Take a Ride… on Heavy Metal
With a great deal of chuffing, 500 tons of steel slowly begins inching along. Not even walking speed. Trees and landmarks creep by the windows.
The brass fixtures and polished wooden trim speak of a bygone era. An era most of us have never seen firsthand and yet, one which pulls at our consciousness with a nostalgia we haven’t earned. Parents bask in the warm glow of this false nostalgia while kids, strangers to one another just ten minutes ago, now laugh and play as friends. A warm breeze begins to float in through the open windows as the scenic countryside rolls by at a pace all but forgotten in our frenetic, modern world.
Throughout the 19th century, railroads sprang up in every corner of America. Rails criss-crossed the continent and became our nation’s first highway system. Many have since become mere footnotes in history; gobbled up by larger lines, abandoned when they were no longer profitable or simply passed by with the march of progress.
Within an hour’s drive of Philadelphia, and less than two hours from Baltimore and Washington, are two short line railroads that continue to exist and operate as a unique kind of tourist destination. Each of these railroads makes for a great day trip and something that can be enjoyed in a single afternoon.
Wilmington and Western Railroad – Wilmington, Delaware
Commissioned in 1867 and first opened for service in 1872, the Delaware Western Railroad (as it was then known) operated only a 20 mile stretch of track between Wilmington, Delaware and Landenberg, Pennsylvania. Later purchased in 1883 by a subsidiary of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, the line never grew any longer but continued to operate as a branch line under B&O’s umbrella.
One story that’s been handed down through the generations and was retold by the railroad’s current director, David Ludlow, recalls how the line negotiated rights of way through many of the old DuPont estates – some of the most pristine and well kept old-money estates still to be found in North America. Details are a bit sketchy but the story is that one of the family patriarchs agreed to allow construction of the railroad across DuPont land on the condition that whenever he stood near the tracks and waved a white handkerchief, the train was required to stop and pick him up.
For a time, the Landenberg Branch, as it was known, was the most profitable of all B&O’s lines. This was aided by three factors, each of which contributed to the success and popularity of the line.
The first was simply a matter of geography. To the north lie New York City and Philadelphia and to the south are Baltimore and Washington, DC. Delaware sits right along the shortest distance route between these cities. To this day, its prime location means that all overland traffic between these major cities must pass through northern Delaware.
The second major factor was the large number of mills and manufacturing plants found along this short rail line during the time of its commercial operation. One of the line’s mainstays was hauling freight; both raw materials and finished goods.
A third short-lived but important factor was a large resort which sat right alongside the rail line. The Brandywine Springs resort actually pre-dates the railroad, having begun life as a hotel constructed in 1826. However it had suffered from two economic depressions in the mid-1800’s.
The fortunes of both Brandywine Springs and the Landenburg Branch rail line soared when an amusement park was opened in 1890. With early roller coasters, a large carousel, dance halls and other attractions, the park became a magnet for families throughout the region. Proximity to the rail line made passenger train service to the park a natural choice for visitors.
A combination of factors, beginning around 1916, together sealed the fate of both the amusement park and the still-young railway. Reputed mismanagement at the park, World War I and the introduction of the automobile all played incremental roles. The park ceased operations around 1924, cutting passenger revenues for the railroad just before the crushing blow was dealt by the Great Depression. All passenger service on the line was halted in 1930, although it continued carrying freight.
Sometime in the early 1940’s, the line was shortened and no longer crossed into Pennsylvania. In the 1950’s it was shortened again, running only between Wilmington and Hockessin, Delaware. In 1966 HistoricRedClayValley, Incorporated (HRCV), a non-profit group, began leasing the track on weekends in order to conduct tourist train rides.
This arrangement did little to ease the financial burden overhanging the now-struggling line. Within a few years it was abandoned and slated for demolition. HRCV launched an all-out fundraising campaign and eventually bought the entire remaining stretch of rails.
The line was dealt another blow in 1999 when Hurricane Floyd veered off from its projected target of Florida and instead hit Delaware. The hurricane and resulting floodwaters destroyed two of the line’s original wooden trestles and damaged several others. The destroyed trestles were replaced with new steel ones while the less severely damaged trestles were simply repaired.
In 2003, Tropical Storm Henri destroyed all six of the line’s remaining wooden trestles. During the long, arduous repair process, the usable section of track was reduced to only 2.5 miles. Eventually, all of the destroyed trestles were rebuilt using concrete and steel and the full Wilmington-Hockessin run was reopened in 2007.
The non-profit HRCV conducts tourist trips and specialty runs on the line. Operating as the Wilmington and Western Railroad, this living museum conducts regular tourist train rides through the northern Delaware countryside. They use a number of historic train cars, including the only operating steam-powered 4-4-0 engine still in active use in the eastern United States.
Some of the gems of this line include steam locomotives built in 1907, 1909 and 1910 and diesel-electric locomotives dating to 1940. The line’s wooden cabooses were built in 1924. One curiosity that the railroad regularly runs is its 1929 “Doodlebug”, a self-powered cross between a locomotive and a passenger car.
Some of the more inventive offerings include themed outings such as dinner train rides, a mock Wild West train robbery, holiday themed events, private parties and unique corporate outings. During the railroad’s “Pufferbelly Days” two steam locomotives work in tandem. While multiple diesel engines are common on freight lines, it is a rare sight among tourist steam trains. According to HRCV Director David Ludlow, that’s mainly because “most tourist railroads don’t even have more than one steam engine and others simply don’t put [an event like this] in their schedules.”
Having personally ridden on the Wilmington and Western Railroad several times over the years, I can attest that their claim to “transport you back to a Golden Era when steam passenger trains rolled majestically through the land” is not hyperbole. Sitting on the rattan seats of the train’s passenger coaches, which date to 1914-1915, makes you instantly feel as if you are part of a more genteel time and place.
Then the whistle blows and the train begins its slow acceleration. As the soft summer breeze begins floating in the opened windows, just try to stop yourself from daydreaming. The automobile-powered freedom we enjoy today may be faster and more convenient, but it’s definitely no improvement.
For information on the Wilmington and Western Railroad, call 302-998-1930 or visit them online at www.WWRR.com.
Strasburg Rail Road – Strasburg, Pennsylvania
Founded in 1832 when Andrew Jackson was President and there were only 24 states in the union, the 176 year old Strasburg Rail Road proudly boasts having once carried passengers to see Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln as they stopped in the nearby town of Paradise. (There is also a murky inference that Harry Truman may have once ridden in the lavish “Car 10”, now renamed the “President’s Car”.)
Like so many other rail lines, as business fell off it was being considered for demolition before being spared by a group of local industrialists in 1958.
In a fascinating twist of irony, in 1926 the Strasburg Line was first in the nation to fully abandon steam in favor of newer diesel technology. On Labor Day weekend 1960, the line came full circle and switched back to its steam-powered roots.
The Strasburg Rail Road has so many historic rail cars it’s practically a museum unto itself. Among their actively used inventory are ten cars more than 100 years old and nine more within five years of that milestone. The newest of their 17 passenger cars dates to 1913, including six Pullman cars past the century mark. Its five steam locomotives were all built between 1906-1917. The 1917 car was rebuilt in 1998 to resemble Thomas the Tank Engine from the children’s books and TV shows. Their 1906 engine has a fairly unique 4-8-0 wheel configuration and is the only operable 12-wheel steam locomotive in North America.
In fact, every one of Strasburg’s cars has a name and a story behind it. Their 1896 open air observation car is named “Hello Dolly” because it was refurbished in 1968 and featured in the Hollywood movie of the same name. Another open air freight car was featured in an April 1961 cover photo of Trains magazine.
Strasburg’s list of event offerings is impressive. There are themed “Day out with Thomas” (as in, Thomas the Tank Engine) events in June, September and December. Throughout the Summer and Fall seasons, passengers can purchase combo passes to the corn maze and petting zoo at Cherry Crest Farm (along the tracks) or to nearby Dutch Wonderland (a local amusement park.) Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny ride the train seasonally. For Veteran’s Day, military reenactors from every period in our nation’s history can be found on the trains and at the station. For the grown-ups, Strasburg has weekend wine and cheese trains from April through November (must be 21 to board), as well as dinner trains (featuring the oldest wooden dining car still in operation), a murder mystery and other live entertainment throughout its operating season. Passengers can disembark at a trackside picnic grove, enjoy lunch and hop a later train back to the station. The railroad is planning a barbecue train for 2009 which is slated to have a relaxed picnic-like atmosphere.
The promenade around historic East Strasburg Station (originally built in 1882) includes even more family-friendly activities: miniature and toy trains, hand-pumped railcars, guided tours of the machine shop (one of only three remaining in the US with facilities to build a steam locomotive from the ground up), a switch tower (built in 1885) for viewing the trains from above, a railroad-themed photo booth and more. Walk across the road to visit the Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania, where you can explore a world-class collection of more than 100 locomotives and rail cars. The National Toy Train Museum is also nearby.
Lancaster County, famed for its Amish population, has forged a unique partnership with the Strasburg Railroad. The railroad attracts tourists while at the same time depending on the quaint and picturesque Amish way of life to provide much of the scenery on the four and a half mile journey through some of the most pristine and productive farmland in all of North America. The railroad donates a portion of each regular ticket to help the Lancaster Farmland Trust in its mission to preserve family farms in Lancaster County.
Visit the Strasburg Rail Road online at www.StrasburgRailroad.com or call 717-687-7522. The Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania can be found at www.RRMuseumPA.com or by calling 717-687-8628. The National Toy Train Museum can be called at 717-687-8976 or found online at www.NTTMuseum.org.
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