The Fort Wilderness Railroad officially opened in 1973 at Disney’s Fort Wilderness Campground. Original plans for the campground called for the Railroad to open in conjunction with the campground: however, to scale back building costs Disney decided not to install the railroad for the opening of the campground.
The Fort Wilderness Railroad locomotives were inspired by the Baldwin Locomotive Works of Philadelphia "Olomana"; which were introduced in 1883 to transport sugar on the narrow gauge lines of Hawaii's sugar plantations. Construction on the steam engines began in 1972. Meanwhile, Buena Vista construction was laying 3 & 1/2 miles of 30" gauge track throughout Disney’s Fort Wilderness Campground. The completed trains were transported on flat bed trucks from Glendale, California to Orlando, Florida.
After final testing in 1973, The Fort Wilderness Campground guest were ready for a steam train journey through the Florida wilderness aboard the Fort Wilderness Railroad’s Wilderness Steam Line. The train’s route would be the longest train route at any Disney park. The Wilderness Steam Line shuttled guests through woods, fields, and over trestles. The primary use of the line would eventually be to take a steam train ride to Disney’s River Country, modeled after and old swimmin' hole in the wilderness. But until then, guests could ride and enjoy the scenery for a $1.00 ticket that was good all day.
Unfortunately, The Wilderness Steam Line began having operational problems right away. Because the tracks were laid without using rail-bending machines they were constantly trying to straighten out; resulting in kinks forming. Also, tie plates were not used in most locations and because the rock bed poured right over the tracks without tamping it down; the track conditions caused derailments. In order to solve the worsening problem; gauge rods, rail anchors, and tie plates were added in problem locations. Another problem that happened early on was was that because of the engines' size, the saddle tanks could only hold a small amount of water, enough for about 2 round trips. The only water tower in the 2.66 mile route was at the Gateway depot. If the engineers forgot to fill the saddle, the train would run out of water mid trip and end up stranded.
After the track was repaired and most problems addressed the Wilderness Steam Line was ready to begin operations again in May 1976. This time it was being used almost exclusively to transport guests from the Gateway Depot to the newly opened River Country. The Settlement Depot was relocated closer to the Tri-Circle-D Ranch, eliminating the need for guests to cross the Fort Wilderness Trail and Big Pine Road intersection. It also cut down on the walking distance to Disney’s River Country. The train was the preferred method of transportation to Disney’s River Country and it became so popular, that it went from one or two trains ran concurrently, to all four running concurrently. The fully loaded trains could hold up to 90 guests.
By the summer of 1977, the logistics of transporting people to River Country was not working well with the trains as part of the picture. The Wilderness Steam Line no longer was the preferred method of transport; therefore, trams and buses were added and the train became simply an attraction of River Country. By this time only one train ran from open to close and admission was free with a River Country ticket; otherwise, Fort Wilderness guests could ride the train for 50 cents.
While Disney’s Fort Wilderness Campground grew in popularity and attracted hundreds of visitors, the Wilderness Steam Line would be coming to an end. The campground expanded several times, adding more campsites and cabins, to accommodate more visitors. This increased capacity, brought on the next serious problem for the Wilderness Steam Line, people walking on the tracks. The railroad’s track often ran just feet away from campsites, with no barriers. The track also crossed over the street 8 times. Ultimately; however, it was the continued track problems that caused the Fort Wilderness Railroad to cease operations in February of 1980.
During the early part of the 1990s, during the “Disney Decade” there had been plans to build Disney’s Wilderness Junction featuring a moderate resort, a Buffalo Bill Wild West show, and a frontier like shopping area. This would have put the Wilderness Steam Line back into service. The track would then have run from Disney’s Fort Wilderness Resort to Disney’s Wilderness Lodge, with a stop at Disney’s Wilderness Junction. However, given the trains history and previous problems with the track, the idea was shelved because the cost would have been too high. Another rumor was that during the construction of Disney’s Animal Kingdom there was consideration to use the steam engines for the Wildlife Express Train that would transport guests to Conservation Station. However, this has been disproven by Disney imagineers. Ultimately, some of the passenger cars were put to good use; two were used briefly as ticket booths at Disney’s Pleasure Island. One of the cars was eventually moved to Typhoon Lagoon and also acted as a ticket booth. Six of the passenger cars were sold to parks and zoos. Finally, after several years of neglect, the Carolwood Pacific Historical Society purchased the decaying engines and remaining passenger cars and restored them.
Special Thanks to David Leaphart, author of Walt Disney World Railroads Part 1: Fort Wilderness Railroad, for his clarifications and input. http://www.steelwheelonsteelrail.com/