Colebrookdale Railroad Reinvents a Transportation Corridor, Taking It from Industrial to Magical
The night before the "soft" opening of the Colebrookdale Railroad, the Boyertown Rail Yard swarms with volunteers. Their efforts center on the cars sitting on the gray rails, positioned for departure the following day with an eager group of riders.
A jet-black engine is the stern and imposing leader, recalling the days when this line was dedicated to serving the area's iron-ore transportation needs. But opposite it is the red caboose, cheery and inviting.
In between, an open-air car is being prepped for use as a "hayride on the tracks," and many hands are busy positioning straw bales, festive lanterns and fall decorations. A separate crew is putting a high-gloss shine on the exterior, spraying and wiping. The adjacent coach, which dates to 1927, features orange lights, Indian corn and plastic spider webs hanging from its ceiling. A small kiosk inside is being stocked with tasty snacks for the first riders of the following day.
The setting sun brings on a chill, but the air is full of the scent of freshly drying paint and the beep-beep-beep sound of a backhoe grading the parking lot.
At the center of the activity is Nathaniel Guest, head of the Colebrookdale Railroad Preservation Trust. Guest is monitoring dozens of details around him but is somehow attending to all of them, ensuring that the first passengers on this historic railway have a positive experience.
"How did you become interested in trains?" I ask. "Were you a fan of them as a kid? Did you ride them? Collect model trains?"
"All of the above," Guest replies. "My grandfather took me on several tourist railroads, and I can't recall a happier childhood memory. I want to recreate that. It's an honor to be able to offer a venue for children to make those kinds of memories."
Guest isn't alone in his passion. A corps of volunteers - all train aficionados in one form or another - have rolled up their sleeves and pitched in with everything from painting cars to replacing railroad ties along the nine-mile track. "Each car represents 10,000 volunteer hours to restore," Guest cites. "And there are four cars we're working on right now."
Days later, I return for a sneak-peek excursion. The soft-open weekend has been a rousing success, with the cars repeatedly filled to their capacity of 50.
We are issued vintage-looking tickets ("Livestock and unruly children must be checked with the baggage agent," it kiddingly reminds) and welcomed aboard.
After a quick welcome from Guest, who now sports a conductor's cap, vest and pocket watch, the train begins to rumble forward. We begin the journey that slices through Berks and Montgomery Counties.
Guest relays history along the way: He points out rock cuts that were made by Civil War veterans who blasted through the hillsides to carve a passage for the rails. Occasional dots of black powder remain on the craggy surfaces. He also marks where an accident sent boxcars tumbling into the ravine below.
At 15 mph, the ride is serene and beautiful. The foliage at this time of year is a dazzling array of greens, golds, yellows and browns, and the Manatawny Creek meanders near the train bed. It is breathtaking to behold.
Colebrookdale's Saturday-Sunday schedule centers on leaf-peeping into November. A Friday evening excursion offers a bonfire and s'mores. In mid-November, holiday-themed train rides start to overtake the schedule, and a New Years' Eve departure includes a toast and hors d'oeuvres.
As we rattle through the countryside, I meet conductor-volunteer Jack Heist. He is spry for 71 years old, and the rocking of the train doesn't shake his footing even a little. Turns out, he's got the genes for effortlessly riding the rails. "My father worked on this original line," he says. "And my grandfather as well. I rode this train when I was seven years old, when my dad took me to work one day."
Heist's familial ties to the Colebrookdale Railroad include one of its more infamous moments: "One of the train cars ran away," he relates, eyes sparkling with animation. "There was a problem with the brake, and in trying to fix it, the railman accidentally disengaged the coupler. So the train rode downhill, picking up speed as it was heading toward Pottstown. The telegraph operator sent word forward on the line that there was a problem, and my grandfather threw the switch that sent the train onto a spur toward Sanatoga, where it eventually slowed to a stop. Nobody was injured, but the men who were stuck on the roof were a little shaken up."
Heist is semi-retired. "But this isn't work," he says, tossing his glance around the cars and passengers. "This is sheer enjoyment."
We pass by a former dam, a home used by George Washington, several wooden trestles and the vestiges of rail spurs that have been all but erased by nature. Each time we approach a street crossing, the engine bellows its whistle, and the sound echoes across the valley like the deafening roar of a dragon. At Route 100, a four-lane highway, cars drift to a stop, but their drivers look curiously as a four-car train passes by. We wave, cheerily.
As colder weather settles in, Colebrookdale will retire the open-air car presently being used and replace it with a 1919 Pullman model that has a more robust heating system to ensure passenger comfort. This winter, organizers are considering a continuation of their schedule, weather permitting. They look forward to introducing riders to views of the countryside blanketed by snow, with only the dots of deer tracks interrupting the white canvas.
The Colebrookdale Railroad will spend the next year in building mode, with a full-fledged grand opening scheduled for October 2015. Further refurbishment to the cars will include face-to-face seating to enable groups to sit together. A station in Pottstown's Manatawny Park will open up walkable tourism options such as the Pottstown Carousel, Pottsgrove Manor, Manatawny Still Works, the Sly Fox Brewing Company, the Schuylkill River Trail and the Manatawny Green Mini Golf complex. The telegraph lines are also scheduled for revival, and a transcriptionist on the train will deliver Morse-code messages - everything from birthday greetings to marriage proposals.
At the Pottstown terminus, today's ride is half over. The engine takes a siding rail to switch positions to the "rear" of the train. It then attaches to the caboose to pull us back toward Boyertown.
Less than an hour later, we arrive at the rail yard, leaving the treasures of "The Secret Valley" behind. The noise and bustle of the 21st century return, but the distant call of a train whistle, either real or imagined, keeps the simplicity and peacefulness of the past close at hand.
The Colebrookdale Railroad has something to offer everyone, as the area's newest attraction for history buffs, adventurers, family fun and those seeking a little unplug-time. It's not hard to think of the evening rides offering the chance for romance, and an array of nearby hotels provides the chance to combine a ride on the rails with a stay over.