Delaware steam railroad volunteers keep historic treasure tooting

Wilmington & Western conductor James Badgley calls passengers after a picnic lunch. Among the sights in the scenic Red Clay Creek Valley are a covered bridge, old farmsteads, and traces of the long-gone Brandywine Springs amusement park.
Wilmington & Western conductor James Badgley calls passengers after a picnic lunch. Among the sights in the scenic Red Clay Creek Valley are a covered bridge, old farmsteads, and traces of the long-gone Brandywine Springs amusement park. (RON TARVER / Staff Photographer)
Posted: August 23, 2011

David Ludlow knows what it takes to run a railroad. It might mean spending his weekends and evenings painting a diesel locomotive.

Or standing in a creek, waist high in water, clearing brush with a chainsaw.

Or pounding spikes into a fresh railroad tie with sweaty volunteers on the track maintenance gang.

Or explaining to a wide-eyed little boy who is taking his first train ride what a caboose is and what an engineer does.

Ludlow, 56, is executive director of the Wilmington & Western Railroad, which bills itself as Delaware's operating railroad museum. It's the only place in the state where you can take a ride on a vintage railroad coach pulled by a steam locomotive.

The producers of Great Scenic Railway Journeys, the Emmy-winning public television series that profiles some of the world's most historic and scenic tourist railways, were so intrigued that they recently spent three days filming the W&W for a program celebrating North America's steam railways. The occasion prompted the W&W to double-head its steam engines, the magnificent, pulse-stirring spectacle of two linked locomotives pulling one train.

"You don't see that anywhere in the United States. Very few tourist railroads do that," said Robert Van Camp, creator and producer of the series. "The Wilmington & Western is playing a significant role in presenting and preserving our deep American railroad heritage."

What's most impressive is that the Wilmington & Western still exists. This former branch of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, which follows the sinuous course of the Red Clay Creek, became an excursion line in the mid-'60s. Then Mother Nature, evidently no rail fan, delivered a one-two punch. Hurricane Floyd in 1999 and Tropical Storm Henri in 2003 swelled the creek to record levels and washed away bridges and track. Supported by federal disaster-relief funds, determined volunteers and contractors rebuilt the bridges and restored the line.

In its heyday in the late 19th century, the Wilmington & Western ran from downtown Wilmington to rural Landenberg in Chester County - a distance of 20 miles - where it connected with a branch of the Pennsylvania Railroad. Three passenger trains and a mixed freight train operated six days a week, moving clay, snuff, iron, and coal to and from the many water-powered mills along the route.

Today, the railroad is just over 10 miles long and links Greenbank Station, on the outskirts of Newport, and Hockessin. Midway is a shady picnic grove at Mount Cuba, the destination of most excursions. Besides two operating steam engines and three diesels from the mid-'50s, the Wilmington & Western offers rides on a diesel/electric "Doodlebug," a rare country commuter car formerly operated by the Pennsylvania Railroad.

The W&W crosses Red Clay Creek nine times on steel trestles and bridges with timber decks, including one shaped like an S. The creek corridor is surprisingly bucolic and offers scenic vistas that are seemingly unchanged from the railroad's early days in the 1870s.

"It's unique because it passes between the coastal plain and the Piedmont region of Delaware," Ludlow says. "Along the Red Clay Creek Valley, there are beautiful rock cuts and some very pretty countryside."

Among the sights are a covered bridge; gorgeous 19th-century farmsteads; and traces of Brandywine Springs, a once-popular resort and amusement park that drew summertime throngs from Philadelphia.

Wildlife abounds (deer, foxes, groundhogs, bald eagles, and blue herons), and the train moves at only 5 to 10 m.p.h. - conducive to observation, absorption, and reflection.

"We're not in a hurry to go anywhere, because we're not going anywhere," quipped Jeff Hammaker, who was manning the throttle of a 900-horsepower, 105-ton diesel the other day.

For three years, Hammaker, 45, has been the railroad's top volunteer. He freely admits to being a "foamer" - a railroad buff so obsessed that he figuratively foams at the mouth in the presence of trains. (He blames his father, who placed him in the middle of a model train layout when he was only 6 months old.)

Hammaker is typical of the railroad's corps of dedicated volunteers, about 85 strong. "Without the volunteers, the railroad can't exist," Ludlow declares flatly.

The W&W's operating budget is about $500,000. Though the state provides funding for track maintenance, most of that money comes from the fare box. The W&W runs about 250 to 300 excursions and charters a year, and ridership ranges between 25,000 and 30,000. A refurbished parlor car, cabooses, even whole trains are available for weddings, birthdays, family reunions, and business meetings. Special events include foliage tours in the fall and Santa Claus trains around Christmas.

"The passion of the volunteers really stood out," says Van Camp, the Great Railways producer. "The way they dress up to make presentations, the time they devote to keeping these relics going. With 3,000 moving parts, that's not easy or cheap.

"For us, it's all about telling a good story, and the Wilmington & Western is a great story. They have the equipment, the history, the geography, and the people. When we put it all together, viewers are going to say, 'Wow, I didn't know that was there. I've got to go see it with my children and grandchildren.' "

Wilmington & Western Railroad

The railroad bills itself as Delaware's operating railroad museum. Trains generally run beginning at 12:30 p.m. Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays. Tickets: $12, $11 for seniors, $10 for children. All trains depart from Greenbank Station, near Prices Corner on Delaware Route 41 North (Newport Gap Pike), about 1,000 feet north of Delaware Route 2 (Kirkwood Highway). Free parking at the station. Information: 302-998-1930 or

VIDEO: The Wilmington & Western Railroad and the golden age of rail:

Contact staff writer Art Carey at 215-854-5606 or


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