Nostalgic appeal attracts riders to region's scenic railroads
Far removed from high gasoline prices, orange PennDOT barrels and cursing motorists is a ride more peaceful, more scenic and more friendly.
Railroad excursions await travelers looking for a leisurely trip to days gone by.
Many regional railroads offer scenic and historic tours during the summer, and they are gearing up for the fall foliage runs, when reservations are advisable.
The region boasts tourist trains in Uniontown, Oil Creek in Venanago County, Schenley in Armstrong County and Cumberland, Md.
Although abandoned long ago as a primary source of private travel, rail excursions are still popular, beckoning passengers back to the 1800s, when steam locomotives huffed and puffed their ways around mountains and places where no automobile has tread.
Some of these steam engines survive today, refurbished and ready for leisure travelers.
"There's a magic to the steam engine," said Bruce Manwiller of Beaver Falls, a member of Pittsburgh chapter of the National Railway Historical Society.
"When you experience a live steam locomotive, you can see it, you can hear it, you can feel it, and you can smell the coal smoke," he said. "There's a certain enchantment."
The president of the Pittsburgh chapter of the National Railway Historical Society, Neil Budday, 67, of Bethel Park adds, "Old-timers love to smell that coal burning. It's an unmistakable aroma."
Things look different from a train, especially the landscape.
"You're sitting higher than you would in an automobile," Budday said. "You are looking over the tops of the trees, not under them. And you fall into a kind of hypnotic state listening to the clickety-clack of the wheels."
It's a rare place where Hollywood movies meet reality.
Boarding a passenger train surrounded by white billows of smoke and sitting in a dining car are experiences that still can be had.
Rail excursions in the region
Pennsylvania is fortunate to be home to the granddaddy of vintage steam engine trains with the Strasburg Rail Road in Lancaster County, considered the gold standard of the historic railroad experience, according to Manwiller.
Having celebrated its 175th anniversary last year, the Strasburg Railroad is America's oldest short line railroad and among the most popular train destinations or tourists in the country.
With a bevy of historic engines and refurbished cars, the railroad offers a slew of travel packages including a ride in the President's Car replete with wine and hors d'oeuvres. President Abraham Lincoln made a stop at Leaman Place, one of the short line's destinations, on Feb. 22, 1861, during the train ride to his inauguration. The visit drew almost 5,000 people.
The closest authentic steam engine to be found near Pittsburgh is at the Western Maryland Scenic Railroad, which traverses traditional rail line scenery such as a horseshoe bend.
"The ride is spectacular," Manwiller said.
The last remnant of the Western Maryland Railroad, this railroad in Cumberland offers an uphill climb through the Allegheny Mountains, where passengers can feel the pull of the engine.
The tourist railroads in Western Pennsylvania offer shorter trips steeped in local history. Although they lack steam engines, these short lines typically offer rides in restored cars through interesting terrain.
For example, the Oil Creek and Titusville Railroad traces the history of the region with a stop at Drake Well State Park, where Edwin L. Drake drilled the first commercially successful oil well in 1859, marking the birth of the petroleum industry.
This rail offers tours along scenic Oil Creek, including school runs and murder-mystery dinner trips during the weekends in June through October.
The Pittsburgh chapter of the National Railroad Historical Society has run a number of excursion trips out of Pittsburgh, Budday said.
At one time, the local railroad group, along with the Pittsburgh Transportation Museum Society, owned as many as 16 passenger cars, offering excursion trips during the spring and fall in the 1970s and 1980s, Budday said.
Maple syrup festivals and fall foliage tours drew upward of 1,000 passengers per trip, he said. But rising insurance premiums eventually made the trips prohibitive, he says.
"So many people were in awe of riding those trains," he said. "And just like today, those people never rode a train, and they were looking for an opportunity to ride."
Although the region offers fewer train excursions these days, there still are local short lines that are worthy of a visit, Budday and Manwiller said.
The Dunbar Historical Society pairs train rides with historical excursions. The Fayette Central Railroad, which runs in Uniontown, Dunbar and Fairchance, offers a half-hour layover at the Dunbar Historical Society.
"Since Dunbar was a major player in Pittsburgh's steel industry in providing coke, we want people to have the opportunity to explore our town's industrial heritage with exhibits and memorabilia," said Donna Myers, secretary of the Dunbar Historical Society.
This summer, the group is building a beehive coke oven based on plans used by Henry Clay Frick.
"We offer a very pleasant trip with narration of the history of our region," Myers said. "The most popular train forays are during Halloween with haunted rides and pumpkin patch trips for the children."
Rides catering to children are among the most popular, according to local short line owners.
"The biggest thing that makes people happy is when they bring their children or grandchildren," said Charlie Bowyer, chief of operations for the Kiski Junction Railroad in the tiny town of Schenley, Armstrong County, straddling the Kiskiminetas and Allegheny rivers.
"It's such a delight to see the awe on the children's faces when they see the big engine," Bowyer said.
Bowyer offers one-hour train rides along the Kiski River and the route of the old Pennsylvania Canal Tuesdays, Fridays and Saturdays during the summer.
Like other local tourist railroads, the majority of riders are from out-of-town. In fact, people from 30 states rode the Kiski Junction Railroad in just the past month.
According to Bowyer, he hasn't been doing anything special to account for the reach of his railroad.
"We don't have to," Bowyer says. "I think it's something that has been ingrained in us over the years. People just come wanting to ride a train."
Strasburg Rail Road
What: Americas oldest short line is a tourist railroad in Lancaster County offering a number of rider packages. Steam engines, refurbished cars and special rides on a train pulled by Thomas the Tank Engine.
When: Several trips daily through October. Check schedule for winter hours.
Admission: Packages range widely with a variety of rides and special events. Fares range from $7.50 for a children's coach day pass to $45 for a luxurious ride in the President's Car with wine and hors d'oeuvres.
Where: Trains depart from the East Strasburg Station in Lancaster
Details: 717-687-7522 or www.strasburgrailroad.com
Western Maryland Railroad
What: Steam engine excursions, specialty trains, murder-mystery plays and a climb through the Allegheny Mountains
When: Thursdays through Sundays through August; Fridays through Sundays in September; Tuesdays through Sundays in October. Check schedule for other months.
Admission: Packages range widely with a variety of rides and special events. Standard three-hour excursion is $25; $23 for senior citizens; $12 for children.
Where: Regular scenic excursions depart from the Western Maryland Station in Cumberland.
Details: 1-800-TRAIN-50 or www.wmsr.com
Fayette Central Railroad
What: Offers 2 1⁄2-hour trip through the Laurel Highlands and across the Youghiogheny River with a half-hour layover at the Dunbar Historical Society
When: Various times Saturdays and Sundays.
Admission: $15; $10 for children
Where: Trips make stops in Uniontown, Dunbar and Fairchance
Details: 1-877-321-3277 or www.fayettecentralrailroad.com
Kiski Junction Railroad
What: This short line travels along the Kiskiminetas River and former path of the Pennsylvania Canal
When: 2 p.m. Tuesdays, Fridays and Saturdays
Fare: $9; $8 for senior citizens; $7 for ages 4 to 13; age 3 and younger free
Where: Schenley, Armstrong County
Details: 724-295-5577 or www.kiskijunction.com
Oil Creek and Titusville Railroad
What: A 2 1⁄2-hour trip on an 1892-vintage freight train through Pennsylvania oil country, with a stop at Drake Well Park. Bike and canoe rentals available.
When: Operates weekends June through October and select weekdays
Admission: $15; $13 for senior citizens; $9 for ages 3 to 12. Group and family discounts available.
Where: Departs from Perry Street Station in Titusville
Details: 814-676-1733 or www.octrr.org