Oyler: Riding the rails — a history buff's perfect birthday gift
My wife and I spent a delightful weekend recently in southern Indiana with our daughter, Elizabeth, and our granddaughter, Rachael. The main event of the weekend was a ride on an historic train, a birthday gift for me.
We left on a Friday morning, driving south on I-79 to Washington, then west on I-70. We made our regular stop at Bob Evans in Zanesville. As I had feared, the Bob Evans corporate decision to redo the décor in their restaurants has hit Zanesville as well. All the wonderful old historic pictures have been replaced by irrelevant bland prints and a large mural of Mr. Evans. Too bad, the use of historic photos unique to each community made a visit to a Bob Evans something special.
We followed I-70 almost to the Indiana border, then drove south to Hueston Woods State Park, where we checked into a family cabin. Elizabeth and Rachael joined us in time for dinner in the cabin and a camp fire outside at dusk.
Saturday morning, we drove west to Connersville, Ind., the location of the northern terminus of an historic railroad, the Whitewater Valley Railroad. It is a very impressive operation run by a not-for-profit corporation consisting of one paid employee and hundreds of dedicated volunteers.
Before the settlers arrived, the Whitewater River valley was a popular route for Native Americans between central Indiana and the Ohio River at Cincinnati. When the canal building fever hit the Midwest in 1845, a canal was constructed following the path of the river. It operated until 1863 when the Indianapolis and Cincinnati Railroad purchased the right-of-way and laid tracks on the canal towpath. In 1972, the present railroad company was formed and began to operate between Connersville and Metamora on leased track. The 18 miles of track was purchased in 1983.
Our train, four passenger cars and a caboose, was pulled by a diesel switch engine. Historic railroads are limited to 15 miles an hour, providing us with an excellent opportunity to enjoy the passing country side and observe the remnants of the canal.
Our destination, Metamora, is a restored canal town. The canal and the railroad alongside it make up the main street of the village. When we got off the train we hurried to the ticket office for the canal boat ride and were fortunate to be able to partake in its next trip.
The canal boat was pulled by two Belgian draft horses; our trip was about half a mile east on the canal and back. Our ride was delightful. At four miles an hour you hardly realize you are moving, but the sensation is relaxing and peaceful. The canal boat is operated by the State of Ohio as a floating historic museum.
Our ride included passing through a covered bridge that serves as an aqueduct over Duck Creek. Instead of supporting a roadway, this bridge supports a canal 17 feet wide and 3 feet deep.
The state also maintains an operating grist mill in Metamora, as a museum. After the railroad replaced the canal, the waterway was used to power mills through the Whitewater Valley. A waterwheel in an old lock drives a grindstone in the existing mill. Corn is grown, screened and sold each day. It was particularly interesting for me to see the system of drive belts in the mill basement, transferring power from the water wheel to the various pieces of equipment in the mill.
Our train ride back to Connersville was equally enjoyable. We then drove back to Metamora on a highway paralleling the railroad, stopping for dinner in an inn in Laurel, a small rural town. That evening we stayed at a bed and breakfast in Metamora. The next morning we drove back to Hueston Woods State Park.
On the edge of the park we found a brand new covered bridge, freshly painted barn red with extensive white trim. It replaced a deteriorated steel truss bridge in 2012. It's a “double barreled bridge,” with two full traffic lanes and a wide pedestrian walkway on each side. Ohio has a history of constructing covered bridges in recent years; this one is a really impressive example.
Back in the park, Elizabeth and Rachael retrieved their car and left for home. My wife and I checked into a very nice lodge for the night and enjoyed dinner in their dining room that evening. Our trip home the next day was uneventful.
For a history buff, it is hard to beat a weekend that included two train rides, a canal boat ride, a visit to an operating grist mill and three covered bridges.
John Oyler is a columnist for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-343-1652 or firstname.lastname@example.org.