RONKS, PENNSYLVANIA - Coal-fired steam train number 90 takes off on the Strasburg Rail Road, spewing black smoke as its big wheels turn and clank on the tracks. The powerful locomotive, built in 1924, pulls old fashioned wooden passenger cars, as it takes tourists on a 45 minute ride through tranquil farms in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania.
“I like the train,” said a little boy who was staring at the huge locomotive.
The Strasburg Rail Road keeps the feeling of yesteryear alive.
“We really desire for people to experience early 20th Century steam railroading, like they would have back then,” said Station Master, Steve Barall.
Coal-powered trains worked the rails in the United States for 175 years, starting in the 1830’s, and were an integral part of America's westward expansion and industrial revolution.
The Strasburg Rail Road is the oldest operating railroad in the United States. Founded in 1832, it is known as a short line and is only seven kilometers long. Short lines connected passengers and goods to a main line that traveled to bigger cities.
“Back then this was Strasburg’s connection to the outside world,” explained Barrall.
The railroad does not have any of the original trains. It currently operates five steam engines and the largest fleet of historic wooden passenger coaches.
Passengers can pay to sit in an open air car with wooden seats, or a luxurious first class accommodation with windows, dark green velvet chairs and polished wood walls. It reflects the opulence some people could afford during the era.
The locomotive actually travels in reverse for the first part of the trip and then is uncoupled at the end of the line. Then it is re-coupled at the opposite end of the train for the return trip. The trains travel up to 40 kilometers per hour.
Trains travel through time
Husband and wife Robert and Carol said the trip reminded them of the allure of steam train travel.
“Trains are such a (part of the) fabric of this country, in fact a lot of nations in the world, so it’s nice to go back and see how the trains operated,” Robert said. “It was fun to feel the sway back and forth and the slow pace,” his wife added.
“It’s fun and I enjoy it because the scenery is so different,” remarked rider Polly Campbell. “Just takes you way back in time,” said Campbell who is in her 80’s.
Another gateway to the past is the nearby Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania. It is one of the largest U.S. train museums that focus on the story of railroading in the northeast with collections from the 1830’s to the present day.
“We have around 100 pieces of full-size railroad equipment, passenger cars, steam locomotives, and freight cars,” said Patrick Morrison, the director of the museum. “But we also have smaller objects like tools, tickets, uniforms that were worn by railroaders, and dining car china and silver.”
He said the big steam locomotives captivate people as much today as they did in the past when bystanders watched them pull out of the station.
“Just the idea of something that powerful pulling many freight and passenger cars, it always fascinated folks.”
So did the caboose at the back of the train which onlookers waved at as the train passed by.
At the Red Caboose Motel, which passengers can view from the steam train, guests can stay in 38 cabooses, a baggage car, and a mail car from the 20th century that were converted into rooms.
“It’s almost like sleeping in a museum,” owner Tyler Prickett said. “This is the largest caboose motel, the largest privately owned collection of cabooses in the country, according to the Guinness Book of World Records.”
Keeping the nostalgia of the old trains alive.
“Historically, what we want people to take away from their stay is the importance of railroads in building America,” said Prickett.
“I think the train is amazing. It’s fun watching the scenery go by,” said 11-year-old Richard Prindle who was enthralled after his first ride on a steam train.