- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 1, 2004

The leaves start to turn early in this part of western Maryland, vying with the evening chill as a herald of what will come. On September weekends the trains are mostly full, crammed with passengers clutching picnic baskets and small children, puffed out with excitement at the thought of the big trip behind the engine. By October, the trains will run every day: Some are already sold out.

Think this is a snapshot from 1910 or so, during the golden age of rail travel? Not at all. The time is now, and those eager-eyed children and adults are all riding the Western Maryland Scenic Railroad, out of Cumberland bound for Frostburg, 16 miles to the west, for a trip that will take them out of place, out of time and into memory.

Think Skyline Drive is too crowded at this time of year for a weekend excursion? This season, a good way to get off the beaten track is to get back on the track.

“We really gear up in October,” says Doug Beverage, the WMSR’s chief operating officer. “People come up for the foliage and stay and sight-see during the day.”

Since the late 1980s, trains like this one have become increasingly popular in many parts of the country.

Excursion trains in West Virginia will take you past eagle’s nests and company towns. In Pennsylvania, an excursion train travels through part of the Gettysburg battlefield, while the Strasburg Railroad makes its way past drowsing cows and Amish farms. And in Maryland, the Western Maryland Scenic Railroad chugs past thousand-foot-high mountains.

The scenery is even better in the fall, when the vibrant colors of oaks and maples take charge of the landscape with a vengeance. That’s when tourist trains really make their mark, with added excursions and special trains that may offer Civil War history, dining and even a mystery or two to be solved along the way.

“It’s surprising the impact that fall colors have had on the industry,” says Don Ranger, executive director of the Tourist Railway Association Inc., a nonprofit corporation of railroads, museums and service providers who work together to promote the tourist railroad industry. “The average person in the nation doesn’t care whether they are riding behind a steam engine or not. We had to find something else to market on.”

Unlike the railroad in its glory days, the emphasis now is not so much on speed as on atmosphere. The WMSR chuffs along at about 20 miles an hour, all the better to catch a glimpse of historic Mount Savage, the town which produced the first iron rails in the United States, or the thoroughbreds racing the train as it passes Price’s Horse Farm.

Chuff is the operative word on weekends. That’s when there’s a 1916 vintage Baldwin Consolidation 2-8-0 locomotive at the head, complete with fireman, brakeman and Howard “Hoagy” Hovatter, an engineer with more than 40 years of experience on the B&O; before moving to the Western Maryland. There’s also lots of smoke and cinders.

Not that the mess deters everyone, despite the frequent warnings about standing on the open platforms when the train passes through the 914-feet-long Brush tunnel. In fact, many folks seem to welcome the stuff.

“For steam fans, this is a trip to heaven,” Mr. Beverage says. “Some people bring goggles and ride out on the platforms the whole time.”

When conductor Dick Markle, who spent 44 years working for the B&O;, Amtrak and MARC, tried to flick the grime off one gentleman who had spent some time on the outside platform, he had his hand brushed away instead.

“It was like gold dust for him,” says Mr. Markle, who is in his 15th year with the Western Maryland Scenic Railroad and is full of railroad stories. “He wanted to leave it on as long as he could.”

So much for Phoebe Snow, a character created to advertise the Delaware, Lackawanna and Western Railroad, which ran between Hoboken, N.J., and Buffalo. Advertisements from her heyday in the early-20th century promised white-clad women a clean ride, thanks to clean-burning anthracite coal. Few women of that period would have worn white to travel on a train.

(The ubiquitous Phoebe Snow proved so popular that she received a steady stream of gifts and several marriage proposals before the train route finally ended in 1966.)

Just before Brush tunnel, amateur photographers crowd the platforms, especially at Helmstetter’s horseshoe curve, where the train circles around the Helmstetter family farm. This is often where you’ll see some off-board photographers waiting for the train to go by.

Then there are plenty of places on route where folks just welcome the opportunity to wave at a passing train.

“I love being able to come up through areas that I know and see them from a different perspective,” says Donna Carpenter, from Cumberland, who rides the train regularly. This time she’s brought her two grandsons along for the ride. “I point out the places we know, but have never seen from this angle.”

In the fall, of course, folks come for the foliage. Leaves in this part of the state should start changing in earnest around late September, as the days grow shorter.

“Most people think that the reason leaves change has to do with temperature,” says Maryland cooperative extension agent Jeff Semler. “Actually, it has to do with day length.”

What makes the leaves around Cumberland so special? For one thing, says Mr. Semler, it’s the chance to see trees that are not quite so common in the Washington area.

“The area is known for its hardwoods,” he says. “There are maples, ashes, hickories and many different varieties of oak trees.”

Once onboard the train, it’s easy to get up close and personal with nature. Along the rail line, trees and vegetation are sometimes little more than an arm’s length from your window. You can see the beeches along the right-of-way or pick out the sugar maples growing beyond the embankment.

“This year is going to be good,” Mr. Semler says. “There’s been enough water to produce some brilliant colors.”

While the changing leaves outside your door may be nice enough, they may not have the breathtaking quality of the leaves up ‘round Cumberland way. One reason for their vibrancy, and for the intense color of the leaves in other places where fall excursion trains are popular, has to do with the distance from urban pollution, he says.

“Pollution affects the overall health of a tree,” Mr. Semler says. “So areas where there is less managed disruption tend to have healthier trees.”

Still, there is something a bit ironic about taking a train to recapture a pastoral past. After all, trains in the 19th and early 20th centuries represented all that was modern and technological about America.

Back then, a steam engine making its way through a verdant landscape meant progress, not pollution, and a line of track meant civilization, not a return to nature.

Cumberland, nestled in a narrow deep valley at the foot of Haystack Mountain, was once the second-largest city in Maryland. It has had its own industrial past, pieces of which are visible all along the train route. There’s the C&O; Canal, of course, which operated from Georgetown to Cumberland from 1828 to 1924. Then there’s the railroad, which plowed through Cumberland in various incarnations over the last century or so, and vestiges of the mills and factories that once brought life to the area.

In the meantime, the National Road stretched westward from Cumberland into the Ohio River Valley. Construction began in Cumberland in 1815, and by the mid-19th century the National Road was crowded with traffic as commercial goods, settlers and stagecoaches made their way between Cumberland and points west.

By the late 19th century, Cumberland was an important transportation hub, with the canal, the railroad and the National Road all competing to speed goods and travelers between east and west.

By the mid-20th century, Cumberland’s downtown was rich with shops, movie theaters and department stores, while the grand, imposing Victorian homes of Washington Street looked down from the hill.

“For us, it was like Broadway,” remembers Ted Troxell, a retired newspaperman who provides the on-board narration for the excursion. “Everybody went downtown.”

The train pulls up at Frostburg about an hour after leaving Cumberland. Once an important stop on the National Road, Frostburg has always drawn tourists as well as coal miners. Now, it’s also home to Frostburg State University.

Disembarking passengers can make their way up the steps from the 1891 rail depot to the town itself, which, with a modern exception or two, seems lifted straight from a picture postcard of 50 or more years ago. There’s the historic Hotel Gunter, with its grand staircase and ballroom, an old movie theater, now outfitted for live plays, and the Princess Restaurant, a Frostburg fixture since 1939.

Passengers who don’t choose to explore the town can spend part of the 90-minute layover at the Thrasher Carriage Museum, operated by the Allegany County Historical Society. The museum contains a collection of carriages and other horse-drawn vehicles, including the Vanderbilt family sleigh. Tours are hosted by costumed historical society members.

The depot complex also contains shops and eateries located in the old Tunnel Hotel, a one-time brothel that shop owner John Sayler swears has its own ghost of the past.

“One of the women fell in love with one of the railroad workers, but he wouldn’t leave his wife for her,” he says. “She hung herself here, and I don’t think she’s left yet.”

Mr. Saylor is even more excited about the prospect of the Allegheny Highlands trail in Maryland, part of a seven-trail network that is planned to stretch over 165 miles of spectacular views. When completed in 2005, it will connect to the C&O; Canal towpath and make it possible to bike or hike all the way from Pittsburgh to Washington.

“We can really become a hiking, biking and rail fan center,” he says. “It’s going to be a great way to enjoy nature.”

Not everyone is a fan of the rails-to-trails idea, however. Ripped up rails are cold comfort for many rail fans, putting to rest that last hope that some way, somehow, the train will come again. Because for them, it’s not just what you see along the way. It’s how you get there.

And for a while at least, in Cumberland and other towns where excursion trains run, there is steam in the valley once more.

Catching a ride on excursion railroad

Looking for your own train ride into fall? Here’s a sampling of what’s not too far away from the Washington area. Note that special trains often have different departure times and admission prices:


Western Maryland Scenic Railroad

• When: Sept. 3-26, Friday-Sunday, 11:30 a.m.; Oct. 1-31, Monday-Thursday (diesel), Friday-Sunday (steam), 11:30 a.m.; day trains depart 11:30 a.m. and evening specialty trains at 6 p.m.

• Cost: Standard coach is $20 for adults, $18 for seniors ages 60 and older, and $10 for children age 12 and younger. First-class dining (available on some trains) is $39 for adults, $37 for seniors ages 60 and older, and $20 for children age 12 and younger

• Miscellaneous: Special trains include murder mystery trains (check the Web site for up-to-date information since dates get sold out); the Pumpkin Train on Oct. 31, (children in costume pay $5 with paying adult); and Santa Express trains on Saturdays and Sundays beginning Nov. 26 and continuing through Dec. 12. Special North Pole Express trains run Nov. 27, Dec. 4 and Dec. 10. Not all trains are pulled by a steam engine; special and weekday trains are often pulled by diesels.

The railroad also offers package deals with several hotels in Cumberland and with the Potomac Eagle, another excursion train in nearby Romney, W.Va.

• Information: Call 800/TRAIN50 or 301/759-4400, or click on the Web site (www.wmsr.com).

Walkersville Southern Railroad

The Walkersville Southern Railroad, just north of Frederick, provides hour-and-15-minute excursions along the old Pennsylvania Railroad Frederick Secondary line.

• When: May-October — Saturdays at 11 a.m., 1, and 3 p.m.; Sundays at 11 a.m. and 1 p.m.

• Miscellaneous: Special trains include the “Haunted Rail/Trail” on Oct. 23, Mystery Dinner Trains on Sept. 4 and 11, a Civil War Train on Sept. 25 and a Ghost Train on Oct. 30.

• Cost: $8 for adults, $7 for seniors ages 55 and older, and $4 for children ages 3 to 12.

• Information: Call 877/363-WSRR (877/363-9777) during office hours — Mondays and Fridays from 2 to 4 p.m. and train days; or click on the Web site (www.wsrr.org).

In Pennsylvania

Middletown and Hummelstown Railroad

The Middletown and Hummelstown Railroad in Central Pennsylvania takes you on an 11-mile journey beside Swatara Creek on 1920s-vintage Delaware, Lackawana and Western coaches. (Yes, these are the ones that Phoebe Snow enjoyed.) The train follows the towpath of the old Union Canal, which was completed in 1827.

• When: Sept. 5, 12, 19; Oct. 2, 3, 16, 17, 23, 24, 30 and 31. Hours are 11:30 a.m., 1:10 and 2:50 p.m.

• Miscellaneous: Special trains include murder mystery trains on Sept. 18 and Oct. 2, Civil War Remembered trains on Sept. 25 and 26, with action alongside the track or onboard, a Fall Railfan Special on Oct. 9, and “Haunted Experience” trains on Oct. 23, 29 and 30.

• Cost: $10 for riders ages 12 and older; $5 for children ages 3 to 11; and $9 for seniors. Add $1 to the adult and senior ticket when the steam engine is running.

• Information: Write to 136 Brown St., Middletown, PA 17057; call 717/944-4435, Ext. 0; or click on the Web site (www.mhrailroad.com).

The Strasburg RailRoad

The Strasburg Rail Road. Ride behind the steam engine on America’s oldest short line railroad. A 45-minute run takes you through Pennsylvania Dutch Country, with reservations available on the only wooden dining coach still in operation. The East Strasburg station has plenty of things to do as well, with shops, eateries and railroad-related displays.

Special events include “A Day Out With Thomas” on selected days in September. Trains run every day in October.

• Cost: Fares range from $9.50 for coach to $15.50 for accommodations in a first-class parlor car for adults; $4.75 (coach) to $11.50 (first-class) for children ages 3 to 11; and free (coach) to $6 (first class) for children younger than 3.

• Information: Call 717/687-7522 or click on the Web site (www.strasburgrailroad.com).

Pioneer Lines

Pioneer Lines offers a two-hour trip through Adams County and Gettysburg on the old Gettysburg and Harrisburg line. Special trains include the “Evening Paradise” dinner train; Civil War trains on Sept. 4 and 5; Fall Foliage Festival trains in October; and a Railfan Weekend on Nov. 20 and 21.

• Miscellaneous: Regular trains run at noon on weekdays and 11:30 a.m. on weekends.

• Cost: $15 for adults; and $8 for children 12 and younger.

• For more information, write to 106 N. Washington St., Gettysburg, PA 17325; call 717/334-6932; or click on the Web site (www.gettysburgrail.com).

In West Virginia

The Potomac Eagle

The Potomac Eagle, 28 miles from Cumberland, offers three-hour rides through a mountain valley that is home to several American bald eagles. Eagle sightings are a highlight of the train trip.

All trains depart from Wappocomo Station, 1.5 miles north of Romney, W.Va., on Route 28.

• When: May 1-Sept. 25, trains depart Saturdays at 11:30 a.m.; Oct. 2-24, trains depart weekdays at 11:30 a.m., and Saturdays and Sundays at 10 a.m. and 2 p.m.

• Miscellaneous: First-class accommodations, which include a complimentary lunch, are available. Special Trains include Hampshire Heritage Days on Sept. 11 and 12, featuring a Civil War Re-enactment, Railfan days on Sept. 18 and 19, and a Historic Homes tour that is included with the ticket price on Sept. 25. An all-day excursion with a stopover in Petersburg, W.Va., is planned for Sept. 26.

• Cost: Coach (three-hour trip) is $24 for adults; $10 for students ages 6 to 16; and free for children younger than age 6 with an adult. For the all-day trip, the cost is $40 for adults; $20 for students ages 6 to 16; and free for children younger than 6 with an adult.

For first class, all fares are $54 for the three-hour trip and $99 for the all-day trip. First class includes a full meal served during the trip. Reservations are strongly recommended.

• Information: For reservations, call 304/424-0736; write to 2306 35th St., Parkersburg, WV 26104-2242; or click on the Web site (www.potomaceagle.info/attract.php).

Copyright © 2019 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide