A string of motorcars crosses one of the long bridge spans on the WP&YR en route to Fraser. EAP photos

Motoring through on a ‘speeder’

By EMILY A. PALM
Hold on to your hats folks, because this here’s the wildest ride in the north.
Imagine a roller coaster ride. Now take away the seatbelts, raise the rail about 100 feet up in the air at some points, and set the speed to 20 miles per hour. Add in breathtaking scenery and this describes a trip on a motorcar to Fraser and back on the White Pass & Yukon Route railroad.
Recently a group of 20 folks from all over the Lower 48 rolled into Skagway with their motorcars in tow to ride the rails of WP&YR.
“The best way to describe it is that it’s like a roller coaster,” said Tina Read of Nashville, Tenn. Read’s first job was at the Opryland amusement park which had an old wooden rollercoaster. She says when she explains her hobby this way to her 12 and 17-year-old daughters, they understand. Read’s boyfriend, Bernie Leadon, said he rode motorcars when he was young.
Also known as speeder and casey cars, they were used from around 1945 through 1986 to repair railroads down south. It was faster to take the smaller cars than a train to fix portions of the rail, hence the name “speeder.” As technology advanced, railways stopped using the gasoline powered cars. People began buying the “speeders” at railroad auctions, and a new hobby was born.

Two casey cars and their riders get ready for the railroad.

Up here motorcars are still used every day in the summer on track patrol and to take section crews out to work on the line, which is part of the reason for attracting those who’ve made motocars their hobby.
Gil and Janet Dominguez, seasonal locals and members of the Motorcar Operators West (MOW) club out of California, have coordinated the trips to Skagway every other year since the centennial celebration in 2000.
“Every time Gil invites us, we come,” said Karen Werner of Cincinnati. The damp and nippy weather the morning of their first ride didn’t deter Werner in the least bit. The other two years she has participated in the ride, the warm weather prevented her from buying a fur hat in a local shop she’d been eyeing for years. This year the cold temperature brought the justification she’d been waiting for. “It’s rainy, it’s nasty,” she sang jubilantly, “Girlfriend’s getting a fur hat!”

Karen Werner was happy to ride with her new fur hat.

MOW falls under the umbrella organization of the North American Rail Car Operators Association (NARCOA). The 1,800 members buy insurance together and organize trips where they rent time on the railroads from companies such as WP&YR.
“It’s a self-propelled rail tour,” said Mark Sorensen of Nebraska. “It truly is a big adventure,” added his wife, Diann Sorensen.
A sense of adventure and natural beauty ranked high among reasons people get into the hobby.
“It’s about finding scenic rail and pretty country,” said John Black of La Conner, Wash. Traveling on the motor cars gives him a chance to see areas unreachable by roads and unspoiled by development.
Many a speeder enthusiast takes pride in the mechanical craftsmanship the hobby entails. “We’ve always been interested in touchy-feely mechanical things,” said Buck Frank, a retired heavy mechanic from Los Gatos, Calif.
Camaraderie soared high as the group embarked on the ride. WP&YR is a special railroad because the tracks are narrow gauge, meaning 36 inches across. Those who own narrow gauge speeder cars have a handful of railroads to choose from in the country.