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Railway Nostalgia Abounds in the Brandywine Valley and Beyond


Many want to experience the stories behind the memorabilia.

Photograph by Les Kipp

While there remains a considerable market for railroad memorabilia, younger folks appear to be more interested in the experience of revisiting rail travel’s colorful past by boarding passenger trains running on historic routes and seeing close-up vintage engines and other rolling stock displayed by the numerous railway museums within easy driving distance.

In other words, many people want to experience the stories told behind the private collections of railroad memorabilia. And fortunately, there’s plenty to ride and see in the Brandywine region and nearby areas, especially during late fall foliage season. Delaware’s in-house railroad is the Wilmington & Western, which plies the route along Red Clay Creek between its station in Greenbank (near the intersection of Newport Pike and Kirkwood Highway) and Hockessin. 

Using both steam and diesel locomotives, W&W has several scheduled and special-event rides along 10 miles of track that switch back and forth across the old mill stream, through forest and along stretches cut through solid rock. The route was first run in 1872, when the line carried goods between the port of Wilmington and Landenberg, Pa. 

Today, regular 90-minute trips run between the station and Mount Cuba, Del. The longer route to Hockessin is two and a half hours. New this year is the Hockessin Merchant Express, which begins with an on-board continental breakfast and allows two hours of browsing the shops. About an hour away, near Lancaster, Pa., is the Strasburg Rail Road. While not as long or as scenic as the W&W, there’s still much to recommend, including a great backstory. Chartered in 1832, the Strasburg line is the oldest continuously operating railroad in the western hemisphere. 

A recent ride on the Strasburg rails proved quite enjoyable—especially with seats in the parlor car, which has great views, plush chairs, and a bar with snacks, beer, wine and cocktails (a well-made Manhattan at 11 a.m. cannot be argued with). On the way out, the first-class parlor car (No. 88) is the last one on the train (sorry, no caboose). Then the engine switches on the way back for close-up shots of steam flow back over the train. 

The Strasburg excursions are popular, so reservations are recommended. The crowd is a mix of older folks visiting Amish Country and younger families introducing their children to rail travel “the way it used to be.” Once off the train, there are shops to visit and a café in the complex. 

Across the street (Route 741) is the fascinating Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania, which has indoor and outdoor collections of trains and cars. There are more than 30 steam, diesel and electric engines—some still in restoration. It’s also a research facility, although those wanting to undertake historical study must do so by appointment. The museum’s gift shop is a good place for kids and hobbyists looking to build their first model railways or add to their existing collections. And Strasburg offers even more for both children and model railroad enthusiasts, including the National Toy Train Museum and the Choo Choo Barn. 

Farther afield to the north is Scranton, Pa.’s Steamtown National Historic Site. Museum tours are self-guided. Start at the visitors center for park orientation, then head to the 250-seat theater for a digital surround-sound movie. You’ll also find history, roundhouse and technology museums, plus a great opportunity (if you have the time) to learn about steam-era railroad maintenance, repair and restoration. 

Another regional destination is the Baltimore & Ohio Railway Museum in Baltimore, Md. It’s claim to fame is having “the oldest, most historic, most comprehensive American railroad collection in the world.” The collection’s buildings, small objects, locomotives and rolling stock show how the B&O Railroad impacted the development of early railroading. 

For those more interested in collecting memorabilia than touring or riding, railway lanterns and pocket watches are two of the most popular—and useful—items. Brakemen carried lanterns in search of nighttime difficulties. Today, they can be purchased for $50-$100, depending on how rare they are. They make great rustic options for farmhouse or game room décor—and if you’re looking to start a collection, there are all sorts of collectable ones. Many were used on farms long before flashlights became a common household item. 

Those interested in railway pocket watches—with or without the fob and chain—should check out Ashland Watches & Jewelry to get an idea of pricing and availability before visiting eBay or Etsy. While there are published collectors’ guides to railway memorabilia, most are out-of-date when it comes to pricing. 

And for those of you who must commute to distant cities via Amtrak, we understand if you don’t find railroad nostalgia of particular interest at the moment.