The uniformed conductor says he can’t guarantee that we’ll see eagles today. But when you’re riding a train called the Potomac Eagle, and there are nesting bald eagles in the forest every three miles along the track, chances are pretty good that you’ll see an eagle.
As it happened, we saw at least a dozen eagles on our three-hour tour, even on a drizzly day. Of course, it could have been the same six eagles that we saw twice, coming and going, but it didn’t matter. Seeing a bald eagle in flight is a real and rare thrill.
We began our eagle-spotting on a Saturday afternoon in Romney, W.Va., a pleasant 2 1/2-hour drive from Washington. The Wappocomo Station, where the Potomac Eagle originates, is a collection of railroad cars just outside the town proper, converted into a ticket depot and a gift shop along the tracks.
Two diesel engines pulled our cars. They’re two of four in service to the private company that owns the line, and they’re pretty cool to see up close. Built between 1949 and 1957, they’re tall and long on the outside, but a sneak peek through an open door at the engineer’s cab reveals an area about the size of a sports car, with a smallish windshield and remarkably few controls.
According to operations manager Rodney E. Matheny, one of the retired railroad professionals who keep the train moving, the humble Potomac Eagle has been the setting for a wedding (the groom was compelled to take off his John Deere hat for the photos) and a funeral (the remains of the deceased were shaken out of an urn from the moving train).
There are also interactive murder mysteries and special holiday excursions, but we were there just to see the eagles. The three of us — my wife and I and our 13-year-old son, who couldn’t be cajoled into any degree of excitement for a “train ride to nowhere” — took padded seats facing one another and lowered the windows to let in the fresh country air as the train pulled out of the station.
We were in the middle car of several carrying 70 or so passengers. On one end was the Classic Club Car, which costs more to ride in but has climate control, light snacks, dessert and its own beverage service. Frankly, we preferred the regular car, a bit rickety and noisy and self-service but more old-timey charming.
On the other end was an open-air car, but the rainy weather kept it closed to riders; however, there’s a standing-only car with a roof but no windows, which affords terrific views of the mountains and fields we rolled through.
We were in that car enjoying the scenery when, just minutes after leaving the station, a woman’s voice announced over a loudspeaker that there was an eagle flying along the left side of the train. We trundled over and, yes, a few dozen yards away at eye-level was an immature (all brown) eagle, ripping the sky with its wings as it flew along slightly faster than the train’s speed, which I found out later maxes out at 25 mph. Our engineer, Paul Curry, explained that the speed limit and the locations where he can blow the whistle are regulated so as not to disturb the wildlife, particularly the eagles.
The train rolled into “the Trough,” a six-mile stretch of river canyon flanked by the South Branch of the Potomac and the steep, densely forested Sawmill Ridge and River Ridge. Most of the year, the train runs just on weekends, on three-hour or all-day excursions, but beginning in October, when the trees explode into red, yellow and gold, it adds cars and runs daily during the week and twice daily on weekends.
Jean Shoemaker, a former history teacher in the local schools, manned a microphone and provided a running travelogue as we rumbled along. She told us about the former and current uses of the sturdy stone houses of the area, the histories of the various residents of note (Gen. Lew Wallace, author of “Ben-Hur,” lived nearby when he served in the Union Army) and tales of area Civil War and Colonial-era battles.
We visited the snack car just before the train went into reverse at the Sycamore Bridge to begin the 17-mile trek back to Romney. We ordered hot dogs and popcorn and sat at a table, enjoying the continuous view of the countryside. We saw a doe and two fawns crossing the river below us; we waved back at canoeists paddling along; and look, more eagles. It never got old.
When he has a chance, the conductor, Richard Liken, will sit with you and answer questions about the 20-year history of the excursion line. But it seemed as though every time he found a second to sit with us, there was another announcement of an eagle sighting, and we were all on our feet again.
McClain is the rugby columnist for NBC-Universal Sports and editor of the print and online publication “Selling to Seniors.”
Route 50 East
Opened in 1936; kitschy but genuine retro 1940s motel decor and attitude. Rooms from $57.
Route 50 East
Convenient to the train station; management is trying to outfit each room with something historic from the region. Rates from $91.
41 E. Main St.
450 E. Main St.
Casual Italian eatery cum pizza joint. Subs from $5.99.
Route 28 North
Three-hour excursion $48; $20 for children 6 to 16. The Classic Club Car is $80 for anyone 6 or older, $90 starting in October. All-day trips are $80 in coach, $30 for children; Classic Car fares $125 for all ages (including a full meal beginning in October). Discounts available for those older than 60.