grab the red flag and
take off running up the track to stop the other train. The engine crews were required to look out for
obstructions on the track, and an employee standing between the rails waving a red flag certainly fit
Due to the upgrade leading out of the Grinders Switch Station, trains unable to “make the hill” to the
50’s trestle would also make a red flag run necessary. This happened often enough that a special
signal was placed on the long straight track near the petting zoo. This light was normally green, but
the Grinders Switch host would call a special phone number on the park phone to turn this signal to
red if a red flag situation existed. This would stop the incoming train before it started descending the
downgrade into Grinders Switch, since it was more difficult to stop the train once it started downhill.
Engine crews were required to make sure the signal was green before passing the signal. The
station host would still run the red flag as a precaution.
Station hosts running a red flag out of El Paso had to be cautious, as there was limited visibility
around the big curve between the engine house and the First Grizzly crossing, and the crew couldn’t
see the host on the tracks until the train was very close.
THE OPRYLAND RAILROAD TODAY
There is little evidence of the railroad today. Besides the engines mentioned earlier, the coaches
were also sold and some of them are with Beatrice at Six Flags America.
Nearly the entire loop of track is now part of the north parking lot at Opry Mills. The Grinders Switch
station area is now inside the Regal Cinemas at the north end of the mall. The station itself occupied
the theater concession area.
A circular path through the trees near the remaining “rocks” and river channel from the Grizzly River
Rampage was part of the half circle curve just beyond the engine house to the first Grizzly Crossing.
In 2011 this area was bulldozed as part of the convention center construction, and all evidence of the
railroad path is now gone.
The engine house site is now part of the landscaped walkway between the Opryland Hotel and Opry
Mills. Part of the foundation for the coach storage building is visible beyond the fence there.
Opryland's Rachel at the El Paso station, 1983