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Oil-fired narrow gauge steam locomotives

By Rob McGonigal | August 26, 2021

Railroads nearly always opt for the cheapest fuel; for some narrow-gauge lines, this meant oil, not coal

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Black-and-white view of 4-6-0 steam locomotive making smoke with 1-car train in desert

Black-and-white view of 4-6-0 steam locomotive with 3-car train

Southern Pacific 4-6-0 No. 8


Ten-Wheeler No. 8 heads north from Owenyo with two empty tank cars to be refilled with water at Kearsarge in 1950. SP’s 71-mile former Carson & Colorado “Slim Princess” 3-foot-gauge line in California’s lonely Owens Valley was dieselized in 1954 and abandoned in 1960. As on SP’s other western lines, the engines were fueled by oil.

Jack Gibson
Black-and-white view of 4-6-0 steam locomotive with 3-car train
Black-and-white view of 4-6-0 steam locomotive crossing wood trestle with freight train

Southern Pacific 4-6-0 No. 9


The timbers of a trestle over the deep Owens River absorb the weight of SP Ten-Wheeler No. 9 sometime in the early 1950s. The freight train is headed for the connection with SP’s standard-gauge Lone Pine line at Owenyo.

Wendell Mortimer
Black-and-white view of 4-6-0 steam locomotive crossing wood trestle with freight train
Black-and-white view of 4-6-0 steam locomotive making smoke with 1-car train in desert

Southern Pacific 4-6-0 No. 18


Ten-Wheeler 18 lays down an impressive cloud of oil smoke as it runs “caboose light” from Keeler north (timetable west) to Owenyo. By this time (1950), the line was using an old combine as a caboose. The 4-6-0 was returned to operation on a short stretch of track at Independence, near Kearsarge, in 2016; since then it has twice visited the Durango & Silverton, where it helped crews learn about oil-firing.

Walt Thrall Jr.
Black-and-white view of 4-6-0 steam locomotive making smoke with 1-car train in desert
Black-and-white view of 4-6-0 steam locomotive with short freight train in desert

Southern Pacific 4-6-0 No. 22


In May 1940, clear-stacked 4-6-0 No. 22 heads five boxcars near Keeler. Unlike sisters 8, 9, and 18, which survive today, No. 22 was scrapped.

F. J. Peterson
Black-and-white view of 4-6-0 steam locomotive with short freight train in desert
Black-and-white three-quarter view of 2-6-6-2 steam locomotive

Sumpter Valley 2-6-6-2 250

Running southwest from a connection with the Union Pacific at Baker in northeast Oregon, the 3-foot-gauge Sumpter Valley Railway carried timber and livestock. Until the 1930s most of its engines used wood for fuel. SVR’s most notable locomotives were two 2-6-6-2s — America’s only narrow-gauge articulateds — acquired from Utah’s Uintah Railway, which quit in 1939. SVR 250 still carries its Uintah number, 50, in its headlight numberboards and has yet to have its side tanks removed in this September 29, 1939, view at Whitney, Ore.

H. R. Griffiths
Black-and-white three-quarter view of 2-6-6-2 steam locomotive
Black-and-white overhead view of 2-6-6-2 steam locomotive with freight train crossing bridge in mountains

Sumpter Valley 2-6-6-2 251

The Sumpter Valley’s other ex-Uintah engine, No. 251, hammers through Boulder Gorge with a 39-car train out of Baker on August 19, 1946. The line closed later that year, but part of it has been reopened as a heritage attraction.

H. R. Griffiths
Black-and-white overhead view of 2-6-6-2 steam locomotive with freight train crossing bridge in mountains
Black-and-white view of steam locomotive with train on dock beside ship

White Pass & Yukon 2-8-2 No. 73


The White Pass & Yukon Route, extending 110 3-foot-gauge miles north from the port of Skagway, Alaska, into Canada, opened in 1900 during the Yukon Gold Rush. Five decades later, engine 73, one of two 2-8-2s built for the road in 1947, is ready to depart the pier at Skagway with a trainload of tourists. The locomotive, the last built for the WP&Y, sees occasional service today on the line, which is almost entirely devoted to carrying tourists.

F.L. Jaques
Black-and-white view of steam locomotive with train on dock beside ship
Black-and-white view of 2-8-2 steam locomotive with 2-car train beside river

White Pass & Yukon 2-8-2 No. 81


WP&Y Mikado No. 81 heads two cars, including a combine fitted with a cupola for use as a caboose, along the Skagway River circa 1950. The 2-8-2 is one of two ex-Sumpter Valley Mikes that came to the road in 1940 as the threat of war increased traffic on the WP&Y. Both returned to Oregon in the 1970s, and No. 81 was restored for service on a rebuilt portion of the SVR, where it runs with its old number, 19.

F.L. Jaques
Black-and-white view of 2-8-2 steam locomotive with 2-car train beside river
Black-and-white view from behind of two steam locomotives pushing a rotary snowplow on a trestle

White Pass & Yukon plow train on the Steel Bridge

Two steam locomotives push a rotary snowplow out onto the Steel Bridge, a.k.a. the Switchback Arch, in about 1950. Although the line was later relocated, the spectacular structure still stands, its timber approach trestles slowly deteriorating.

Carl E. Mulvihill
Black-and-white view from behind of two steam locomotives pushing a rotary snowplow on a trestle
Black-and-white overhead view of steam locomotive with freight train beside ocean

Oahu Railway 2-8-2 No. 70


The Oahu Railway & Land Co.’s 90-mile 3-foot-gauge system consisted principally of a main line from Honolulu that ran west to Pearl Harbor then generally along the coast about halfway around the island to Kahuku. Its traffic increased tremendously in the months before and after December 7, 1941. In this view from the mid-’40s, 2-8-2 No. 70 is near Kaena Point with a freight from Kahuku.

Kent W. Cochrane
Black-and-white overhead view of steam locomotive with freight train beside ocean
Black-and-white broadside view of 2-8-0 steam locomotive on turntable at roundhouse

Oahu Railway 2-8-0 No. 37


In the mid-1940s, OR&L 2-8-0 No. 37 rides the turntable at the 15-stall Honolulu roundhouse. Although the Oahu Railway was largely abandoned in 1947, the sturdy concrete structure still stands.

Kent W. Cochrane
Black-and-white broadside view of 2-8-0 steam locomotive on turntable at roundhouse
Black-and-white view of two steam locomotives meeting, with sailors looking out from coach

Oahu Railway Nos. 85 and 98

Ten-Wheeler No. 85 on a train from Barbers Point meets 2-8-0 No. 98 taking sailors to the Nanakuli rest camp about 15 miles west of Pearl Harbor in the mid-1940s.

Kent W. Cochrane
Black-and-white view of two steam locomotives meeting, with sailors looking out from coach
Black-and-white overhead view of Shay steam locomotive crossing trestle with log train

West Side Lumber Shay No. 8


West Side Lumber Co. Shay No. 8 brings a train of logs across the Tuolumne River around 5 a.m. one morning in July 1956. West Side’s oil-burning geared engines prowled the woods east of Tuolumne, Calif., until 1960, when new owners shut down the 3-foot-gauge network.

Bob Keller
Black-and-white overhead view of Shay steam locomotive crossing trestle with log train
Black-and-white overhead view of Shay steam locomotive in woods with boxcar and loaded log cars

West Side Lumber Shay No. 10


Freshly shopped WSL Shay No. 10 brings a log train downgrade toward Tuolumne on October 8, 1959.

Robert Field
Black-and-white overhead view of Shay steam locomotive in woods with boxcar and loaded log cars
Black-and-white view framed by two trees of doubleheaded steam locomotives with freight train

National of Mexico 2-8-0s 269 and 260


Mexico’s network of 3-foot-gauge lines peaked at about 1,500 miles, 100-percent steam-powered until the mid-1960s. The nation’s abundance of petroleum meant that the locomotives were oil-fired. In March 1961, NdeM 2-8-0s 269 and 260 climb Ozumba Hill on the Puebla–Mexico City line with a freight train.

Howard S. Patrick
Black-and-white view framed by two trees of doubleheaded steam locomotives with freight train
Black-and-white view of steam locomotives heading two narrow-gauge trains on lines converging in a small town

National of Mexico 2-8-0s 278 and 263


At Chalco, Mexico, NdeM 2-8-0 263 waits in the clear with its train as sister 278 and another 2-8-0 pass with a southbound freight from Mexico City to Cuautla in March 1961.

John Pickett
Black-and-white view of steam locomotives heading two narrow-gauge trains on lines converging in a small town
Black-and-white broadside view of 2-6-6-2 steam locomotive

National of Mexico 2-6-6-2 369


The ultimate in North American narrow-gauge steam power was a group of 10 simple-expansion 2-6-6-2s built by Alco for NdeM during 1929–37. In March 1948, No. 369 backs onto a passenger train at Mexico City’s Buenavista Station.

L.T. Haug, Everett L. DeGolyer collection
Black-and-white broadside view of 2-6-6-2 steam locomotive

Oil-fired narrow gauge steam locomotives are relatively rare. But they are making a come-back in the world of preservation. Recently the Durango & Silverton tourist railroad, prompted by a disastrous wildfire allegedly caused by one of its trains, began converting some of its steam locomotives from coal to oil fuel. Like the rest of the former Denver & Rio Grande Western narrow-gauge network — and, indeed, the majority of the North American rail system — the D&S’s line has historically been worked by coal-fired power. But some 20th-century slim-gauge operations used oil to power their steam locomotives.

Here’s a look at six of those oil-fired narrow gauge rail lines.

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