FALL EXCURSION train rides on the historic Walkersville Southern Railroad are a delightful and relaxing trip to nowhere. For passengers riding on the vintage open car or enclosed coach, the fun is all in the journey through the scenic Frederick County countryside, as the train chugs four miles to where the tracks have been paved over by Route 26 and then back to the original circa 1900 train station near the town of Walkersville.
Every weekend through the end of the month, train fans of all ages can enjoy vistas of the colorful foliage on the nearby Catoctin Mountains, as well as close-up looks of a century-old lime kiln, several local parks, cornfields and picturesque Barrick's Farm, which has been in operation for more than 170 years. If you're lucky, you'll get a photo-perfect view of cows near the old red barn, with rolling green pastures in the foreground and the mountains in the distance.
On a recent weekend, Colin Thomas of Poolesville celebrated his fourth birthday by riding the Walkersville Southern with his parents, sister Rachel, 9, and friend Carly Stoliker, 8. Rachel liked going past the "cow field," and Carly liked the view, but Colin's favorite part was going over the bridge. Indeed, a highlight of the hour and 15-minute round-trip ride is crossing over the Monocacy River on a restored railroad bridge. Originally built between 1869 and 1872, the bridge was damaged by Hurricane Agnes in 1972. Railroad volunteers rebuilt the bridge, which was reopened in 1996.
The railroad primarily uses a 1939 Davenport 30-ton diesel locomotive, although it owns several others. On most excursions, passengers can choose to sit on the wood benches of open car No. 11, a 1934 converted Baltimore & Ohio flat car, or on the comfier seats of the 1927 enclosed coach car, originally used on the Long Island Railroad. And what would a train be without its caboose? Walkersville Southern sports a cherry-red one, vintage 1949, complete with crew bunks, a pot-bellied stove and a potable water tank for the use of crews in times gone by. My son, Liam, 6, enjoyed climbing up the ladder to see the berths, where conductors and engineers used to rest.
The train operates rain or shine; on pleasant days most families will opt for the open car, where it feels as if you can reach out and touch the flowers, weeds and trees that grow alongside the tracks. And at leisurely speeds of 10 miles per hour or less, sharp-eyed riders like Carly can see groundhog holes and other evidence of wildlife along the way. "There goes another!" yelled Carly each time she spotted a large hole of animal origin.
Passengers like to wave at people in the vehicles that are temporarily stopped at several road crossings, where a flagger holds up traffic to let the train roll by. Traditional railroad whistle signals also alert locals to the oncoming train -- and add a satisfying authenticity to the ride.
The Walkersville Southern Railroad -- part of the Pennsylvania Railroad Frederick Secondary line, built in 1869 -- is operated and maintained entirely by volunteers. Each run requires an engineer, a fireman (whose duties in the past included keeping the engine fired and the steam pressure up, but who now simply assists the engineer), brakeman, conductor and flagger, as well as a stationmaster and a cashier in the train-themed gift shop.
Conductors like B.K. Lunde collect tickets and give some commentary during the unhurried trip. "I work full time, but I'm getting ready to retire," said Lunde, who enjoys her duties on the train. On a recent ride, Lunde pointed out some old telegraph poles, as well as some original mileposts that designated the distance to Frederick as well as Columbia, Pa., the origin of the old Pennsylvania Railroad.
For the more daring, the railroad is running some special Ghost, Halloween and Haunted Rail/Trail trains late in the month. The Ghost trains feature evening rides with both "scary" and "non-scary" cars; hot cider and doughnuts will be served. The Halloween train, sponsored by the Frederick County Parks and Recreation Department, picks up passengers at Fountain Rock Nature Center and goes on a slightly shorter ride. The evening Haunted Rail/Trail rides begin at Walkersville Community Park and take passengers on a brief train ride to Fountain Rock Nature Center, where passengers hike the "haunted" trail through the woods to the center.
And as Halloween chugs inevitably into the holidays, Santa will ride the rails offering cocoa, cookies and an ear for Christmas wishes.
WALKERSVILLE SOUTHERN RAILROAD -- 34 W. Pennsylvania Ave., Walkersville. Take the Beltway to Interstate 270 north to Route 15 north in Frederick. Continue about five miles past Frederick and then turn right onto Biggs Ford Road. Proceed two miles to the train station on the right. 301-898-0899 or 877-363-9777. www.wsrr.org. Hour and 15-minute train excursions run every Saturday and Sunday through October, with departures at 11, 1 and 3 on Saturdays, and 11 and 1 on Sundays. Seats are sold on a first-come, first-served basis. $8, $4 for children, $7 for seniors; children under 3 ride for free unless occupying a seat. Check the Web site or call for information on the Ghost, Halloween and Haunted Rail/Trail rides later this month, and Santa trains in November and December.