Foliage and time travel

Construction began in 1846 on the
Boston, Concord and Montreal Railroad, so business travellers and others have
been gazing out the windows of trains huffing north into the White Mountains of
New Hampshire for quite some time. Eddie and Brenda Clark only took the idea of
a train rolling through tree-carpeted countryside and turned it into a lavish
autumn excursion for sightseers in no particular hurry.

When the Clarks bought the line, in
the 1980s, they originally had in mind a railroad theme park. That plan grew
into the Hobo and Winnipesaukee Scenic Railroads, which cover about 88.5
kilometres of track in New Hampshire.

The trip “fits that whole image of
New England in the fall,” said Emily Clark, Eddie and Brenda’s daughter-in-law,
who works for the family owned Hobo line.

It is one of many vintage (or
tourist) railroads – using steam or diesel engines – in the Northeast that do
most of their business in the autumn, and for good reason: They take sightseers
through woodland faster than on foot but slower than in a car. On the tracks,
“you make good progress, but you aren’t flying by, unable to enjoy the view,”
said Jim Wrinn, editor of Trains magazine.

Peak foliage season in the
Northeast varies from year to year, depending on temperature and rainfall. But
generally leaves turn colour from north to south during a six-week period from
about the middle of September to the first week of November, according to
tracking sites like foliagenetwork.com, which provides regular reports.

In recent years, about a dozen
tourist railroads in the region have added and expanded programs that take
advantage of the exquisite autumn views. The Hobo and the Winnipesaukee, for
example, offer one-, two-, four-hour and all-day trips. The Lehigh Gorge Scenic
Railway in Pennsylvania, the Catskill Mountain Railroad in upstate New York and
the Wilmington & Western Railroad in Delaware are among the lines that
cater to leaf peepers.

And seats fill fast. “We shotgun
these things out the door, one after the other,” said David Ludlow, executive
director of the Wilmington & Western.

Aesthetically, vintage steam or
diesel locomotives offer trips back in time. Although the notion of “foliage
trains” has been around since tourist railroads replaced some working ones 50
years ago, Wrinn said these trains retained their popularity because most roll
through undeveloped land, like woods and farms.

“You can drive and see the fall
colours, but you’re spending 75 percent of your attention on the road,” Wrinn
said. “While with the train, you can let someone else take care of the
transportation, and you can enjoy the changing kaleidoscope of autumn colours.”

Some of the rides are open-air, and
Wrinn said that onboard, “there’s a certain joy in feeling the chill of the air
in your face – it’s a subtle reminder that this beauty is fleeting and should
be savoured.”

Wrinn said he was a big fan of the
Conway Scenic Railroad, in northern New Hampshire near the Maine border, and
the Western Maryland Scenic Railroad whose tracks slip through the rolling,
tree-blanketed Allegheny Mountains. But you do not have to be a train buff to
take advantage of lines within a short drive from New York with views – at
comfortable temperatures.

The Catskill Mountain Railroad,
which runs between Mount Tremper and Phoenicia near the Esopus Creek, chugs
through a majestic tunnel of tree branches that looks like a cathedral. The
Wilmington & Western, a 16-kilometre excursion, travels from the Coastal
Plain region to the Piedmont, offering a glorious display of hardwoods with
leaves in blazing colours.

Many of these panoramas cannot be
seen from a road or are very difficult to access, even on foot. The Potomac
Eagle runs along the south branch of the Potomac River, near Romney, West
Virginia. David Corbitt, president of the railroad, said there was no way a car
could get down into the deep valley, locally known as the Trough.

That’s one reason the landscape
remains pristine. Corbitt said activity around eagles’ nests among the limestone
cliffs was at its peak in the autumn. Fox and bear sightings are common.
Waterfowl migrate through the area. Paddlers in canoes or kayaks can enjoy the
autumn scenery, Corbitt said, “but that’s about it.”

Although there are elaborate,
multiday New England fall foliage excursions like those coordinated by
Vacations by Rail and other companies and some leaf peepers have been known to
book a year ahead, smaller railroads say those who call ahead for information
and arrive at least an hour before the departure of foliage excursions usually
get seats.

Some lines tie into autumn’s
splendour with pumpkin patches at stops along the way, offering cider and
cookies to everyone, and pumpkins to the youngest riders. Others coordinate
trains with local foliage festivals, like the Lehigh Gorge line in Jim Thorpe,
Pennsylvania, which offers special two-and-a-half-hour Hometown High Bridge
excursions on weekends in October.

“We were turning hundreds of people
away a day,” so more trains were added last year, said Laura Kennedy, the
director of the Lehigh Gorge Scenic Railway.

Visitors to the Conway Scenic
Railroad come from all over the world in the fall, and the number of visitors
from the Western United States spikes dramatically in October, said Susan
Logan, the railroad’s director of marketing and events. To meet the demand, the
railroad offers short excursions to a pumpkin patch and longer excursions like
a five-and-a-half-hour trip.

The mood on a foliage train tends
to be more serene than it is in the summer, Emily Clark said, because children
have returned to school, and the riders tend to be older. And as leaves thin,
rock formations and waterways are more visible.

Those who built railroads like the
Boston, Concord and Montreal through the Northeastern United States more than a
century ago were simply trying to find a way to transport freight and
passengers from one rural outpost to another. Now passengers are looking for a
way to move like a slowpoke.

“You definitely get that old-world
nostalgia,” Emily Clark said.

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