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Railroad renaissance

Courtesy Western Maryland Scenic Railroad

Western Maryland
Scenic Railroad

Cumberland, Md.
When freight line CSX pulled out of their service from Cumberland to Frostburg, Md., in the mid-1980s, folks from the local communities banded together to form the Western Maryland Scenic Railroad. Today, groups can ride historic trains on 16 miles of track between the two towns.

“We have a total of 18 pieces of equipment, plus three locomotives,” said Frank Fowler, the railroad’s general superintendent. “We have a 1916 Consolidation car made by Baldwin, and the passenger cars are standard equipment that was made between 1948 and 1952. Most of the trains are steam powered.”

The trip takes one hour in each direction, starting and ending at historic train stations in the two towns. During a ride, groups will follow U.S. 40, a route that was first established 200 years ago.
“You don’t parallel the interstate, so it’s more of a backwoods scenery with vistas,” Fowler said. “About 20 minutes from Cumberland, we go through a gorge called the Narrows that’s about a mile long. It’s one of the original gateways to the West.”

In addition to regular sightseeing excursions, the railroad operates holiday rides between Thanksgiving and Christmas that feature Santa and Mrs. Claus.

Great Smoky Mountain Railroad
Bryson City, N.C.
The Great Smoky Mountains are legendary for their scenery. In western North Carolina, groups can board the Great Smoky Mountain Railroad for two different excursions into hidden areas of this beautiful
Southern destination.

From Bryson City, travelers can choose a four-and-a-half-hour trip westward into the Nantahala Gorge or go east to Dillsboro on the Tuckasegee excursion.

“The Nantahala Gorge is a great trip if you want to see some scenery and some animals,” said Sarah Conley, a marketing representative for the railroad. “You’ll cross over Fontana Lake at the Fontana trestle. Then you’ll layover at an outdoor center, where you can watch rafters pushing off to go down the river.”

The Tuckasegee excursion takes passengers through Cowee Tunnel, as well as the site used to film the train wreck scene in the movie “The Fugitive.” The route ends in Dillsboro, a small mountain town where groups can spend some time shopping and eating before boarding the train for the return trip.

“The Tuckasegee route shows you more of the countryside of the mountains,” Conley said. “You see homesteads and old farms and how people live today in the area. When you get to Dillsboro, you see what the old-style mountain town used to be. There’s lots of arts and crafts, and it’s very traditional.”

Boone and Scenic
Valley Railroad

Boone, Iowa
In 1982, two local men in Boone, Iowa, teamed up to form the Boone Railroad Historic Society, raising money to rescue a rail line that was built in 1893 by the Boone Valley Coal Co. Today, the volunteer organization offers a variety of train excursions on the lines, traveling 15 miles through the Des Moines River Valley.

“It’s a 1920s excursion train,” said general manager Fenner Stevenson. “The passenger cars are historic coaches, and they’re basically the way they would have looked in the 1920s and ’30s when they were built.”

Leaving from Boone, the train travels through corn and bean fields, then begins a descent into a valley and wooded areas. The route leads across two bridges and into the Des Moines River Valley, the scenic highlight of the trip.

“We get out to our high bridge, where you can see for miles up and down the river,” Stevenson said. “Then we go down right along the river. During the fall, you’ll see eagles, deer and turkeys. In the spring there will be wildflowers.”

The railroad supplements the scenic excursion with a variety of themed outings. On Saturdays in the spring, summer and fall, the line hosts a dinner excursion using 1950s dining cars. Groups can also charter a dinner car on other days of the week.

Other special events are a Valentine’s Day dinner train and autumn pumpkin trains.

Brian Jewell

Brian Jewell is the executive editor of The Group Travel Leader. In more than a decade of travel journalism he has visited 48 states and 25 foreign countries.