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Nostalgia Abounds on the Wilmington & Western Railroad


A falling leaf doesn’t make a sound as it lands on a hissing, belching 10-ton iron horse with a ravenous appetite for West Virginia coal. The fireman scoops up a large shovelful of that coal and flings it into the red-hot belly of the beast. Hot gases flow through a boiler filled with heating water; gauges and dials react to the increasing water pressure; smoke pours out of the smokestack; and steam hisses from the regulator valves next to the steam dome. 

Meanwhile, down below, a massive, well-oiled piston smoothly moves back-and-forth. This turns the wheels that propel the train forward on rails of steel. 

Such are the inner and outer workings of the Wilmington & Western Railroad’s Autumn Leaf Special, a fall foliage tour that runs in October and November. The popular excursion takes its passengers on a winding, scenic ride along the Red Clay Creek and through the beautiful Red Clay Valley. The 108-year-old No. 98 steam locomotive pulls the train down the tracks. 

My 10-mile journey is relaxed and steady. As the vintage passenger cars-—painted blue with a gold stripe—move along with the windows open, I feel the breeze and smell the crisp fall air. 

The Autumn Leaf Special is one serious nostalgic trip. I can almost see the passengers of yesteryear, heading for a day of fun at the Brandywine Springs Amusement Park—the men dressed in vests and suit jackets, the women in full-length dresses and large flowered hats, the boys in knickers, and the girls in their best Sunday dresses. 

This is no Amtrak journey in a sealed aluminum tube. Comparing this ride to modern train travel is like comparing a gas grill to a campfire in the woods. Here, you get the authentic snap, crackle and pop—and there’s no other sound on earth like the prolonged screech of steel wheels on steel rails as you round a curve. 

Ding, ding, ding. Outside the train, red lights flash and long wooden arms lower as we roll up to an intersection of road and track. A line of cars wait as we pass by. Inside the cars, young children reach out the windows and wave. Sitting on the right side of the cab, the engineer smiles and waves back. Then he reaches up, pulls a chord, and the train whistle blows.

The Autumn Leaf Special is an engineering marvel—a museum that moves. But without the engineers, firemen, conductors, station agents, brakemen, yard workers and other volunteers, it can’t run. Preparation for our scheduled trip began early in the morning at the Marshallton railyard. “The train doesn’t move an inch unless [I say] so,” says conductor Mary Simons. “The conductor is the captain of the ship; even the engineer won’t move the train unless the conductor tells him to. 

Simons started volunteering as a conductor nine years ago. “If somebody said to me that I’d one day be working on a railroad, I would’ve said they were nuts,” says the retired information-technology manager. “I always loved trains. As a kid, I used to play with my brother’s Lionel train set.” 

Simons serves on the Wilmington & Western’s board of directors. She is one of two women conductors, and there’s also one female engineer on the W&W Railroad.

On this morning, the train crew meets, signs the logbook and prepares for the day. There are six men assembled, along with Simons. The group discusses the day’s schedule and itinerary. 

Behind the locomotive and the attached tender that carries coal and water, there are four passenger cars and two cabooses. Each car is numbered, and the meeting’s discussion is about their placement: “Should the 603 be behind the 410? … We have to put the better seats in the 603 because it will have handicapped passengers. … Can we pull the 149 out and put the 581 on track 2?”

The meeting adjourns, and preparations begin. The locomotive and the passenger cars are stored away inside a cavernous, corrugated sheet-metal warehouse. After first taking out the locomotive, engineer John La Costa expertly hooks up and pulls out each passenger car, distributes and releases them on multiple sidetracks, then reconnects all of them in their proper order. The fireman for the day is Steve Jensen, and La Costa allows him to take the controls and attach a couple of the passenger cars.

At 22, Jensen is already a certified diesel-locomotive engineer. A third-generation railroader, he grew up helping his father in the trainyard. He worked on the restoration of No. 98, volunteering as a passenger attendant at 15. You can feel the love. “I like machinery that requires human input,” says Jensen. “Modern machines are monitored by computers. Operating a steam or diesel engine, you have to listen to it. It will talk to you and tell you what needs to be adjusted. You feel it through the seat of your pants.” 

A retired police officer, brakeman Bob Gouge conducts the all-important brake tests on each passenger car. “Once you have the train together, it must pass a federally mandated test,” says Gouge. “There are no shortcuts—it must be 100 percent.” 

Next, the conductor reads aloud the orders of the day—special instructions and track restrictions, if any, for today’s journey. Then the gates swing open, the crew climbs aboard, and the train leaves the yard, heading for the Greenbank station.

The standard length of each rail on a railroad track is 39 feet long, although they can be longer if welded together. They are made of hot, rolled steel and are shaped in the familiar flat-bottomed design called the flanged T rail. In most of North America, each one is set at standard gauge, which is 4 feet, 8.5 inches apart.

Underneath those rails are railroad ties made of mixed hardwoods like oak and poplar. On the 10 miles of W&W
Railroad track, there are over 30,000 ties. Each can last a maximum of about 30 years, so the W&W has to replace around 1,000 of them annually, according to executive director David Ludlow. 

“The men who worked on the tracks were called gandy dancers,” says Ludlow, standing next to a large historic photograph of a crew of track workers inside the W&W main office. “That’s how I started here, replacing ties and laying rails down from Marshalltown to Hockessin. We always did it with all volunteer labor.” 

First, they removed the spikes by hand. “Next, you jack up the rail with [something] that makes a car jack look like a toy,” he says. “You pull the decayed tie out with a pair of tie dogs that look like large ice tongs; you clear out the crib in preparation for the new tie; and you slide the new tie under the rails.

Each tie weighs more than 200 pounds. “You position it, center it, lower the rails, install plates, and then spike it with spike mauls, which are a type of rail hammer.”

Ludlow admits that it was hard work. “On a good day, we could replace 12-15 ties. When I became the director, we purchased machines,” he says with a laugh.

For more than half a century, the W&W has been transporting more than 30,000 passengers a year, entertaining them and educating them on railroads and their pivotal role in the Industrial Revolution. Trains were integral to the development of this area, opening new markets, shipping raw materials and transporting people. “The Wilmington & Western Railroad gives people an opportunity to experience a way of life that has disappeared from the American landscape,” says Ludlow.

The train journey from Marshallton to Hockessin will appeal to those who love history, geology and natural beauty. Schedules, special events like night rides and the Murder Mystery train, rates for private parties, and more can be found at ww.wwrr.com.