If there is a prime time to embark on a scenic railroad ride in New England mountain country, then fall is that time. Enthusiasts have plenty of options to choose from, too, as scenic operators have tapped into the rich history of railroading in the region to offer an experience for riders that emphasizes the history, tradition and beauty of a simpler time.
Mount Washington Cog Railway
Fondly known as “The Cog,” the world’s first rack-and-pinion mountain-climbing train officially opened to the public in 1869 and has been chug-chugging its way up and down the Northeast’s highest peak ever since. It remains one of New England’s most beloved mountain adventures, steeped both in nostalgia and in elevation. Its average grade above 25 percent makes it the second steepest rack railway in the world today.
Scenic train rides aboard the Cog take about an hour to the summit and an hour back to the base station with an hour in between for guests to explore the views from the top, including the Sherman Adams Visitor Center. Guests will be rewarded with 360-degree views into five states, Canada and the Atlantic Ocean — depending on weather and visibility, of course. Trips depart daily from April through November. Reservations are held only until 15 minutes before departure, so be sure to get there in advance.
Visitors also should be sure to check out the free Cog Railway Museum that features historic displays and interactive exhibits. Also here, the Emmy Award-winning documentary “Climbing to the Clouds” is shown.
Conway Scenic Railroad
This fall, visitors can step back in time, again, at New Hampshire’s Conway Scenic Railroad, which is celebrating 45 years in business and just completed a four-year restoration and overhaul of its original steam locomotive, No. 7470.
To celebrate its return to service, along with the company’s 45th anniversary, CSR held a ceremony over the summer to name the venerable 7470 after its founder, Dwight A. Smith, who is 94 years old. Smith acquired the engine in 1968 and put it in service for the start-up Conway Scenic Railroad in 1974 — the company’s first locomotive.
“Being that I rode behind this engine when I first visited the Conway Scenic with my parents back in 1975, it gives me great pleasure to have restored the engine to operational condition for everyone to enjoy,” said David Swirk, Conway Scenic president and general manager.
“The 7470 is the very first locomotive that Conway Scenic owned and operated, and we know that it has a special place in the hearts of many who come to ride on our railroad,” Swirk said. “With the completion of the required work, we expect to see her operating here for many years to come.”
Steam locomotive 7470 was built by Grand Trunk Railway in Montreal in 1921. The coal-fired switching locomotive weighs 87 tons and the tender weighs 65 tons. Over the decades, Conway Scenic — and the 7470 — have carried hundreds of thousands of passengers.
Conway Scenic operates out of its main train station in downtown North Conway, a complex that is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Visitors can climb aboard the Notch Train, which cuts through Crawford Notch (a five-hour round trip), or the Valley Train, which runs south to Conway (55-minute round trip) or west to Bartlett (1¾-hour round trip). In the fall foliage season, the Notch Train is extended to 5½ hours, traveling to Fabyan Station, located near Bretton Woods in the town of Carroll.
The Notch: The Notch Train dates back to the 1870s, when it served as the Maine Central Railroad’s Mountain Division line. Today, visitors from around the world climb aboard for an inspiring ride through rugged Crawford Notch and its sheer bluffs, steep ravines, cascading brooks and streams, and panoramic mountain vistas.
Excursions include a layover at Crawford Station, across from Saco Lake and adjacent to the AMC’s Highland Center. Passengers are encouraged to get off the train, stretch their legs and explore their beautiful surroundings.
In the fall, riders can travel all the way to Fabyan Station, a 60-mile round trip journey. All rides feature live commentary onboard, offering an informed glimpse into the history and folklore of the railroad and all its points of interest.
The Valley: Winding through the Mount Washington Valley to Bartlett or to Conway without venturing into any serious mountain climbing, the valley line welcomes riders aboard vintage passenger cars dating to the 1920s.
The Bartlett excursion is a relaxing journey through valley fields and woodlands, crossing the East Branch, Saco and Ellis rivers along the way. The Conway excursion is a shorter ride, ideal for families with young children, that travels south past the Moat Mountain Range and parallels Route 16 before passing through farmlands and crossing Moat Brook, the Saco and Swift rivers on the way to Conway.
The CSR is offering several new fall adventures in 2019:
Johnny Appleseed Express | Sept. 7–Oct. 14 | On the Valley Train, CSR will offer an optional weekend stop at Densmore Orchards on its journey to Conway, where passengers can get off the train to visit the orchard and farm stand for about 20 minutes. Passengers who elect to disembark at the orchard will be picked up by the train on its return trip to North Conway.
Pumpkin Patch Express | Oct. 18-20; Oct. 25-27 | Designed for families, the railroad’s “Pumpkin Patch” stop in Conway invites guests to disembark to participate in a variety of activities. Children can pick out their own pumpkins and participate in games like “Corn Cob Toss” and barrel car rides. There will be two departures daily, at 11:30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m., as well as a 3 p.m. train on both Saturdays.
Autumn Express | Oct. 20 | This special excursion through Crawford Notch will be hosted by the Kiwanis Club of Mount Washington Valley and by the Mount Washington Valley Habitat for Humanity. It is a fundraiser to benefit local families and children’s charities supported by the clubs. Included in the excursion is a one-hour layover at Crawford Station, which is located across from Saco Lake and adjacent to the Appalachian Mountain Club’s Highland Center.
Murder Mystery Dinner Train | Oct. 25-6; Nov. 1-2 | “Rock, Roll and Rigor Mortis” is the theme of this year’s Murder Mystery Dinner Train. The scenario is a trainload of washed-up musicians who’ve lost all their money, fame and fortune, not to mention their looks and talent. When the band gets back together for one last hurrah, the music that made them famous could end up being the death of one of them. Someone has a secret they want to keep, at all costs, and will do anything, even commit murder, to protect it.
Passengers should dress as their favorite ’80s rock stars or come as groupie and are invited to participate in as much or as little as they’d like to uncover clues and determine who the killer is onboard.
The train departs promptly at 6 p.m. Cocktails will be served and all meals will be prepared to order by the partnering culinary team at Attitash Resort.
Heroes Appreciation Day | Nov. 10 | This excursion is CSR’s way to thank all those who serve the country and the communities. Veterans and active military personnel who present proof of service, as well as first responders who present agency ID or badge, ride for free.
Journey to the North Pole | Offered on multiple dates: Nov. 29-Dec. 1, Dec. 6-8, Dec. 12-15 and Dec. 19-23 | CSR is inviting families to start a new tradition aboard a train to the North Pole along with Santa and his elves. When the train reaches its destination, boys and girls will be escorted by Santa’s helpers to the North Pole Theater, can leave their Santa letters at the Post Office and can visit with print shop elves along the way.
Green Mountain Railroad
Owned and operated by the Wulfson family for more than 50 years, the Green Mountain Railroad offers seasonal departures from both Burlington and Chester, Vt. Trains depart from Burlington from May through October. And in September and October, fall foliage trains depart from Chester simultaneously with trains in Burlington.
The railroad operates more than 15 passenger cars in two fleets — the Green Fleet and the Silver Fleet. The Green Fleet features former commuter cars from the Central Railroad of New Jersey, while the Silver Fleet consists of former Santa Fe Budd coaches.
The Silver Fleet cars were purchased by the Vermont Railway for the Sugarbush Express excursion train, which ran between Burlington and Middlebury during the 1990s. The cars were later transferred to the Green Mountain Rail Corporation.
Some seasonal offerings include:
Champlain Valley Dinner Train: This three-hour round-trip dinner train from Burlington to Middlebury comes with narration and guidebook to follow along. Passengers will be served a three-course gourmet dinner created onboard the kitchen car, served with the Vermont landscape rolling past as a backdrop.
Murder Mystery Rides: Upcoming murder mystery tours aboard the Green Mountain Railroad include “Murder at Bunny & Clyde’s” on Sept. 21-22 and “Scary Poppins” on Oct. 26-27. As the audience arrives for each show, they are assigned new identities for the evening. Some of them become suspects in the crime as the mystery unfolds and a murder occurs. It’s up to passengers to figure out “whodunnit.”
The trains board on the platform behind Main Street Landing, also known as One Main Station, in Burlington. Murder mystery rides include a three-course meal with interactive comedy entertainment facilitated by Upstage Productions, which has been performing such shows since 1989.
Fall Foliage Rides: One-hour round trips are offered to Rockingham, rolling by two covered bridges along the Connecticut River and over the Brockway Mills Gorge. Two-hour round trips are offered to Ludlow, passing through historic villages, along rivers, through the Green Mountains and over a high trestle in Ludlow before returning to Chester. Chester Depot is located at 563 Depot St.
Lounge 91: Billed as Burlington’s only moving lounge, this journey will take passengers back to the Prohibition era inside a vintage lounge car. From the comfort of leather lounge seats, customers will indulge in live music, all you can eat hors-d’oeuvres, cocktails and the beautiful scenery as it rolls by.
Downeast Scenic Railroad
Maine’s Downeast Scenic Railroad offers 90-minute excursions that reach back in time as passengers are ushered through scenic vistas and wildlife sightings that define the state. Round-trip tours are offered on the historic Calais Branch Line from Ellsworth to Ellsworth Falls and then to Washington Junction and back to Ellsworth.
The 24-mile rehabilitated Washington Junction/Ellsworth to Green Lake section of the Calais Branch Line is the core of the railroad’s offerings. The line originally was built in 1884 as the Maine Shore Line Railroad to move passengers from larger Northeastern cities such as Philadelphia, New York and Washington, D.C., during the summer months to the then-new vacation area of Mount Desert Island, Bar Harbor and what would become Acadia National Park.