The Power Of Live Steam

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The Strasburg line’s historical roots are not enough to explain its amazing traffic: 400,000 passengers a year.

We had best hurry; the train is about to leave. Just grab hold and pull yourself up onto the platform. Here we are aboard one of the Strasburg Rail Road’s vintage wooden coaches. Actually most are rather late-model wooden coaches built for commuter service on the Boston & Maine Railroad about 1910. The feel of the car is far older, however, and it’s not unreasonable to think we have stepped back into the 1880s. The interior looks well ornamented, almost elegant, but a Victorian traveler would think it a rather plain affair and hardly suitable for first-class passengers. But we’re just ordinary middle-class folks, and to us any fancy house is a palace.

Strasburg is located in Pennsylvania near Lancaster, which is in Pennsylvania Dutch territory and hence a prime tourist location. This helps explain the phenomenal success of the Strasburg Rail Road. It has a built-in audience. It is also a short commute from such major population centers as New York, Philadelphia, and Baltimore. Originally this railroad was a very minor player in a very major industry. It ran from nowhere to nowhere, carrying only a few hundred carloads of grain and farm supplies over its shaky four-and-a-half-mile right of way each year. Traffic declined greatly after World War II, and abandonment seemed certain until a group of enthusiasts took over the property in 1958. They saw the potential in this pitiful streak of rust, which, after all, was chartered in 1832 and is one of the oldest short lines in the nation. Everyone associated with the line is careful to maintain the original “Rail Road,” rather than the more modern “Railroad,” in its corporate title. But the historical roots of the line do not explain its current prosperity or amazing traffic: four hundred thousand passengers a year. Location and careful management are the key to its success. The ride across rolling farmland is pleasant but not spectacular. The big attraction is not the scenery but the occasional glimpses of the Amish at work, at home, and in the fields. During past trips I was treated to the scene of these sturdy folk plowing, harvesting corn, or simply driving across the fields in heavy horse-drawn wagons. The little, slow-running train seems to fit in with neighbors who get along—very nicely, thank you—without electricity, radios, or fax machines.

 

Across the state and to the west of Strasburg is another preserved railway that is far different from its Amish country cousin. The East Broad Top Railroad is in Appalachia, remote from the big East Coast cities—so remote, in fact, as to attract enough visitors to sustain it as a tourist operation. Personally I like the smaller crowds, the quiet, and the wooded seclusion, but most of all as a historian, I value the genuineness of the place.

Unlike just about every other tourist line, the EBT is not a collection of odds and ends pulled together from a dozen other sites and railroads. The locomotives, cars, track, and building all belong here. They are original to the site. And so we find a three-dimensional time capsule, rather than a contrived pioneer village setting. The EBT is a marvel of preservation, but at the same time, it was never an important railroad, just another minor coal-hauling short line. Because of its narrow gauge—3 feet, or 20½ inches smaller than standard gauge—it did not mesh smoothly into the national system. Yet it functioned well enough to remain in service until 1956. After abandonment the property was taken over by the Kovalchick Salvage Company, which was expected to scrap the line forthwith. Yet nothing happened. The antique little railroad, including the remarkable set of repair shops at Orbisonia, simply stood still. No one has ever explained what, other than divine intervention, kept the line from being pulled up. Perhaps the true feelings of the new owner were revealed in 1960 when a portion of the line reopened for tourist trains. That service has been continuous in the summer since then, despite disappointing revenues.

 
 
 

The current operation does not reflect the railroad’s original traffic, which was coal and not passengers. Even so, the modern tourist can ride in some of the oldest and most authentic passenger cars still running in the United States, several of them dating from the 1880s. The opportunity to rattle along in vintage wooden cars that retain their interior paneling, stoves, oil lamps, oilcloth ceiling liners, and seats has all but disappeared. The elderly cars on many tourist lines have been so remodeled that little beyond the hardware remains of the original vehicles. The pride of the EBT’s fleet is the business car, No. 20, built as a coach for another Pennsylvania narrow-gauge line in 1880. It was remodeled sometime during its service life for officials of the railroad and so gained an extra-fancy open interior and a decorative end railing. Tradition has it that Grover Cleveland used the car from time to time.