Omaha, NE's Henry Doorly Zoo Railroad

In 1963, the Zoo Railroad was one of the first major attractions added to the newly renovated Henry Doorly Zoo in Omaha, Nebraska. As part of its centennial celebration, the Omaha-based Union Pacific decided to sponsor the construction of a train ride at the zoo. The zoo’s railroad initially had just over two miles of 2 ft 6 in (762 mm) gauge track (roughly half the width of standard mainline railroad tracks) in the form of a twisted oval with a connecting track through the middle. Two wyes (Y-shaped track arrangements enabling the train to reverse direction) were constructed at the intersections of the connecting track and the main oval. The track was laid using rail from the Union Pacific’s Encampment branch in Wyoming. 

Due to the hilly terrain of the zoo’s riverside location, grades of up to 6% (for most railroads 2% is considered steep) were required and some of the curves were well under 150 feet in radius. Track crews from the Union Pacific were brought in to lay the track, and operation commenced on July 22, 1968 under the supervision of UP Roadmaster Robert Kovar.

The Omaha Zoo Railroad was initially themed after the UP’s First Transcontinental Railroad route for which Omaha was the eastern terminus. Passengers boarded at the “Omaha Train Depot” located in Dairy World  and rode to “Promontory Junction” at the south end of the zoo’s lagoon, where they had the option of disembarking at the small depot and catching a later train back to the starting point, the Omaha Train Depot. The ride also featured a slow climb up the 6% grade of “Sherman Hill”, named for the Union Pacific’s own grade over the Continental Divide in Wyoming.
Engine Number 119 is one of the two Henry Doorly Zoo’s locomotives and regularly hauls a train of four open-air coaches. 

This engine is known for its colorful paint scheme, polished brass, and sweet-sounding Nathan six chime whistle. It was custom built for the zoo in 1968. Its builder was Crown Metal Products of Wyano, Pennsylvania, a company that built replica steam trains for amusement parks and zoos all over the country. The steam locomotive was painted and decorated to resemble Union Pacific’s No. 119, the famous locomotive used in the laying of the real “Golden Spike” marking the transcontinental line’s completion, and the four coaches were given names significant to the UP’s history.

#119 is a 4-4-0 type steam locomotive, meaning that it has four pilot wheels to help guide it through curves, 4 large driving wheels, and no trailing wheels. This type of locomotive was prevalent on American railroads from 1850 to about 1880, thus earning it the nickname “American standard”.
During the 1970s the Omaha Zoo Railroad saw a large increase in attendance, especially on the weekends.  A search was begun for a second train. A small tank locomotive of Austrian Heritage named “Riva” was found in Romania and its owner, the Plasser and Theurer Company was willing to donate it to the zoo.
“Riva”, number 395-104, was acquired in 1974. It is an 0-6-2 tank locomotive meaning that it carries its fuel oil and water in tanks on the locomotive rather than in a separate tender. It has six relatively small driving wheels and large cylinders, making it extremely powerful for its size and is also known for its European-style high-pitched whistle. A two wheel trailing truck supports the firebox and cab. Generating tractive effort of 10,600 pounds it has almost twice the pulling power of #119, and typically operates with a train consisting of six open-air coaches and a caboose.”Riva” began its long career in 1890 when its was turned out by the Krauss Works of Linz, Austria.

The locomotive was restored in the UP’s shops and entered service at the zoo in 1976, together with two extra cars that were purchased to augment the original four. A major multi-year overhaul took place in the early 1990s and another in 2000-2002. During the winter and spring of 2005, the water tanks were replaced and the air tanks (added in 1976) were moved to a concealed location, returning the engine to a more historically correct appearance.

Today the trains circle the park in a clockwise direction, covering roughly 1.8 miles and taking 20–25 minutes on each circuit.