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The Power Of Live Steam

June 2024
15min read

They are thirty years gone from our main lines, but all across the country steam locomotives are pulling trainloads of passengers into the past. A lifelong studenj of the great age of American railroadj reveals some of the most impressive.


Until 1955 steam locomotives were the dominant form of power on American railways. They pulled the fast passenger trains and the plodding freights. Their rapid replacement by the colorless but efficient diesel-electrics was very poss, iprecedented in technological history, where major shifts tend to be gradual because of capital costs. But the steamers disappeared from main-line railroads in just five years.


Until 1955 steam locomotives were the dominant form of power on American railways. They pulled the fast passenger trains and the plodding freights. Their rapid replacement by the colorless but efficient diesel-electrics was very poss, iprecedented in technological history, where major shifts tend to be gradual because of capital costs. But the steamers disappeared from main-line railroads in just five years. Thousands went to the scrap lines, but a small number were preserved, and an even smaller number are maintained in working order on some seventy tourist railroads in the United States. They can be found from Maine to California. Some operate for a few miles over a level track, while others blast their way forty-five miles up perilous mountain grades. Some run only on weekends; others operate on a daily schedule during the tourist season. Clearly there is no way to deal with such a number or variety of operations within the limits of a single article, so I have selected what I consider some of the better tourist railroad operations in the United States.


I’ve been contemplating steam railroading for most of my working life. It has been a fascination of mine that grew out of a passion for history that I suppose was innate. But I’m also certain this passion was brought into focus when I was about eight years old because of a cultural war I imagined between the households of my two grandparents. I was periodically dropped off for weeklong visits to either set of grandparents while my parents went off to do whatever grown-ups did when they needed to get away from the kids. Even as a child I found the differences in the households obvious. The English grandparents’ house was a bright and sunny place full of four young daughters about to be married, with much coming and going and loud with modern swing music. It was a lively and upbeat household, and I hated it.

My widowed german grandmother’s home was entirely different: an old house filled with dark woodwork and ancient Victorian furniture. There were no up-to-date gadgets anywhere in the house. Electricity did exist, but gas lighting was preferred, and as for music, my grandmother, a graduate of the “conservatory,” would practice an hour a day on what may have been the most ornamental upright piano ever constructed.

For reasons that cannot be completely explained, I felt drawn to the world of my German grandmother—that is, to the past—and in time this identification with her backward gaze carried me beyond an affection limited to antique furniture and old buildings. As I matured, early machine tools, riverboats, and steam locomotives came to fascinate me. A summer job at the Smithsonian developed into a thirty-two-year career at the National Museum of American History, where my very first task was to plan two new transportation galleries and where in time I became curator of transportation.

In the course of my career I visited a great many live-steam operations. The ones that follow have, for one reason or another, kept an especially tenacious hold on my memory. All these steam rides will help you and your family relive some aspect of our railroads’ past. But steam railroading was so vast and complex a world that none achieves the recreation process very well. Nor is that really their intent; despite protestations to the contrary, about all they can hope to do is offer you a safe and comfortable ride behind a cinder-belching iron horse. Most patrons of tourist railroads do not, I suspect, climb aboard for an educational experience. Most are looking for a little entertainment, a diversion, or a taste of nostalgia. For others it may be the mere novelty of train travel, for many younger Americans have never before gone by rail. And so even if a carefully crafted historic train ride were offered, it probably would be lost on the large part of those on board. Still, the basic characteristics of railroad operations can be picked up by any observant train rider. Just listening to the sounds of the locomotive or the car wheels going clickety-clack over the rail joints is a history lesson in itself. That lesson is best learned with your head near an open coach window; the sounds are real, not electronic simulations of a tape or disc, and the hot cinders bouncing off your head and arms are very real too. The bristly roughness of the mohair-covered seats is yet another unfamiliar reminder that train travel was not like a trip in the family auto or on the USAir shuttle.

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.

The Valley Railroad was not content with skin-deep pseudo preservation. I hope the trend continues.

As on most tourist railroads, the pace of the trains is deliberately slow, for reasons of safety but also to save the track and the rolling stock. The ride is kept short—just ten miles roundtrip—but it’s about as much as most tourists seem to want. If you’d like to ride the East Broad Top, I would say do it now, for it may not be around much longer. It is almost certain that these fine old coaches will be retired, for they are too fragile for much more service. There is hopeful talk of a state takeover, but the future of the EBT is far from assured.

New England has a goodly selection of tourist lines, but I would especially recommend the Valley Railroad, for its scenic beauty and its unique river and rail combination. This line began as the Connecticut Valley Railroad, a forty-five-mile-long trunk line that ran south from Hartford to a hamlet on Long Island Sound named Fenwick. It opened in 1871, a relative latecomer to the Northeast railroad scene. As one of those trunk lines that ran from somewhere to nowhere, it was politely classified as a “light density line,” meaning it had no traffic, or at least far too little. Receivership came early. The omnivorous New York, New Haven & Hartford Railroad swallowed it up in 1887, but traffic on the Valley was never robust. The line was cut back in 1922, and passenger service vanished eleven years later. Freight service ended in 1967, but the trackage was taken over by the state of Connecticut for possible redevelopment. Some rail enthusiasts in the area, including Oliver Jensen, one of the founders of American Heritage , began to eye its rusting track as a potential tourist line. A lease was arranged with the state, and after several years of effort the Valley Railroad Company ran its first train on July 29, 1971, the centenary of the opening of the original railroad. The founders of the Connecticut Valley Railroad—if we can assume they were still somehow in touch—must have felt vindicated. The Valley Railroad, now of Essex, Connecticut, offers more than a scenic ride up the beautiful Connecticut River valley. It re-creates one of the half-forgotten imperatives of nineteenth-century travel, the necessity to use more than one mode of transportation to complete a journey. To those of us born in the automotive age (which includes just about every living person in the United States), door-to-door travel is the norm. We load up the Chevy in the driveway and hop in for a six-hundred-mile jaunt to Aunt Sara’s home in Xenia. Most domestic travel is done in this fashion, though of course there is the occasional trip by air, which means a car ride to the airport. Such easy travel was unknown in times past. It was off on the omnibus to the ferry, then onto the stagecoach, with yet another change to a railroad to steamship connection before the trip was over. All this getting on and off meant moving not just yourself but your luggage. Horace Greeley contended that this constant need to change was the chief misery of travel. Curiously, modern excursionists seem all too ready to ignore the old newspaperman’s lament and appear actually to relish the switch from steam cars to riverboat at the Deep River landing.

The managers of the Valley Railroad are convinced the dual mode of travel is their chief attraction. It is unique so far as I know, yet surely just riding along the picturesque river valley is pleasant enough. For those riders with a touch of imagination, it’s not too hard to conjure up a steady parade of handsome white steamers proudly paddling up and down the Connecticut’s broad waters; it was, after all, about the only river in New England that was navigable for any distance. Any daydream into the past can’t help being enhanced by the distant chugging of the locomotive, the rhythmic clicking of the wheels over the rail joints, and the smell of soft coal smoke emanatine from the engine up ahead.


The equipment of the Valley is not quite as vintage as that on the Strasburg or the EBT. The active locomotives are from the 1920s, while most of the heavyweight steel passenger cars are about a decade older. The cars have been somewhat modified over the years by their previous owners, but the Valley line has kept them in a more or less status quo condition. At least during my last visit back in the 1980s there was a conscious effort to maintain the old electrical and heating systems rather than succumb to the more common tourist railroad penchant for upgrading and modernizing the utilities while keeping the “old look” of lamps, seats, and general interior appearance. The Valley was not content with skin-deep pseudo preservation. I can only hope that this policy will continue.

Most tourist railroads run pretty much on the level because most railroads always sought the flattest possible routes. Hauling a train up or down steep grades was a slow and costly business; hence construction engineers took pains to avoid head-on confrontations with hills. They would build around them or maybe even through them on occasion with cuts or tunnels. However, when it is necessary to build a railroad across the mountains, it’s mighty tough to avoid those killer grades. Slopes might be terrible for operating costs, but they make for some pretty exciting railroading. We tend to discount descriptions of scenery as being “breathtaking” or “spectacular” as so much advertising hyperbole, but in the case of the Durango & Silverton Narrow-Gauge Railroad, the flack artist may be understating it for once. The deep river gorges, the rocky peaks, and the mountain vistas make this forty-five-mile trip one of the most truly scenic in the world. The railroad was established in 1881 by the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad to service the precious metal mines in Silverton, Colorado, about four hundred and fifty miles south of Denver. This is sparsely settled country, with no cities and only a few towns. The trains thread their way along the Animas River through the San Juan National Forest, traversing largely unspoiled territory during most of the trip.


This is not your usual forty-five-minute tourist-railroad sampler. Be prepared for a ninety-mile roundtrip that consumes nine hours with a two-and-a-quarter-hour-long layover in Silverton. And be ready for a little shortness of breath, unless you are extremely fit, for Silverton’s elevation is 9,288 feet. It can also be chilly up in the mountains even in the summer. You’d be well advised to reserve ahead during the peak tourist season, June to August; it would be very upsetting to find your way down to out-of-the-way Durango only to learn that the trains were fully booked.

The Durango & Silverton Narrow-Gauge Railroad is a historic line that offers the best in the way of a scenic ride. The rolling stock, however, does not measure up to what can be found on some other tourist lines. The locomotives are massive, squat, and, to my eye at least, most unattractive beasts. Some are aptly named mud hens. These efficient and dependable, if not visually appealing, engines date from the 1920s. The cars are a mix of the old and new; a few were built in the 1870s and 188&s, but they have been so frequently remodeled and updated over the years that, save for the exterior profile, they have lost all sense of antiquity. A number of modern steel replicas, together with some open-air excursion-style cars, make up the passenger fleet. I was put off by the bus-style seating in evidence during the time of my visit, but this may have been changed by the new owners of the Silverton line, who have shown a commendable interest in presenting the railroad in its proper historical perspective. Many thanks for retiring the fake diamond smoke stacks and the orange-and-silver paint schemes, but—please—get rid of those bus seats as soon as possible.

Mountain railroading is hardly a Western phenomenon. The Baltimore & Ohio, which opened its main trunk in 1853, is usually considered the first major mountain railroad in the world. We will be riding now on a far more modern Eastern mountain line that was never intended for any passenger service. Like most mountain lines, the Cass Scenic Railroad is located in a remote area, far from the madding crowd but also far from any sizable city.

Near the Virginia-West Virginia state line, about eighty miles northeast of Roanoke, is the tiny sawmill town of Cass, West Virginia. When the lumber company came to the region in 1900, everyone understood that it built this industrial railroad to bring the logs down from the mountains to the mill. No one ever visited the place except representatives of the millowners or relatives of the impoverished folk who lived and worked in the company town. It was a grimy and isolated place. For decades no one thought about passengers or tourists or flatlanders of any description; but since 1963 Cass and its mountain-climbing switchback railroad have been redeveloped for the tourist. Who would have dreamed that all those city people would pay real money to ride up and back to Whittaker Station (four miles) or Bald Knob (eleven miles)?

History is never planned, it just happens, and so it was with this obscure logging railroad. Backwoods railroads were temporary affairs that were put down, taken up, and moved around as the timber was harvested. Most of the nation’s old-growth forest had been cut generations before the Greenbrier, Cheat & Elk River Railroad was laid up the steep slope of Cheat Mountain. Primeval trees survived mainly in such remote places, and the new line brought red spruce logs down to the sawmill in Cass, where most were sliced up into construction lumber and shipped out over the Chesapeake & Ohio Railway. As more and more logs were pulled out of the mountain groves, the railroad grew into a 172-mile network, which was very large for a logging line. The look-alike company houses—all two-story frame structures—gave shelter to upward of two thousand inhabitants. (Today it is possible to rent one of these for an overnight stay.)

By 1930 the boom times were definitely over as the demand for lumber declined dramatically following the national economy’s collapse. Much of the land was turned over to the Monongahela National Forest. By 1942 the best trees were gone, and a small operator took over to clean out the remaining old-growth timber and cut the better stands of second growth. This marginal operation continued until July 1960. The antiquated lumber line now seemed destined for the scrapper’s white-hot cutting torch. History’s logical course was derailed, in this instance, by both low-level and high-level planning.

Rail enthusiasts petitioned to have the Cass logging line converted into a tourist operation. Not long afterward the Kennedy administration announced ambitious plans to pump up Appalachia with jobs and redevelopment programs. While this Marshall Plan for Appalachia simmered on the back burner of the congressional legislative range, the state of West Virginia decided to act. Cass was seen as an employer and a tourist magnet, so the railroad was purchased for development by the Department of Natural Resources, Division of Parks and Recreation. Here was a meritorious project—and one ready to go. Many schemes had been suggested, but all were in a preliminary, if not a visionary, stage. The Cass Scenic Railroad, on the other hand, was like a TV dinner, ready to eat after just a few minutes in the oven. True, some of the line had been torn up, but enough was in place to begin operations the spring of 1963. The upper end of the line, to Bald Knob, was restored and reopened five years later.


As you prepare to ride the cass, forget about luxury or deluxe service. This is not the route of the superliners. Think elementary. Think bare bones and industry. You will then be in the right mood to board your train and settle into a flatcar, open or semiopen and fitted up with sturdy wooden railings and bench seating. The rolling stock is actually historic and belongs to the site, being made up of former log cars. Many of them gave a half-century’s heavy-duty service, and all seem ready for another fifty years of running. The motive power is most likely one of several shay locomotives owned by the Cass.

These peculiar geared engines, with three vertical cylinders and an offset boiler, were much favored on logging railroads. They are slow, noisy, and very powerful. Their pistons work at a furious pace and kick up an equally furious exhaust sound, yet the engine creeps along at only a few miles an hour. The power is geared down to overcome the steep grades and sharp curves just ahead as we climb up the mountain. While mainline railroads tried to avoid grades much beyond 1 percent, logging lines regularly accepted 4 and 5 percent inclines. At one point the Cass encounters an 11 percent grade. The coal-burning shays produce prodigious volumes of smoke because they are worked so hard going up grade. Most of the sparks are extinguished before escaping the diamond-shaped smoke stack’s spark arrester, but mind your clothing and eyes, for many a good-size ember gets away.


There is plenty of time to drink in the long mountain vistas as the train picks its way over the light rails leading up Cheat Mountain. Progress slows considerably about two miles up the line as we come to two switchbacks needed to overcome the 11 percent grade. In this start-and-stop zigzag movement the train goes back and forth twice to climb a particularly difficult part of the terrain. Switchbacks were never common at any time in American railroading, and to experience such an arcane operation in 1996 is something like witnessing a field of grain being cut with sickles. Once through the switchbacks, we creep past Whittaker, four miles up the line. Some passengers end their trip here, but the hard-core traveler stays on for another seven miles to Bald Knob (4,842 feet elevation). You are at the second-highest point in West Virginia. Those in your party who may not be too taken with the glories of industrial railroading will find the view rewarding.


There you have it—a true sampler, I believe, of American tourist railroads, each of them a convenient and compelling way to recapture a vital part of our national past.


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