Riding on the rails -- 10 spectacular steam train trips
Iron wheels clicking again, renewed whistles shrill and melancholy, mahogany passenger cars with brass appointments and leather seats, all recall an age when big business and big politics were carried on in the rolling stock. In the age of steam, the American dream came true. The railroad grew up with America. The principal artifact of the Industrial Revolution, the steam locomotive, wearing all its movable parts on the outside, has a permanent place in the hearts of Americans. In 1950 there were 47,000 steam locomotives in the country. Today there are only 3,500. Although the iron horse is a transportation anachronism, steam railroads are being restored, not so much to link separate places as separate centuries. They have b ecome popular attractions for vacationers who may remember what the old days of train travel were like, and for youngsters who have never ridden on a train.Skip to next paragraph
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Now nearly 80 steam trains operate passenger service, from 15-minute, one-mile rides to daylong excursions on original mainline track or logging and mining routes through rugged country sometimes inaccessible by other means. Nearly every state has a steam train listed in the Passenger Service Directory (available for $6 from Empire State Railway Museum, Box 666, Middletown, N.Y. 10940). From east to west, here are 10 of the longest, most authentic, and most spectacular rides. Prices given are for adults ; children have reduced fares.
Mt. Washington Cog Railway: Locomotives built between 1870 and 1908 with tilted boilers to accommodate a steep incline have pulled passengers up New England's highest mountain (6,293 feet) for more than a century. Three miles of the three-hour trip are on 1869 wooden trestles with an average grade of 25 percent, or 1 foot in 4. The route goes from red spruce forests of the temperate zone to wildflowers of the alpine zone. Schedules, May to October, are subject to weather conditions at the s ummit. $22. Mt. Washington, N.H. 03589. (603) 846-5404.
Valley Railroad: A 12-mile, one-hour trip over a former New Haven branch line travels along the Connecticut River, through the Essex Valley, passing farms, villages, salt marshes alive with waterfowl, marinas, even a turreted castle. Passengers can connect to a river cruise. Some cars are open excursion cars called Wyatt Earps; one is an elegantly restored 1925 Wallingford Pullman parlor car. May through October, with limited service spring and fall. $6. Railroad Avenue, Essex, Conn. 06426. (202)
Strasburg Railroad: America's oldest short-line railroad began service in 1851. Once a freight handler, it's now puffing passengers past Currier & Ives farms of Pennsylvania Dutch country. Weekends mid-March through mid-December; daily May through October. $4. PO Box 96, Strasburg, Pa. 17579. (717) 687-7522.
Cass Scenic Railroad: For 60 years this logging railroad hauled lumberjacks from the company town of Cass, W.Va. (now a National Historic Site) deep into the Appalachian Mountains. For climbing Bald Knob Mountain at 4,862 feet, there are two dramatic switchbacks that look like a zigzag in the track. The train goes beyond the intersecting rails; when the switch is thrown, it reverses and begins its sharp climb backward. The process is repeated at the other zigzag to send the train on its way. The ful l 22-mile, 41/2-hour round trip to the summit is $9.50; a shorter version is $7. May through October. Cass, W.Va. 24927. (304) 456-4300.