This story is the first in a series we are presenting about how local Santa Cruz businesses faced the challenges of the last couple years with strength and perseverance. From the COVID pandemic shutdown which began in March 2020, to the CZU fires of August 2020, to the continuing pandemic rollercoaster in 2021, our community members have proven their resiliency.
Felton’s Roaring Camp Railroads offers two popular year-round train routes. Customers can ride the Redwood Forest Steam Train from the main depot through redwood groves, all the way to the summit of Bear Mountain, as they hear the conductor’s stories about the train itself and about the area’s history. Or they can choose the Santa Cruz Beach Train. Leaving from the same depot, the train travels through neighboring Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park before heading to the iconic Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk. There are also themed seasonal trains such as Holiday Lights and Chanukah. In addition, Roaring Camp is the site of many fun events. One that has occurred for more than 15 years is Harvest Faire, which includes family-friendly activities like candle making and selecting Halloween pumpkins.
Melani Clark serves as CEO of Roaring Camp, which has been offering train excursions for nearly 60 years. The railroad is definitely in her blood: it was Melani’s father F. Norman Clark who founded the business. Her mother Georgiana Paikike Clark served as Vice President of Operations for many years before eventually becoming the CEO.
Railroad’s Roots & Early History
Roaring Camp’s first train trip occurred in 1963; prior to that, Norman had been working on laying the first mile of track. “He had traveled domestically and internationally to find a steam locomotive,” says Melani. “He finally found the Dixiana, our Engine #1, hidden in bushes in Virginia. He arranged for the purchase; she was shipped to Felton and restored.” He had four passenger cars built for the railroad and set April 6 as the opening day. “The locomotive was steamed up, the cars were fresh and ready to roll, and then it rained and rained and nobody showed up, so they put everything away. My dad, feeling defeated, went home.” Around 3 p.m., he received a call from a receptionist that had stayed at the office. She told him there was a man there with his son and they came to ride the train. “My dad, ever the entrepreneur, ran down to the engine house, fired up the Dixiana. He and one crew member arrived at the station in the rain, picked up the man and his son in the locomotive and took them for a ride.”
Norman built Roaring Camp partly due to his love of history, especially the period that spanned from the 1880’s to the 1930’s. “He wanted to create a place where people could step back through time and experience the era, instead of reading it in a book, or watching it on a screen,” says Melani. He died in 1985, when Melani was 18. “My father had asked my mother, who was from Hawaii, if anything should ever happen to him to please run the business for one year before deciding what to do. She always said she would go back to Hawaii if anything happened.” After running it for one year, this stretched into 29 years. She retired at the end of 2015, and Melani became CEO in 2016. Prior to that, she has probably “…worked every position at Roaring Camp, from scooping ice cream to crewing on locomotives. It was pretty much a requirement growing up in our family. My parents were very against nepotism, so to move up into management you had to work extremely hard and gain the respect of fellow crew members.” Melani’s older sister Chemene (Clark) Hubbard and younger sister Catherine (Clark) Thorsen worked at Roaring Camp while growing up. Chemene is now a hospice nurse in Texas. Catherine is a GM for Disneyland Parks in Anaheim. “I’m super proud of both my sisters,” says Melani.
Because Roaring Camp has been through a lot during its history, when disasters first occurred in 2020 it was no stranger to holding steady with determination and hard work. “We’ve had fires, floods, windstorms…you name it,” says Melani. She remembers a day in July 1976 when she was outside with friends. She looked up at the sky and there was a huge cloud of smoke rising above the Redwood trees. Someone had set fire to Roaring Camp’s trestle. “It took three days to contain the fire and the bridge was destroyed. My dad took a day or so to get over the shock. By the next week he had a survey crew figuring out a new route for the track to go around the burned bridge.” In a few months the track was in, and they were running trains again to the top of the mountain. Melani credits her father for many of her strengths. “I picked up his tenacity and ability to pivot quickly when it comes to obstacles.”
Overcoming the Pandemic Effects
In early 2020 Roaring Camp was like everyone else, trying to understand the impact COVID was going to inflict. “The first priority was to make sure my staff was safe and healthy while we waited to get a better understanding from health officials. After 50-plus years in operation you learn to save for a rainy day, so luckily we weren’t in a super tight spot.” But they knew that being closed for an extended period would threaten the future of the company. “An employee heard about the Great Plates Program through FEMA. We signed up and were approved.” Great Plates was created for two reasons: first, to deliver daily meals to seniors and other high-risk adults, helping them stay safe during the pandemic; and second, to provide economic stimulus to local businesses that might be struggling. “Our participation in Great Plates helped generate income and kept our foodservice, sales and operation crews employed during the period the government had us shut down. Later, we applied and were able to get a PPP loan allowing us to keep all staff doing essential work at full time status.”
During the three months Roaring Camp was closed, the management team worked diligently to develop a COVID Operations Policy in anticipation of reopening. They rearranged how guests and staff would access grounds, buildings and trains, following COVID guidelines. “We were very lucky to have an outdoor venue that qualified as an outdoor museum, so we were able to open again for train rides by June. We were running trains at only 40 percent of normal capacity, and losing money, but at least now we had income. This helped slow the cash outflow, allowing us to stretch our savings. Everything was going well, all things considered.” Trains were selling out, they had excellent reviews regarding COVID protocols, and not one of their team members contracted COVID. Then the CZU fires happened in mid-August.
“Everything that my family and all the employees and supporters of Roaring Camp worked so hard for was threatened in a matter of hours.” Melani is very thankful for her staff. “They were being evacuated from their own homes and yet they came in their cars and trucks and started loading irreplaceable documents, historic artifacts, computers, etc., into their cars to take them to safety.” Fire crews moved one of their trains to Santa Cruz out of the fire zone, and then rolled all the steam locomotives that were stuck in Felton, out of the Engine House and into the widest clearing they could find, hoping the fire would be far enough away to keep them safe. “Watching the last of our crew evacuate and not knowing if they’d have a house, job, or a place to return to work, was hardest. Five of my employees refused to leave me and we stayed on property running sprinklers on the rooftop of every building and shooting down the sides and under the eaves all day and night. It was so smokey you couldn’t see 100 yards. Ash was raining down on us and for once I thought this could be it.”
During all the crises, this is the only time Melani remembers having tears in her eyes because she knew that the fire might destroy Roaring Camp and “…our majestic old growth redwood trees that had been standing for over 600 years in the valley.” For three days the fires kept moving closer, then CalFire set up their fire truck maintenance facility in Henry Cowell State Park, less than 40 yards away from us. We knew that was a good omen.”
As days passed, more firefighters showed up from all over the state. Although fire was visible on the opposite side of the valley, the fire crews—with the help of fog and wind—eventually stopped it from advancing and Roaring Camp was saved. “Not all my staff was so lucky; two of them lost their homes to the CZU Fires, and that has been a difficult emotion to navigate even to this day.”
While CalFire was at Henry Cowell, Roaring Camp was in communication with many of their crew and continuously offered its grounds and assistance. “Whatever we could do to help. Calfire used our property as an auxiliary overflow area. The fire captains/chiefs met in our big Hall, once the CZU was about contained, to discuss handing back control to the local fire stations. Just prior to that the National Guard set up on our property and provided fire support and helped local agencies with clearing roads and building access to areas that had been cut off. Both agencies were really professional and great to work with. We were honored to provide support to them, and indirectly to the community.”
Pandemic Part Two
When the second round of COVID closed the business in December, they had a better idea of how long it might last and that they would be able to reopen after cases improved. “At the time we were still doing Great Plates and delivering meals daily to seniors that couldn’t leave their homes during COVID. We even delivered meals to them on Christmas Day. That’s how great my crew is! I have the best team in the world with me. They work from the heart every day and I am grateful for everything they do. They are the reason Roaring Camp is so successful.”
Adapting for Success
It is clear that Melani and her team excel in pivoting, and that they are prepared for whatever the future may bring. “There is no such thing as business as usual anymore. The focus is shifting to natural disaster mitigation policies that address firestorms, massive flooding, pandemics…it includes drought policies, forest management, fire abatement, flood control, power disruption, etc., the list goes on and on. For many companies this means an entire new strategy, and cost, if you plan to protect your company, and your community going forward.”
Roaring Camp also helped another business pivot, through a concert series on their property. “We have a very large meadow. Many people in the entertainment industry were hit hard by COVID. In Felton, there is a music hall that had just opened prior to COVID and was immediately closed. Our events coordinator worked with their management team and was in close communications with Santa Cruz County Health Dept. They created a COVID-safe outdoor concert venue that was the first in the county to open.” They sectioned off areas and created pods that were socially distanced from each other. Bands were able to hold concerts again, people were able to get outdoors and enjoy a sense of normal life, all in a safe setting. “This created jobs for locals in the industry; stage production, lighting, sound, etc., and we were able to help one of our local businesses move from the red to the black.” Her favorite part was to see people that had been quarantined at home for months finally forgetting about COVID and all the heavy news. “They were out and enjoying life, music and a sense of community again.”
The People Behind, and On, the Trains
During 2020 and 2021’s uncertainties and difficulties, Melani was continuously buoyed by many things, including her crew and “…their big hearts and endless commitment. Also, the smiles on the faces of thousands of visitors when they watch the train come around the corner and into the station, or when they’re on board departing and waving to everyone. The long history of Roaring Camp and the support of our amazing community here in the San Lorenzo Valley and Santa Cruz. The endless number of people that has supported us over all these years.”
Let’s end with a story that encapsulates how Roaring Camp not only survived challenges, but also helped others endure. “I distinctly remember our reopening day and the people arriving for the first train departure. They had to pass through two checkpoints where we asked a serious of COVID questions, made sure they knew to keep masks on, and that they must stay six feet apart at all times. Everyone was so quiet; they were looking at other families with concern and fear. They watched as we personally walked families on board the train and seated them one at a time, making sure they were far enough away from each other with lots of room. Then the whistle blew, and the train departed, and they went off into the beautiful giant redwood forest. Somewhere during that ride, they looked up into the branches of the trees, or got lost watching the steam engine climb the hill or listening to our conductor’s narration. For a brief moment, they had a mental break from all the fear, sadness and uncertainty that surrounded COVID. When the train pulled back into the station, there was a huge round of applause. People were laughing and you could see the smile in their eyes again. The human spirit shone through, and I think it gave everyone a little reassurance that life was going to be okay. So many of them made a point to come and thank us, they were so appreciative that we provided this opportunity for them and their families.”