illustration by Clay Sisk www.siskart.com
My first childhood recollection is of a train trip.
My family was returning to Louisiana from a cold three years in Chicago, and we were literally, as Arlo Guthrie sang, “riding on the City of New Orleans.” I apparently wailed a blue streak whenever my parents moved from car to car. It seemed like you could fall into the gap between them and get crushed by the wheels below.
You’d think I would have grown up with a phobia. I did. But it’s not about trains. They remain the one mode of transportation I have great man-love for. I embrace all the romantic notions of the railroad, and add one more: It is for me the most efficient, cost-effective and enjoyable way to get from Point A to Point B ever devised (notwithstanding Amtrak, which is more like getting from Point A to Point E via point R after a two-hour delay).
Take the labor of love that is our own Wilmington & Western Railroad, a restoration of the original 20-mile Wilmington-to-Landenberg line that served primarily as a freight carrier for the many mills that once operated along Red Clay Creek. It began operations in 1872, then promptly went belly up in 1877. Reborn as the Delaware Western Railroad, the line became profitable again, hauling a variety of materials, including, curiously, 50 percent of the world’s supply of snuff.
Today the Wilmington & Western is a top attraction for Delawareans who are looking for a peek back at their pasts. After several storms knocked out the original covered bridges along its route between Greenbank and Hockessin, the line is now fully restored, thanks to an $8 million investment by FEMA, the state, private groups and assorted fundraisers.
I recently rode the rails to taste a bit of the nostalgia. But I also wanted to observe the other passengers to see if my romance for the Iron Horse is misplaced. So I watched the faces of the child passengers to determine their level of awe and wonder. The youngest of them seemed more amused by the discovery of each other than anything aboard.
The most childlike of enthusiasm was reserved for the volunteers who operated the train. There was the engineer who excitedly explained how “the original Winton engines were replaced with a pair of Cummins HBIS-6 diesel engines, which led to a reclassification of the car from a GEG 350 to a Class OEG 350.”
Clay, our conductor, told me he thought he’d be bored after just a few runs after signing on as one of the line’s volunteers. But he became hooked by the line’s commuter history. He now plans to travel via commuter line from Wilmington to as far north as he can get (somewhere in Connecticut, he reckons.)
We stopped at a picnic grove in Mt. Cuba. There, the children’s faces were finally filled with the awe and wonder I had been looking for, as they afforded themselves the thrill of throwing rocks into Red Clay Creek. On the way in (as well as out, for that matter), you pass a nursing and convalescent home whose residents could very well have been alive when the Wilmington & Western was still a going concern. It’s a reminder of the ravages of time, the pace with which we choose to live our lives, and how fast so much disappears before we give ourselves a chance to savor it fully.
I should have taken the time to throw rocks into the creek with the children. Maybe I should have told one of them about my first train trip.
Then again, I probably would have frightened them so much about falling between the cars, their parents wouldn’t have been able to get them back on. D
Reid Champagne, our little writer that could, still dreams of the sons of