SANDUSKY — Long before there was a Top Thrill Dragster or a Millennium Force or a Mean Streak at Cedar Point amusement park, there was the Cedar Point & Lake Erie Railroad.
But the diminutive trains on their two-mile track serve a transportation function on the sprawling park’s western half as well as a connection to its past. Unlike the railroads in most other amusement parks, the CP&LE is still run the old-fashioned way: with coal-fired steam locomotives.
Park officials say they know of only two other coal-fired amusement-park railroads left in the United States: at Walt Disney World in Florida and Dollywood in Tenneessee.
PHOTO GALLERY: CP&LE Railroad at Cedar Point
This year, the CP&LE is marking the 50th anniversary of its opening — a year before the Blue Streak roller coaster’s 1964 debut.
Keeping the railroad and its equipment — including locomotives that in some cases are pushing a century old — operating is painstaking, and sometimes dirty, work, but the CP&LE’s hardy crew of 14 wouldn’t have it any other way.
The dust and grime represent “the dues you pay to get out there and run,” Dan Sczesny of Marblehead, Ohio, now in his fifth season on the steam crew, said while pointing toward the main line. The ultimate reward is to “go across the crossing, and see the faces of the young children,” he said.
The work day typically starts at 7 a.m. with cleanup from the day before, followed by building new fires inside the steam engines, which need at least an hour to cook up enough pressure to run.
On slower days, when only one train runs, the crew does heavier tasks like reaming boiler tubes in the locomotives to keep them clean.
During the spring and fall, when the park is only open on weekends, weekdays are dedicated to other maintenance, including repairs and upkeep on the track that winds its way past several towering roller coasters on the loop from Funway station out to Frontiertown and back.
In charge of it all is Randy Catri, who was hired in 1974 because of his welding skills. He knew nothing about steam engines at the time.
Park visitor Rob Chura of Cleveland recalled childhood rides with his parents and said he has continued that family tradition with his children and, now, his grandchildren.
“It’s pretty important. It brings back all those memories from all those years,” Mr. Chura said while waiting for the train at Funway station.
Just as the case elsewhere at Cedar Point, many of the railroaders are temporary summer employees, so Mr. Catri hopes to get them back each summer at least as long as they’re in school.
“I’ve been blessed. Without the returning guys, we’d be in big trouble,” Mr. Catri said.
Matt Abele has come up to Sandusky each summer from Moorestown, N.C., near Charlotte to work on the Cedar Point railroad since starting out three years ago. “This is the coolest job in the park here,” he said. “There’s not many other places you can do this, to say you run authentic steam locomotives.”
But every so often, somebody sticks around.
Justin Hamric applied to Cedar Point when fellow University of Akron students suggested summer work at the amusement park.
“I was more interested in roller coasters when I started here, actually,” the Akron resident recalled. But he spotted the train, and as a mechanical engineering student, was fascinated by it. That was seven years ago, and now Mr. Hamric is, in function if not in title, Mr. Catri’s right-hand man at the CP&LE.
All the veteran railroaders cited a congenial, professional work atmosphere as a main reason they keep coming back, along with the cakes that Mr. Catri’s wife, Dee, bakes for them.
“This enginehouse runs on coal and cherry-chocolate cake,” Mr. Sczesny laughed.
Contact David Patch at: email@example.com or 419-724-6094.