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Full Steam Ahead: Wilmington & Western Railroad Celebrates 50 Years


David Ludlow’s passion for the Wilmington & Western Railroad is palpable as he recounts the stories of two storms that destroyed the wooden trestle bridges that carry the tracks over Red Clay Creek.

Like a steam locomotive rambling down the line, smoke billowing from its stack, Ludlow charges straight ahead with a fire in his belly.

He tells of the time he tumbled into the creek when Hurricane Floyd struck in 1999. Ludlow was trying to examine a bridge during the height of the storm when he lost his footing. The floodwaters churned by Floyd destroyed two of the railroad’s bridges and damaged others.

“It was a storm to turn your head around,” says Ludlow, the railroad’s executive director since 1993. “You couldn’t comprehend how fast something like this could happen.”

The bridges were rebuilt and other repairs were made for $3 million. Then four years later, almost to the day, Tropical Storm Henri hit. Again, Ludlow headed to the creek to survey damage.

“I go out by the Hercules golf course and I see water rushing over Hercules Road,” he says. “The crossing signals are flashing because the water shorts out the lights and it causes the batteries to go nuts.”

The two newer bridges were still standing because they were built with modern construction techniques. “But everything north of that, all the way up Route 82 through Yorklyn, is gone,” Ludlow recalls. “It’s obliterated. It’s lying in ruins in the water.”

Six bridges had fallen—which could have been the end of the line for the Wilmington & Western. But Ludlow worked with local and state politicians, the state’s congressional delegation, the Department of Transportation and private businesses to secure the funding to rebuild.

“We just had a lot of people behind us that wanted us to succeed,” Ludlow says. “With that combination of everybody pulling for us, we were able to qualify for disaster relief money from FEMA. Without that money, we would not be here.”

Today, as the Wilmington & Western celebrates its golden anniversary, the iconic railroad is going stronger than ever. It will hold a series of special events this month to recognize the milestone (see bottom of article).

“This is a big, big deal,” says Ludlow. “We are one of the longest surviving tourist railroads in the United States. There are a few others that have been around just a little bit longer than we have but, amazingly enough, the whole heritage or tourist railroad business was started some 50 or 55 years ago. We were one of the first, and we’re still here.”

All agree that the railroad would have crumbled long ago if it weren’t for the 85-plus volunteers. They handle everything from repairing the track and equipment to working the gift shop to maintaining and operating the diesel and steam locomotives.

“Our trains are just a bunch of obsolete pieces of rail equipment that the railroad companies couldn’t care less about. It’s our people that have made this thing happen,” says Tommy Gears, a volunteer since 1981. “The route itself is an incredible ride. It’s a ride back in time. But without our people to make it happen, it’s nothing.”

Ludlow sings the praises of each and every volunteer. “They’re the people running it on the weekends,” he says. “They’re the ones building the fire in the steam locomotive at 6 o’clock in the morning. They’re the people who are pulling the whistle when we cross Route 41.”

Gears, who became hooked on trains after taking his first ride on the Wilmington & Western during a kindergarten field trip, also credits Ludlow’s leadership for the railroad’s longevity.

“David deserves an immense amount of credit,” Gears says. “David was the guy at the controls to guide us through both of the storms and rebuilding the bridges. I don’t know if we could have done it without him.”

As director, Ludlow oversees, coordinates and develops railroad operations, schedules, capital improvements and restoration projects. He also handles volunteer recruiting, staffing and training.

Gears says Ludlow has the passion needed to run a nonprofit, and he knows how to stretch a dollar.

“He understands it’s the big picture,” Gears says. “When we’re all gone and the railroad is still chugging along and giving people a taste of what early American transportation was like, that’s what it really is all about.”

The Wilmington & Western has hauled hundreds of thousands of passengers young and old along its 10 miles from Green Bank Station near Prices Corner to Valley Road in Hockessin. The railroad, which runs about 300 trips a year, offers picnic outings to Mt. Cuba and special rides on holidays, among other adventures. Last year, W&W welcomed 31,000 visitors, including 9,000 in December. It also hosted more than 200 birthday parties on its red cabooses.

The stars of the show, however, are the diesel and steam locomotives.

As part of this year’s 50th anniversary celebration, the shiny SW1 diesel locomotive No. 8408, which just returned from a four-year, $400,000 renovation in Philadelphia, will be dedicated on May 28. The beautiful blue-and-yellow beast was built in 1940 for the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad and it now sports an authentic B&O paint scheme.

While they shipped out this renovation, W&W employs its own mechanics, who help maintain the railroad’s equipment.

“You don’t need to wear glasses because everything’s big, but everything is heavy,” jokes chief mechanical officer Steve Jensen. “It’s getting to be a dying art. There’s a lot to these things, but when you see that they’re running, that’s the payoff.”

While he loves the train aspect of the railroad, Gears says the preservation of the Red Clay Valley is the most important part of W&W’s mission.

“We’ve become so suburbanized now, it’s hard to imagine that each of these little villages were little industrial hamlets,” he says. “That history is so important. We’re much more than a scenic railroad. We’re a history lesson. We’re a science lesson. We’re industrial, technology and people—it all comes together here.”

So as the Wilmington & Western embarks on its next 50 years, passionate people like Gears and Ludlow will remain the railroad’s backbone as it strives to provide education and enjoyment to others.

Says Ludlow, “We’ve really come a long way in 50 years.” 

50th anniversary events:

  • May 28: Dedication of restored diesel locomotive.
  • May 29: Members and volunteers reunion day.
  • June 11: Pufferbelly (two or more steam locomotives) Steampunk Express.
  • June 18-19: More steam action with a visiting steam locomotive.
  • Aug. 26: Gallery exhibition of the Charles Phillips photographic collection. Fifty enlarged, archive photographs of the Red Clay Valley in 1895. Most of these images have never been seen by the general public.
  • Sept. 17: Exclusive on-board dinner train traveling to the end of the railroad line at Valley Road in Hockessin. Limited seating.

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