Rob Herronen at his home. (RAY CRISCOE photo)

Local man building train tracks with more than one purpose

Rob Herronen at the controls of one of his diesel engines. (RAY CRISCOE photo)
Rob Herronen at the controls of one of his diesel engines. (RAY CRISCOE photo)

What can you say? Rob Herronen is just a train guy.

A bit into the woods off Spero Road, unseen by drivers going by, he is slowly but steadily putting together his own rail line — several
engines, rail cars, track lines. And it’s one he can ride. And pull other visitors with.

But while his lifelong love of trains classifies this project — begun in earnest in November 2006 — as a hobby, it serves a dual purpose as a means to haul wood for the wood stove he installed to heat the house. And rocks to use to grade and extend the track. And so on.
What started him on this track? What drives him to stay on it? Let’s find out.

Three rows of track. (RAY CRISCOE photo)
Three rows of track. (RAY CRISCOE photo)

ASHEBORO HUB: Are you from here?

ROB HERRONEN: Originally I’m from Colorado, grew up in a suburb of Denver on the western edge. Went to school in Durango, Colorado, where I got my Computer Science Information degree. I actually did do some work for a temporary agency who hired me to the railroad to do some

Rob Herronen heads down the track with a reporter in tow. (RAY CRISCOE photo)
Rob Herronen heads down the track with a reporter in tow. (RAY CRISCOE photo)

work in the railroad yard down there, while they were replacing some of the rail all up through the valley. Which was good because I did some volunteer work at the Colorado Railroad Museum, and most of the work I did there was track road, so I was pretty familiar with doing track. I’m quite good at it, too.

HUB: So you got into trains at an early age?

HERRONEN: My dad had a little model train. I think I was 3 years old. I was not allowed to go down there and play with it but I played with it anyways. And it just got me hooked. Then reading books about trains and it was just in my blood, I liked doing it. Once I turned 16, I was old enough to volunteer for the Colorado Railroad Museum, so I’d be out there doing track work, maintenance on the steam engines, railroad cars, basically clean anything and some of the Galloping Geese railroad cars. They had three of them there out of the 6 remaining.

Welcome to Dogwood Bridge. (RAY CRISCOE photo)
Welcome to Dogwood Bridge. (RAY CRISCOE photo)

It was a one-person train, to help carry the railroad through the Great Depression. They were able to use these railroad cars to offset the costs of operating steam-powered trains. So if you only had a few passengers and a little bit of freight, you could handle it with the

A cat-to-track scale measurement with one of Rob Herronen's cats. (RAY CRISCOE photo)
A cat-to-track scale measurement with one of Rob Herronen’s cats. (RAY CRISCOE photo)

single Goose. The name Goose came from its horn; it had this plaintive call of a wild goose. And they called it the Gallopin’ Goose because when it went down the track it galloped. If you ever saw a goose at full speed, it looks just like that. It wobbles, real good. It’s fun to ride, too.

This bridge is super sturdy. (RAY CRISCOE photo)
This bridge is super sturdy. (RAY CRISCOE photo)

I know about the Gallopin’ Geese because I did an independent study in history while I was going to college on the Gallopin’ Geese. That’s where I earned my railroad nickname of Goose. The other nickname I had was Bigfoot because the mechanic kept claiming I was stepping on hoses. That was when I was working for Lakeside Park in Denver, where I had a summer job for 6-7 years after I turned 18 and was old enough to operate the engine for the made-to-rides. I eventually migrated up to Tiny Town which was up in the mountains and it was a little cooler. That was as a volunteer. I went up there on my Sundays and ran the train up there. By that time, I had a full-time job working for a computer science corporation in Golden, CO.

Rob Herronen's 20-foot-long, two-track engine house will protect his engines from the weather. (RAY CRISCOE photo)
Rob Herronen’s 20-foot-long, two-track engine house will protect his engines from the weather. (RAY CRISCOE photo)

I met my wife on AOL and we hit it off and she had a job that was a little bit more permanent than mine, so I decided to pack up and move out here.

HUB: So she lived here?

HERRONEN: Sharon grew up in that brown house on the end of the driveway.

Pine Hill Engine House sign. (RAY CRISCOE photo)
Pine Hill Engine House sign. (RAY CRISCOE photo)

HUB: And you met her from over there?

HERRONEN: She had built this house [behind her parents’ house] and I met her on AOL in ’95 or so. She came out to visit me for the first time in ’97. She had never been to Colorado, so I took her on a tour across the state to see some of my haunts. I took her to Chama, New Mexico, and she was able to get her first real sopapilla. You don’t get the proper sopapillas around here, you’ve got to get the puff pastry sopapillas from New

Rob Herronen has an area designed where he can park a train engine and work on it from underneath. His steam engine can weigh a ton — literally. (RAY CRISCOE photo)
Rob Herronen has an area designed where he can park a train engine and work on it from underneath. His steam engine can weigh a ton — literally. (RAY CRISCOE photo)

Mexico. I took her on a camping trip to Lake Navajo, took her over Wolf Creek Pass, which was immortalized in the words of C.W. McCall, one of my favorite musicians too because he sang the Gallopin’ Goose and the Silver Cloud Breakdown.

Rob Herronen has wired his engine house for lights and enough heat to keep the inside temperature above 32 degrees, heated enough to keep his steam engine from freezing. (RAY CRISCOE photo)
Rob Herronen has wired his engine house for lights and enough heat to keep the inside temperature above 32 degrees, heated enough to keep his steam engine from freezing. (RAY CRISCOE photo)

We hit it off and we found we were a good match. So I proposed to her. I came out here and visited her in July of ’97. We were going to go out and see the Highland Games and a few other things, see how bad it was in July. It must have been a cool year that year because I don’t remember it being this bad. We hit it off and I moved out here in September, got a job at UNCG in December and have been doing that since.

Railroad crossing signs dot one small stretch of track. (RAY CRISCOE photo)
Railroad crossing signs dot one small stretch of track. (RAY CRISCOE photo)

About a year later, we went out to Durango for a railfest, which is done in the fall. They have a special train. That allowed her to ride on the Gallopin’ Goose No. 5. We also rode on a night train and we rode one of the oldest steam engines in the United States. That’s when we ran into my buddy Bruce. This guy collects everything. He had this railroad and wasn’t doing anything with it, so he sold me the railroad for I think $5,000. That was all the track, the signals, the locomotive and those three gondolas. That’s how I ended up getting the railroad. My folks borrowed my aunt’s horse trailer and they shipped it from Durango all the way out here.

I started putting some track in, then I realized my survey equipment was all wrong and that the grade would have been too steep. We didn’t own quite enough property that way yet so I ended up starting again down here, putting the track starting at the wood stove. And then I decided I don’t like carrying buckets of rock down those steps, so let me put this track in front of the barn, so I built the bridge and

Here's a passenger car — figuratively and literally. (RAY CRISCOE photo)
Here’s a passenger car — figuratively and literally. (RAY CRISCOE photo)

got out in front of the barn, that way I can load everything in the top of the hopper or put it right on top of the flat car and do it with the least amount of effort as necessary. Each bucket is about 50 pounds and I have to move it 4 or 5 times, so it’s not fun.

HUB: What do you do at UNCG?

HERRONEN: I work for management information systems as a business and applications specialist. I maintain the web portal and write new programs and when we get programs from other entities, like the General Assembly, I usually rewrite them because they’re usually written wrong. Plus, we have a little higher standard at

Rob Herronen uses this car to transport gravel, in turn used to extend and lay down more track for his trains. (RAY CRISCOE photo)
Rob Herronen uses this car to transport gravel, in turn used to extend and lay down more track for his trains. (RAY CRISCOE photo)

UNCG. We’ve been doing it for so much longer that we know a lot of new tricks, plus our software is so much more mature.

HUB: How many cross ties do you think you have laid down?

HERRONEN: Most of the railroad ties I’ve actually cut out of 2 by 4s. I can get 10 of them out of each 8-foot-long 2 by 4. I think I have on average one tie every 5 inches of fact. I’ve got probably 450 feet of track right now of which there are several plastic ties and several wooden ties. Probably 3,000 so far. I don’t want to (think about that).

A bench seat for real passengers. (RAY CRISCOE photo)
A bench seat for real passengers. (RAY CRISCOE photo)

HUB: So you’ve got about 450 feet of track now; what do you expect to have when you’re done?

HERRONEN: Probably about 1,500. The length of our property is about 2,000 feet, but it’s a funky shape, it’s kind of L-shaped. We were actually lucky that our neighbor, when he put his fence in, he sold me about another acre that they couldn’t put the fence on. Even though it was only about 10 feet wide at the top, it was about 70 feet wide at the bottom which was really good because widening out the property is what I needed; it gave me room to put the S-curve in. Once I get down off the hill, it will actually be easier to put in the track. Once I get to the bottom, I can have a nice, long trestle to go all the way across because it’s a very flat-bottomed valley.

A water tower is in place to use on the steam engine that will eventually be the centerpiece of Rob Herronen's train setup. (RAY CRISCOE photo)
A water tower is in place to use on the steam engine that will eventually be the centerpiece of Rob Herronen’s train setup. (RAY CRISCOE photo)

HUB: If you build 10 feet of track, how long does that take you?

HERRONEN: I can lay about 20 feet of track in a weekend. The hardest part is you have to grade ahead. It gets labor intensive; I roll the rail car up as far as it will go and then I unload the buckets of rock. I can’t get my tractor down in these woods; it’s just too hard to get into these spots. So the train’s actually how to do it.

HUB: So how long do you think it will take you to
finish your track?

HERRONEN: I’ve probably got close to 30 more years at the rate I’m going. I’ve got all the other maintenance projects to do around the house and stuff like building that engine garage that cut into my time. Plus, the biggest problem I had was about every 3 or 4 years I’d have to rebuild the diesel engine because it would rust real bad, sitting under a tarp or something, and then squirrels were living in it

It's a beautiful sight in the fall, even though leaves can cover up the tracks. (ROB HERRONEN photo)
It’s a beautiful sight in the fall, even though leaves can cover up the tracks. (ROB HERRONEN photo)

or mice, all sorts of problems. So I kept having to take it into the shop to get the engine fixed because it wouldn’t start. People over there at Tar Heel Sales & Service know me real well; I’m the guy with the train. I got it powder-coated this time so it wouldn’t rust again.

The biggest problem was stuff being out in the weather. I had to get it someplace sheltered. That’s when I started the engine house about two years ago. Now that I actually have a shelter, I can put stuff inside there and don’t have to worry about the rusting and the

Sometimes he sets up a Christmas train for visitors. (ROB HERRONEN photo)
Sometimes he sets up a Christmas train for visitors. (ROB HERRONEN photo)

mice and everything moving in. Hopefully, as I move along, I should be able to get more rail cars put together and operational. Most of them are going to be just flat cars for hauling firewood. But I will build a caboose that will be based on a prototype which will be the car that holds all the stuff in it for the steam engine. You’ve got all sorts of tools you need, grease, coal and water treatment stuff, basically it will be one car to keep everything in it and follow the steam engine around wherever it goes. It just takes a long time and it’s usually just me.

Train tracks in the snow. (ROB HERRONEN photo)
Train tracks in the snow. (ROB HERRONEN photo)

HUB: So what’s your end goal?

HERRONEN: The end goal is I can actually hop on the train and I can go down in the woods and pick a tree that needs to be cut down or whatever, cut it up, haul it on the train to the wood splitter, split it, put it onto another rail car, haul it down to wherever I’m drying the wood at or right down to the wood stove. Basically, it’s a hobby. But the end goal is to have enough track to really allow me to exercise this steam engine. It also allows us to haul stuff down to our chicken coop, too, and I can haul stuff up from our chicken coop.

This February 2011 photo shows the grading problems Rob Herronen has to work with in setting up his tracks. (ROB HERRONEN photo)
This February 2011 photo shows the grading problems Rob Herronen has to work with in setting up his tracks. (ROB HERRONEN photo)

HUB: So you can haul your eggs up in the morning.

HERRONEN: Well, eggs usually come up in the afternoon and usually 5 in a little egg basket. But chicken feed, on the other hand, we go through about 150 pounds of chicken feed every 2 weeks, so having a track going right down there to where the feed is kept will allow me to unload it from a car ride up here on to a rail car and hauling it right down there. Or if I want to get extra feed and store it somewhere else, I can take it anywhere that the train goes, to the barn, the far end of the property somewhere. Eventually, I might even be able to have a car full of water I can get out of the creek down there and water the garden with. You never know.

HUB: So you have a 5 to 1 …

This August 20121 photo shows his train on a bridge. (ROB HERRONEN photo)
This August 20121 photo shows his train on a bridge. (ROB HERRONEN photo)

HERRONEN: Scale? It’s called a 7 1/2-inch gauge. It’s about one-fifth full size.

HUB: So a model train that you play with growing up would be …

HERRONEN: That’s about 1/87th. That’s HO scale. O scale is 1/48th. We’re talking about big toys for big boys. The steam engine, when it’s put together, I’m calling that my steam-powered SUV because I could probably buy a Cadillac or an Escalade or something for the price of that steam engine. Luckily the guy putting it together for me is doing it just to do it. He put together the same engine for somebody else up there in Virginia. But my project is a little bit different because I wanted it to be museum quality, I want it to look like the prototype because my hopes are when I pass away, that engine is going to Colorado and actually be in the museum there with the real engine, Rio Grande Southern No. 20. It was built in 1896. Its claim to fame is it was used in a movie called “A Ticket To Tomahawk,” which was 1950.

The nameplate on Rob Herronen's garage. (RAY CRISCOE photo)
The nameplate on Rob Herronen’s garage. (RAY CRISCOE photo)

HUB: If somebody’s never ridden a train, what’s a good one to ride?

HERRONEN: It depends on what kind of train experience they want. If they want a wild west, western type feel, Tweetsie is always fun. It actually gives you more options than just the train, but of course, the train is the star. If you want a good day trip, there’s always the Amtrak and the North Carolina trains that are operating between Raleigh and Charlotte. You can hop one of the, ride into Charlotte or Raleigh and spend the day. You can ride Amtrak trains up and down the East Coast. If you wanted something more elegant, there’s also the Great Smoky Mountain Railroad over in Dillsboro. The North Carolina Transportation Museum, they operate a train there.

If anybody wanted to come out and help, I’d be very happy to let them run my engine, show them how to do stuff. It’s a hands-on thing. Sure beats sitting around and playing on a computer all day.

There’s just nothing quite as much fun as having your own steam engine and being able to operate it, just like the big ones but smaller.

The Rio Grande Southern No. 20, shown in this Robert Richardson photograph, is the steam engine Rob Herronen’s engine will replicate. Two Goose cars are trailing the train. (RAY CRISCOE photo)
The Rio Grande Southern No. 20, shown in this Robert Richardson photograph, is the steam engine Rob Herronen’s engine will replicate. Two Goose cars are trailing the train. (RAY CRISCOE photo)

SOME OTHER NOTES WORTH NOTING

THE PROTOTYPE / Taken from a Robert Richardson photograph, the Rio Grande Southern No. 20 (above) is the steam engine Rob Herronen’s engine will replicate. Two Goose cars are trailing the train.

WHY IT LOOKS FAMILIAR / When this train was used in the movie
“A Ticket To Tomahawk,” moviemakers made a wooden replica
of the 20 so they could drag it along behind some real ones.
Later, that wooden replica was used in the TV show “Petticoat
Junction.” They were able to push it along with a hidden car behind it.

HOW MUCH CAN HIS TRAINS CARRY? / HERRONEN: “Each one of my trains weighs about 200 pounds and when you load ’em up, you could probably get up to about a ton, maybe, but you can’t really stop that on a brake easily.”

DID YOU KNOW? / HERRONEN: “Train Mountain in Washington is the world’s largest 7 1/2-inch gauge railroad with something like 12 miles or more of track. It usually takes 2 1/2 hours to go around their track once.”

WHAT THE MISSUS THINKS / HERRONEN: “My wife said, ‘We need to keep wood up here where I can get to it. I don’t want to run the train to have to go get wood.’ I was thinking, ‘You’re missing out on all the fun.’ I haven’t gotten her on the train. She hasn’t ridden my train. I’m hoping that when we get the 20 put together, she can come out with me and we’ll get it and some of those rail cars and she’ll hop on it and go for a ride.”

WANT TO FOLLOW HIS PROGRESS? / Herronen is chronicling
his progress on his Facebook page and on his blog at
http://rgsrailroadofnorthcarolina.blogspot.com/.

You can find plenty of photographs and, on the blog, some of the
history. “And plans,” he says, “many of which change over time.”

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