Editors' pick

Harpers Ferry Toy Train Museum and Joy Line Miniature Railroad

Museum
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Editorial Review

Ride the Joy Line to a Fun Time
By Patricia Weil Coates
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, August 1, 2003

For train enthusiasts, West Virginia is almost heaven. At the Harpers Ferry Toy Train Museum just west of the historic riverfront town, train-crazy kids of all ages will be in mini-railroad nirvana.

During our first visit, I had planned to spend about a half-hour at the train museum with my 5-year-old son, Liam. Well over two hours later, he had to be bribed away with the promise of an ice cream cone and the possibility of seeing real trains near downtown Harpers Ferry, which is about 90 minutes from Washington.

Although the toy train museum itself has a wonderful collection of antique Lionel standard-gauge and O-gauge trains (standard gauge tracks are three inches wide, O-gauge tracks are two inches wide) -- including a 75-foot operating layout -- the real draw for young railroad enthusiasts is the vintage 1950s Joy Line miniature railroad on the grounds of the museum.

Owner Chris Wallich, carrying on the tradition begun by his father, the late Robert Wallich Sr., obligingly fires up the gasoline-powered 40-horsepower locomotive when visitors drop in, taking them three times around the oval track, over the (tiny) bridge and through the (short) tunnel. For $1.50 a ride, chugging around the half-mile track in the open-air cars is both a pleasant and reasonable diversion.

Wallich rotates four different locomotives on the Joy Line, including a former steam engine that's been retrofitted to run on gas. Six passenger cars and four work cars round out the miniature railroad, whose loud toots and chugs are especially satisfying to anyone who likes to ride the rails.

In the unlikely event that the kids get tired of the train ride, there are two antique Hodges handcars (originally from an old amusement park in Takoma Park) on which they can manually propel themselves around a special track. Named Robert and Kitty after Wallich's parents, the silver-and-blue handcars are best suited for the 4- to 8-year-old crowd, although toddlers can be pushed around the track by an adult wielding a pole specially designed for the purpose. For children, the ability to drive themselves around the track by operating the handcars is very enticing indeed.

On a recent Sunday, Liam howled with pleasure as he raced around the track with Tanner Cantrell, 7, a Harpers Ferry native who comes to the toy train museum almost every weekend with his parents, Teresa and Marvin, and 1-year-old brother, James.

"We've been coming here for five years," said Teresa Cantrell, whose two older sons are also train museum fans.

The Joy Line's railroad "station" is an 1870s B&O Railroad section car house originally from Hagerstown. Appropriately dark and musty, with a working old potbellied wood stove, the station also houses old railroad artifacts and a small toy train collection. Kids will also be drawn to the jar of free lollipops on the old wood table.

Toy train aficionados must walk up a short hill to get to the building where most of Robert Wallich's extensive antique toy train collection is displayed. An avid train hobbyist for most of his 72 years, Wallich collected mainly pre-1939 Lionel trains, with a smattering of American Flyer and other types, including some windup and push toy trains. Still at the controls of the operating layout -- complete with bridges, tunnels, turntables, a roundhouse and even little lead people made in the 1920s and '30s -- is 82-year-old Kitty Wallich, Robert's widow. In the dim light of the train museum, Kitty takes pleasure in pointing out the particularly rare or important trains in her husband's collection, including a 1920 Toonerville Trolley. Like son Chris down the hill at the miniature railroad, she'll gladly flip the switches of the operating layout so that kids of all ages can watch the trains go rolling around the track.

Among the muted colors of the antique trains that line the walls of the museum, the bright blue of a small, familiar steam engine sticks out from the rest. Explains Kitty: "One boy who came was so upset that we didn't have a Thomas the Tank Engine, he gave one to me."

HARPERS FERRY TOY TRAIN MUSEUM AND JOY LINE MINIATURE RAILROAD -- Bakerton Road, Harpers Ferry, W.Va. 304-535-2291 or 304-535-2521. The museum and railroad are open weekends and holidays April through October from 9 to 5. Take the Beltway to I-270 North to Route 340 West (in Frederick) to Harpers Ferry. One mile west of Harpers Ferry, turn right onto Bakerton Road. The train museum is one mile down Bakerton Road on the left. Miniature train rides are $1.50 per person; handcar rides for children are $1.50 for three times around the track. The entrance fee for the toy train museum is also $1.50 per person.