Scenic railroads chug on

The Wilmington & Western makes a half-hour stop at the Mt. Cuba Picnic Grove. The line opened for freight and passenger service in 1872 and now attracts about 30,000 visitors annually.
The Wilmington & Western makes a half-hour stop at the Mt. Cuba Picnic Grove. The line opened for freight and passenger service in 1872 and now attracts about 30,000 visitors annually. (ZOË MILLER)
Posted: August 23, 2014

It's not the Hogwarts Express, but families looking for a fun locomotive outing can skip the costs (and the crowds) of a Florida amusement-park sojourn and head instead to the historic railroads of the Philadelphia area.

There aren't any witches and wizards, but between the scenery and the amicable staff, the rails have a magic of their own.

In Bucks County, about 50 minutes outside Philadelphia, you can visit the New Hope & Ivyland Railroad.

"The buildings, the grounds, and the railroad itself date back to 1891, so the railroad cars we have here date back to as far as 1913," said Paul Harland, New Hope & Ivyland's general manager of passenger operations. "It's a full-time job for lots of staff members to keep all this stuff not only safe but historically represented correctly, too, so when you step onboard this train you get an idea of what travel was like for your elders, your grandparents, your great-grandparents."

The railroad offers hourly excursions daily and holds events throughout the year that cater to a variety of interests. On the child-geared Song & Story Hour Trains, local musicians lead sing-alongs and tell stories with puppets. For an older crowd, there's the Grapevine Express, a wine-and-cheese-tasting ride that departs weekends through Oct. 26.

The main demographic, though, is families.

Luke Fronheiser, 41, came from Bethlehem for the day with his son, Vethan, 4.

"It was sort of a spur-of-the-moment decision," Fronheiser said. "I'm letting him call the shots today."

Glenside's Mary Beth Thomas, 38, brought her four sons, ages 4, 2, and 10 months, to ride the rails.

"We got a Groupon to go on the train, so the boys are really excited," Thomas said.

In Lancaster County, the Strasburg Rail Road carries passengers on 45-minute excursions over 41/2 miles of track through Pennsylvania farmland.

Trains operate daily through Nov. 2 and weekends through the end of the year. The line also operates specialty excursions, including trains featuring Thomas the Tank Engine (Sept. 13 to 21 and Nov. 21 to 23), Santa's Paradise Express (Nov. 28 to 30 and Dec. 6 and 7, 13 and 14, and 20 and 21) and The Night Before Christmas Train (Nov. 28 and Dec. 5, 12, and 19).

Outside Pennsylvania, look no farther than the nonprofit Wilmington & Western Railroad in Delaware, which runs on 10 miles of track along the Red Clay Creek.

Chartered in 1867 to transport goods to mills in the area, Wilmington & Western opened for freight and passenger service in 1872 and now attracts about 30,000 visitors annually. In addition to standard trips to Mt. Cuba, there are also themed excursions throughout the year, such as the Wild West Robbery and the Civil War Skirmish Weekend. Kids can celebrate birthdays on the antique red caboose.

You might meet someone like Mark Sylvester, one of Wilmington & Western's many volunteer conductors.

Sylvester, 57, started volunteering seven years ago as a passenger attendant, punching tickets and interacting with guests, and worked his way up through the ranks, and into the passenger cars, as a trainman and then a brakeman. The latter job, he said, entails learning the railroad's rules, "a fairly hefty book of the dos and don'ts" that has been compiled over the nearly 150 years trains have been running on the line.

Bearded and rosy-faced, Sylvester may look like St. Nick, but he has more in common with the characters on The Big Bang Theory. Outside the railroad, he's a research scientist specializing in polymer physics, with 27 U.S. patents issued in his name.

Sylvester is neither the oldest nor youngest volunteer (the oldest is 83). On the younger side, there's Christian Bentley, who has been riding the trains at Wilmington & Western since he was 3. Aware of his interest in amateur photography, his friends persuaded him to come back to the railroad. "An engineer handed me an application," said Bentley, 16.

He took pictures of the train for a while, before working as a narrator and a trainman, positions he still fills.

It's not just volunteers like Bentley who feel at home at the railroad.

The Campbells, who came from New Castle, Del., were enjoying the afternoon, eating snacks during the half hour the train stopped at the Mt. Cuba Picnic Grove.

"The kids love the train," said Erin, 38. Her son Matthew, 2, wore a Thomas the Tank Engine T-shirt.

"A lot of what you see isn't accessible except by railroad, which makes it a pretty unique experience," said Erin's husband, Chris, 37. Plus, he said, it's inexpensive, and the volunteers are enthusiastic.

It wasn't the Campbells' first time at Wilmington & Western.

"We came here once before, on Father's Day," said Matthew's sister, Mazie, 5. "Last time, I saw a big shiny rock, but I didn't see it this time."

Another family, the Partridges, traveled from New Holland, Pa., but they live in Michigan.

The trip was significant because it was the final leg of a journey that had taken them all over the country.

"We are traveling with our youngest son, and we're trying to see all 50 states," said Candy, 72. "Delaware is the first state in the union, but the 50th we've seen."

All Aboard

Here are three scenic railroads that operate in the Philadelphia region:

New Hope & Ivyland Railroad

32 W. Bridge St.

New Hope.

Passengers for regular excursion trains may board either at New Hope or at Lahaska Station. Information: 215-862-2332,

Strasburg Rail Road

301 Gap Rd., Ronks, Pa.

Passengers travel 45-minute excursions over 41/2 miles of track through Lancaster County farmland.

Information: 866-725-9666,

Wilmington & Western Railroad

2201 Newport Gap Pike

(Route 41 North)


Trains travel the Red Clay Valley on a route laid out in the early 1870s. Information: 302-998-1930,

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