- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 10, 2002

Old-timers will tell you that railroading is in the blood. But how does that explain the lure of trains for the thousands whose forebears never touched a boiler, threw a switch or punched a ticket? Why is it that when an old steam train or diesel engine pulls away from a station, children as young as 2 or 3 jump up and down, cool teen-agers thaw and seemingly staid adults start grinning?
Luckily, excursion trains offer a chance to find the answer. In October, when foliage is at its peak, excursion trains from West Virginia, Maryland, and Pennsylvania offer riders a chance to relive the glory days of passenger travel.
Whether you've got just a few hours to spend or want a whole day's worth of railroading, there's probably a train out there for you. All of them are less than three hours from downtown Washington
Deep in the mountains of West Virginia, the blue and silver Potomac Eagle makes its way out of the small town of Romney beside the south branch of the Potomac River past old plantation houses, working farms and the concrete foundations of the first power plant in the area.
"Electricity came late to Romney," explains Jean Kesner Shoemaker, who supplies the onboard narration for the three-hour round trip. She still remembers when many of the farms around town were lit by kerosene lamps.
A magnet for history buffs, Romney (population 1,964) has always been strategically important, situated between an important crossroads and a strategic river route. George Washington stopped here twice, once while he was with a surveying party, later while commanding troops during the French and Indian War. During the Civil War, Stonewall Jackson had his headquarters here but only for a time, because the town changed hands 56 times during that conflict.
"We had our share of Southern sympathizers," Mrs. Shoemaker says. "But we also have the best-preserved example of Union earthworks in the country."
The railroad came through in 1913 as part of the B&O; system. Freight service with the B&O; lasted until 1978, when the state bought the West Virginia portion of the tracksfor $1.
In 1991, when West Virginia was casting around for someone to run an excursion train, in stepped Dave Corbitt. He is a West Virginia native and a die-hard rail fan who travels the world in search of trains to ride and photograph. He had already amassed a collection of vintage railroad cars and equipment. Now he had a track to put them on.
"You don't do this sort of thing for the money," Mr. Corbitt says of his railroad. "You do it for the trains."
Like most excursion lines, the Potomac Eagle is family-oriented. It's an affordable trip, and if you bring your own picnic basket you can set up your meal at one of the tables in a coach car from the 1920s. If you'd like to spend a little more, the Eagle also offers first-class accommodations that include a three-course dinner.
Though it's a bit more expensive, first class on the Potomac Eagle means you'll be able to sit in one of its vintage club cars, like the swanky "Chessie Club," built by the Pullman Standard Company in 1950. Only four cars of this type were ever made, and the Potomac Eagle Railroad owns two of them.
"Inside and out, it's the closest thing you can get to a '57 Chevy," says Mr. Corbitt, who remembers riding on the car in the late '60s, when it traveled the commuter route between Chicago and Grand Rapids, Mich., for the Pierre Marquette Railroad. "I just fell in love with these cars."
As an added bonus, you may get your ticket punched by conductor Richard Markle, who was with the B&O; Railroad for 44 years before retiring as a conductor on Amtrak's Capitol Limited.
"I've loved trains since I was knee-high," he says. "I watched them all the time when I was a kid in Pennsylvania."
With enough rail stories to satisfy train buffs and plenty of history to whet the appetite of the simply curious, the Potomac Eagle offers still another draw. Since 1981, the area known as "the trough" a narrow pass between two mountains outside Romney has been home to American bald eagles.
It's a rare day when passengers don't spot at least one eagle. Usually, there are multiple sightings, facilitated by a helpful crew that communicates locations via walkie-talkie.
"Scenery and service," says Harry Stegmaier, a professor emeritus of military and transportation history at Frostburg State College and the author of numerous histories of rail passenger service. "It's the closest thing to the way things were in the great days of railroading."

For that generation of trainmen who spent their spare time tinkering with model trains, the Walkersville Southern Railroad, just north of Frederick, offers its largely volunteer staff a chance to play around with the real thing.
"We've got a retired chemist, a manager of a steel plant and a person who just retired from the Army band," says Doe Horch, the railroad's general administrator. "We've got people from all walks of life, but they are all people interested in maintaining the history of railroading."
The rail line at Walkersville dates from 1869, which coincidentally also marks the completion of the transcontinental railroad line.
But the farmers and merchants of Walkersville had things on their minds other than uniting the East and West when they got the Pennsylvania Railroad to route its branch line from Columbia, Pa., through York and Hanover, and into Maryland through Walkersville to Frederick.
"If you had the railroad, you had it made back then," Mrs. Horch says. "The town grew up around the railroad."
Hurricane Agnes severed the track in several places in 1972. That finished freight service. The line closed and was put up for sale. Maryland bought the section within Maryland and used the track north of Walkersville for limited freight service. In 1991 volunteers began clearing the old right of way to show that an excursion railroad would be viable.
Two years later, the Maryland Department of Transportation, which owns the track, chose Walkersville Southern as the operator of the line between Walkersville and Frederick, and the first trains began running in 1995.
Now, during summer and early fall, two small diesel engines pull a 1934 B&O; flatcar and an old troop-sleeper car, used on the Western Maryland line during World War II to transport soldiers, over an eight-mile stretch of scenery. Sights along the hourlong ride include a century-old lime kiln, the remnants of the once prosperous town of Harmony Grove, and a new railroad bridge with a view of the Monocacy River.
"When you walk the track, you've literally got history laid out before you," says Bill Kugel, who drives up from Arlington nearly every weekend to maintain the track bed and help out with the historical narration.
"It's not like things are on the road" that is, when he's driving. "You see the same sights that people saw when they rode the train originally."

Remember your grandfather's Lionel train set? In Strasburg, Pa., the trains on the track are exactly like the ones you may remember as running around the Christmas tree except these are life-size. Climb aboard one of the Strasburg Railroad's meticulously restored coaches, parlor cars or dining cars, and you find you have stepped backward in time.
"We've done our best to replicate the railroad as it would have run in 1915," says Linn Moedinger, the railroad's president and chief mechanical officer, pointing to the line of brown and black coaches pulling into the station. "This was the age of innocence, before World War I changed everything."
What you see outside the train window corroborates his view. This is the heart of Pennsylvania Dutch country, and not much changed in the past few hundred years or so. You'll see farm wives hanging up the day's washing, cows set out to pasture and even a buggy or two.
"You know, I've always loved trains, and then I got this dream job," says Teresa Biebl, an attendant on the parlor car "Marion," a Gilded Age relic complete with potbellied stove. "Each time I ride it, the trip seems to go faster and faster."
Chartered in 1832, when Andrew Jackson was in office, the railroad fell on hard times by the 1950s. Passenger service had been discontinued many years before. Freight service continued in fits and starts, until a hurricane destroyed the track in several places in 1957.
That was when Mr. Moedinger's father William and a group of other investors bought the railroad. Mr. Moedinger grew up with the trains, along with peers who gleefully apprenticed themselves to the last of the old steam men. Mr. Moedinger apprenticed with a boilermaker.
"Sometimes they could help us out about what it was like in the old days," he remembers. "Beyond that we had to teach ourselves."
Over the years, the rail fans of the Strasburg Railroad have become the acknowledged experts in the retooling, refitting, and renovation of railroad cars, including locomotives. Even the B&O; Railroad Museum has two of its own engines in Strasburg's shop at the moment. And a few people have commissioned their own cars.
"We use everything possible to make a restoration as accurate as can be," explains Mr. Moedinger. "We piece together the history and information from old purchase orders, builder's photographs and railroad plans. We look at historical society collections and even use photographs taken by other rail fans."
And if they can't find the part they need, as just might be the case if you are working on an 80-year-old engine, they'll make it themselves.
"It's more like a craft now," Mr. Moedinger says. "Gone are the days when you could find everything you needed on the shop shelves."
Strasburg is just as intent on manufacturing the next generation of rail fans. Sprinkled throughout the year are special events, such as the periodic visits of Thomas the Tank Engine, which are designed for the younger set. But it doesn't take much more than the chuff of one of Strasburg's steam engines to make just about anyone within earshot smile.
"You know, the only time strangers wave at each other is when a train passes by," Mr. Moedinger says. "It represents something that speaks to people. There's a sense of community that automobiles have taken away. That's what we're trying to recapture."


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