By Kristy Alpert
As the first car of the Maine Eastern Railroad’s historic train makes its way around the final bend on its way into Rockland, Maine, the only sound that rings out more powerfully than the authoritative grinding of the steel wheels churning along the tracks is the awestricken silence that sweeps through the cars. The sudden sight of local lobster fishermen filling the harbor with their vibrant boats and colorful catches tends to take passengers’ breath away.
Sights like this, once seen only by train passengers of the early 1900s, are rare indeed. Fortunately for groups and locomotive lovers, extraordinary scenery and historic excursions reminiscent of past eras are becoming more accessible as scenic railways across the country restore and reinstate that timeless means of transportation.
Whether a tour through time complete with Hobo Lunches and scenic stops along the way, or simply a one-way ticket to sample some of the freshest seafood around, the following are a few scenic trains that will get your group’s gears fired up.
Branson Scenic Railway
Riding aboard the Branson Scenic Railway isn’t just a chance for groups to traverse the tracks of Branson; it’s an opportunity to experience the mighty Ozarks along the same route that brought the first settlers to the area years ago.
This year the railway celebrates 20 years of entertaining tourists on a 40-mile roundtrip ride in its stainless-steel zephyr train. Although the town may have expanded and changed significantly over the years, the mainstay continues to offer exceptional, narrated scenic tours through the foothills of the Ozark Mountains.
“When you board the train at the 1905 depot in downtown Branson, the seating is such that you can move around,” explained Illa Kamp, co-owner, vice president and general manager for the Branson Scenic Railway Inc. “Boarding is done first-come, first-served, in the order in which your ticket is purchased. Since each piece of equipment is unique, we like for people to get up and move around the cars so they can see how each one is different.”
Groups of 15 or more receive a discount onboard, from tickets to snacks in the galley, but all passengers get the treat of witnessing the tunnels, trestles and Ozark trees that make up the scenic track from March through December (with a Polar Express experience offered the last six weeks of the season).
“To see the nostalgia and preservation of history amongst the new parts of the downtown Branson area and to know we have kept alive the railway here, because the railroad is what brought everyone to the area, is a pretty great feeling,” Kamp said.
Maine Eastern Railroad
The Maine Eastern Railroad lures passengers with breathtaking autumn views previously enjoyed by the crew alone.
The railroad uses refurbished stainless-steel heritage cars from the 1940s and 50s. Everything about the trains remains authentic, from a long-tenured staff to historic highlights freckling the 57-mile route.
“The nature of the operation is that you get on the train here in Brunswick at 10 in the morning, and you’re in Rockland in about two hours,” explained Don Marson, vice president and general manager for the Maine Eastern Railroad, who claims that the experience is all about the journey.
Having worked for the railroad industry for the past 41 years, Marson doesn’t take long to explain the romance of what keeps drawing him and the many groups making this trek back time and again.
“It’s the view,” he said. “Coming down into the village, you come down along the bay there, and you come around the curve, and you can see the marina. I’ve worked for the railroad for 41 years, and I’ve never tired of that view.”