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Wilmington & Western Railroad: Delaware's museum in motion rolls on

Jun 18, 2018 09:48AM ● Published by J. Chambless

The trains offer scenic tours of the Red Clay Valley. (Photo by Dave Crosby)

By Steven Hoffman
Staff Writer

From the Princess Express and the Piedmont Prospector to the Back Burner Dinner Train and Brews on Board, from the Mt. Cuba Meteor and the Murder on the Red Clay Express mystery train to the Autumn Leaf Special and the Holiday Lights Express, the Wilmington & Western Railroad has an adventure waiting for people of all ages.

Each year, the railroad fills the calendar with enjoyable and memorable experiences for anyone who boards one of the vintage steam- and diesel-powered tourist trains for a trip through the scenic Red Clay Valley.

“We're always trying to add new offerings,” explained Executive Director David Ludlow, who is in charge of the railroad's day-to-day operations, leading a team of five full-time and two part-time employees, as well as a large group of volunteers.

The Wilmington & Western Railroad traces its origins to 1867, when it served as a vital mode of transportation for both freight and passengers for the communities along the Red Clay Creek. For the last 52 years, the Historic Red Clay Valley, Inc. has operated the Wilmington & Western as a heritage railroad, preserving an important part of Delaware's history.

According to Ludlow, the railroad attracts as many as 35,000 guests a year, making it one of Delaware's top tourist attractions.

The Wilmington & Western's steam locomotives were built in 1907, 1909, and 1910, and the diesel-electric locomotives date to 1940. The passenger coaches are from 1914 and 1915. The wooden cabooses date to 1924. One of the stars of the Wilmington & Western Railroad is The Doodlebug, a 1929 self-propelled rail car that looks like a large trolley. One of the locomotives, Number 98, is the last authentic American Standard, 4-4-0 operating in the eastern part of the United States.

Taking a ride on the tourist trains is like stepping back in time to the golden age of railroading in the latter part of the 1800s and the early part of the 1900s. Everything about the Wilmington & Western is authentic, from the hearty “All Aboard!” calls to the clang of the locomotive's bell.

It takes a hefty investment in time, effort and money to keep the trains rolling, and that's where the large number of family-friendly activities come in.

The trains operate from March through December, with the Easter Bunny Express typically serving as the first big event of the year. The Easter Bunny Express is one of the events that has proven to be popular year after year. Ludlow said that he and the team are continually evaluating the railroad's offerings to make sure that they are appealing to guests.

One of the consistently popular attractions, according to Ludlow, has been the Mt. Cuba Meteor, which offers a leisurely 90-minute round-trip ride through the Red Clay Valley. The Mt. Cuba Meteor travels to the picnic grove at Mt. Cuba, where riders can stay on board for a slightly longer trip or get off to enjoy a picnic lunch at the grove. It's a relaxing way to spend some time with family and friends, and because the estate of Mt. Cuba is located at the approximate midpoint of the track, it's a quick trip, too. Nobody's ever going to complain about boredom on one of the trains. The average speed of the trains is about 10 miles per hour, and the Wilmington & Western Railroad operates about 10 miles of track, so it takes only about one hour to make the full trip. Numerous special events are planned throughout the year, so if you're looking for a special way to celebrate Mother's Day, Father's Day, Halloween, the Fourth of July, or just a nice weekend in the summer, the Wilmington & Western Railroad can offer a unique experience.

The Dinner Trains are always quite popular, offering a fun-filled trip to the Back Burner restaurant in Hockessin. One price includes everything from hors d'oeuvres, dinner, dessert, and a round-trip train ride.

One of the newer attractions, Ludlow said, is Brews on Board, which now runs one Friday evening just about every month. The railroad partners with Dew Point Brewing in Yorklyn and Bellefonte Brewing in Marshallton to offer passengers the opportunity to try some different craft beers while they enjoy a ride on a train.

“Brews on Board turned out to be very popular,” Ludlow explained.

The Piedmont Prospector offers riders the chance to learn about the geology of the Red Clay Valley from a University of Delaware geology professor. Participants even get to pan for garnets.

For Civil War buffs, there's a Civil War Skirmish Weekend in September, and for people who like ghosts and goblins, there's a Halloween Express in October. Murder on the Red Clay Express, a family-friendly comedy murder mystery, is featured several times throughout the year.

One of the new events this year is the Princess Express, which gives children the chance to ride the train while dressed up as their favorite princess. Several princesses will also be on board for each ride.

“The response so far has been very good,” Ludlow said of the Princess Express. “The tickets are really selling.” The date for the next Princess Express is Aug. 18.

Another activity geared toward children is the Railroad Camp, which offers children between the ages of 8 and 12 a behind-the-scenes glimpse of what it's like to work on the railroad.

Ludlow said that the summer camp is a full day of hands-on activities aimed at teaching children about what the railroad is, what it does, and the mechanics behind what they do. Campers will enjoy a close look at the steam locomotives and a ride on one of the cabooses.

“If a parent is looking for a unique summer camp, this is it,” Ludlow explained. The children even get a chance to life up a railroad tie with a lever and put it back in place.

The autumn leaf trains are always enormously popular. They start to ramp up in late September and continue through October and November.

“It's a steep ramp up to the busiest time of the year,” Ludlow explained.

Each year concludes with numerous dates for the Santa Express and the Holiday Lights Express. Ludlow explained that the Wilmington & Western Railroad brings in the real Santa Claus with his helpers to share the experience of the Santa Express. Santa will individually meet every child. Children can also sing Christmas songs during the train ride, and get their pictures taken with Santa.

The holiday trains are fully decorated trains that will get anyone in the holiday spirit. Even the neighbors along the tracks put up special holiday decorations for passengers to enjoy.

It takes a tremendous amount of work to plan and stage all the activities, but the work is necessary to keep the Wilmington & Western Railroad on the right track.

There are only a few hundred tourist railroads in the country, and the Wilmington & Western is the only one in Delaware, so keeping it vibrant is very important to the staff and the volunteers.

Much of the work of operating the Wilmington & Western Railroad is accomplished by a team of approximately 65 to 70 dedicated volunteers. These volunteers do everything from dispatching the trains, punching the tickets, to restoring the equipment.

“Those people are the people you’ll see on the trains―the volunteers are the brakemen, the conductors, the engineers,” Ludlow explained. “We have a good core group of volunteers, and that is the key to our longevity and our success.”

Ludlow, who started volunteering at the railroad nearly 30 years ago, has now served as executive director since 1993. He is a licensed locomotive engineer and a certified track inspector. He has also been the recipient of the Jake Jacobson Safety Award for Railroading Excellence.

He grew up in north Wilmington, and he views his work with the railroad as a way to give back to the Delaware community.

“It goes back to my upbringing,” he explained. “It was important in my family to give back to the community, to try to make a difference in the community.”

Ludlow explained that the railroad offers numerous education programs to not only inform people about the importance and history of the railroad, but also to keep the railroad connected to the community it has served for more than 150 years.

Ludlow said that the team is proud of the fact that the Wilmington & Western Railroad is still going strong, coming off a year when 13,000 people turned out in December alone for activities and events. That was a good close to 2017.

“We had one of our best seasons last year,” Ludlow explained.

The Wilmington & Western Railroad is always working to enhance its operations. For example, last year, in time for the holiday season, they brought in a mobile steam boiler that can generate heat for the trains, making the rides much more comfortable during the colder times of the year. The mobile steam boiler is called “The Indian” because it was manufactured by the Sioux Boiler Company in South Dakota. Having the mobile steam boiler could allow the Wilmington & Western Railroad to offer a Valentine's Day dinner package, or some other event that they haven't even thought of yet. It's all part of the job of operating Delaware's museum in motion.

Tickets for the special events are available on the Wilmington & Western Railroad website. To schedule a visit or for more information, call the Wilmington & Western Railroad office at 302-998-1930.

To contact Staff Writer Steven Hoffman, email editor@chestercounty.com.

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