Revisiting the past by taking a trip on a trainDec 06, 2023 12:07PM ● By Tricia Hoadley
By Natalie Smith
There’s a sort of time machine at Greenback County Park.
Set among the trees and situated off Newport Gap Pike (Route 41) this rarely seen machine can transport you to an era when travel was accompanied by the unmistakable sounds of a high-pitched whistle and chugga-chugga, chugga-chugga.
The Wilmington & Western Railroad (WWRR) is the proud provider of this experience, and can take those riding its rails through the scenic Red Clay Valley, from the Greenbank Station to Hockessin. Its locomotives, both steam and diesel-electric, passenger and specialty cars were all built in the early- to mid-20th century.
“We do consider ourselves a museum in motion,” said Kevin J. Martin, WWRR’s general manager. “Our mission is not just to educate about the railroad but also the valley. We want to educate people about the mills that were down the line and what used to be there and [what’s gone].”
The WWRR can trace its beginnings to 1872, when it began passenger and freight service between Wilmington and Landenberg in southern Chester County, Pa. Through the years the line changed hands, and along with the ups and downs of the economy and the growing popularity of automotive transport, it led to the then-Baltimore & Ohio line being shortened to Hockessin in the 1950s.
Enter philanthropist and steam-engine enthusiast Thomas C. Marshall, Jr.
“[In 1966] he got together with other steam enthusiasts with the idea of bringing steam tourism to the Wilmington area,” Martin explained. “They would lease or rent the line from B&O on the weekends and they would run steam [trains] up and down the line.” These tourist trains would run between Greenbank and Mt. Cuba.
After WWRR’s owner filed to abandon the line, Marshall and the other train buffs, under the banner of the non-profit Historic Red Clay Valley, Inc., rallied and successfully raised funds to purchase the line in 1982.
“We don't share it with anyone,” Martin noted. “It’s ours. We are responsible for it.”
The responsibility is all-encompassing. Besides all the positions that physically operate the train, among those who also keep the wheels rolling are ticket agents, gift shop associates, track crew members, restoration crew members and on-board narrators who inform guests about the train and valley.
And of those folks who spend their time running the WWRR – most of them don’t get paid.
“We are 99 percent volunteer-run,” Martin said, “so there're only about a handful of paid staff.
“We have anywhere from 60 to 80 [volunteers]. It just kind of fluctuates. Sometimes we have older volunteers who decide to kind of step away and younger ones that step in … but they do everything from fixing to running the trains. The train wouldn't leave the yard without the volunteers.”
But volunteers who are interested in driving a train don’t have to come with experience. “We train them. We are approved by the FRA (Federal Railroad Administration) to train them on how to be engineers. But that doesn't necessarily mean they can leave here and go to Amtrak. But on our line, for our service, you could walk in with no experience and work your way up to a diesel or steam engineer.
“We can train from the ground up, from trainman – who are the people that collect your tickets and get you on the train -- all the way up to steam engineer. Now, it's going to take years. This isn't a two-month process and you're done, but we can train you if you want to stick with it all the way up. A lot of our older volunteers say steam is sometimes a young man's game. It's a lot of hard work.”
Volunteers are drawn from all over, he said. “We get people mostly from the Mid-Atlantic region; we have volunteers that come two-and-a-half hours away who live in New Jersey or Maryland that come up. We can get people who volunteer at multiple railroads, like at New Hope (Bucks County, Pa.) or Stewartstown (York County, Pa.).”
The dedication of the volunteers can be inspiring. Martin recalled those working on the steam engine on Independence Day, traveling to Hockessin for the fireworks. “They just have a love of trains. It was pretty hot, 100-some-odd degrees. And they are sitting in there, firing that boiler the entire way up. When they get done, they’re covered in soot. They're hot, they're sweaty. But they love it. So, we try to support that because without them, we wouldn't get the train out the door.”
WWRR’s current equipment includes: three steam locomotives, with one in service and another waiting for service; two first-generation diesel locomotives; five passenger cars, including a parlor car; one Doodlebug, which is a coach with its own engine; and three cabooses.
The diesel locomotives power the lion’s share of the trips. “[Some] 65 to 70 percent of our trips are diesel,” he said, “with the remaining ones being either steam or the Doodlebug.”
But steam seems to have a very passionate fan base.
“When we take out steam, you will see enthusiasts standing in the creek, waiting. It’s what's called ‘chasing the train’. They follow the train on the road and every crossing. They are there taking pictures and videos.
“I understand people's enthusiasm for them. I understand people's dedication; it takes a lot to be going through the woods or standing there for 20 minutes, hoping the train comes by or that you’re timing it correctly.
“So, you have your steam enthusiasts and they want to be on the train or take pictures. You also have people that just want to experience the steam train ride with their child. If you've ever been on the train, there are two distinct sounds between the steam especially when they blow the whistle.
“With diesel, you hear a horn just like you would hear CSX (freight trains) when they go through. It’s the kind of that blaring horn that people hear. With steam, you're going to hear that chugga-chugga-chugga that people associate with trains. You don't hear that with diesel. I think people enjoy that experience on the train.”
A very popular car is the caboose. Martin said contrary to popular belief, a caboose was never attached to passenger trains, only freight trains, where it served as the conductor’s office, although WWRR will often use them.
“We will always have at least one caboose on for our Santa Claus trains. We have all three of them on because they're so popular.” The Santa Claus Express runs weekends from Nov. 24 through Dec. 23 and is powered by the diesel locomotive. “The Jolly Old Elf rides the train and greets everyone on board, and gives all children a chocolate treat.” Cameras are encouraged during 1½-hour round-trip to Ashland.
Also featured during the holidays is the Holiday Lights Express, which runs late afternoons and evenings in December. The diesel-powered trips feature 100-year-old heated coaches, which are enveloped in colorful holiday lights.
“All those decorations are done by volunteers,” the general manager said, clearly impressed. “It takes them about three weeks to a month to decorate the train, [They’re] coming in at night and attaching the lights. Going up and down stairs and underneath the train to make sure they’re plugging them in correctly.”
As an added treat, “Our neighbors whose houses sit against the tracks, they decorate the back of their houses just like you would decorate the front of your house.”
But it’s not always been smooth going. Over the years, the WWRR has faced some issues that affected its running.
In September 1999, Hurricane Floyd wrecked two bridges over the Red Clay Creek and 11 others were damaged. The repairs took 18 months. In 2003, the creek saw copious amounts of added water, courtesy of Tropical Storm Henri. Six bridges were demolished and parts of the tracks flooded. But through both incidents, the WWRR folks persevered and triumphed.
Martin recognized that riding the WWRR is an activity that seems to bind families together.
“We want to make sure that the kids who are getting on the train now, their grandkids have the ability to get on our train. We have people that come all the time say, ‘I brought my son and now I'm bringing my grandchild’. That's what we love. We love that kind of family-shared experience.
“I love as general manager to be on that platform and see families smiling and see kids excited to be on the train. And when that (holiday) train pulls into the station and it’s just lit up … that's why I come to work. That's why I like my job. I want people to be excited about trains and the history of the valley.”
More information about the Wilmington & Western Railroad, including more history, charter and rental information and times, dates and ticket prices for upcoming events is available at www.wwrr.com.
Natalie Smith may be contacted at [email protected]