When the newly constructed Atlantic and St. Lawrence Railroad arrived in Gorham, N.H., in July 1851, the future of the Mount Washington Valley and White Mountains charted a new trajectory. Prior, the region catered largely to commercial traffic and the occasional visitor traveling by stagecoach. And other than a few taverns at road intersections and ferry crossings, there wasn’t much to do compared to what we know of “the Valley” today.
But it wasn’t long before the railroad industry gained a foothold across New England, and taverns were converted to hotels in response to an influx of tourists. Railway infrastructure continued to improve into the 20th century, connecting major hubs like New York, Boston and Portland to rural destinations throughout New England. Grand hotels and inns, few of which still exist today, were built to host wealthy vacationers from East Coast cities during the summers. After the first passengers were dropped off in Gorham, construction of the highway through
Pinkham Notch began, as did the Mount Washington Auto Road — the nation’s oldest manmade attraction. And thus, the age of tourism in small-town New England was born.
In the mid-20th century, the construction of interstate highways along with the popularization of personal automobiles led to the demise of the rail system, but the newly found tourism industry would continue to grow in increasingly popular destinations like North Conway, Bar Harbor and Rutland, to name a few. Today, some of these rail systems continue to operate as tourist attractions, providing visitors with a prime opportunity to pay tribute to the region’s rich history.
Conway Scenic Railroad
Once a major hub for passengers, mail and newspapers, the Conway Scenic Railroad began running tourist excursions out of North Conway Station just two years after the last freight train departed for Boston. The original line was constructed during the summer of 1872 and connected Conway and North Conway. It eventually was expanded and began seeing the arrival of “snow trains,” which transported skiers from New York, New Haven, Boston and other cities during the winter months. Today, the Conway Scenic Railroad continues to operate, offering a variety of options for travelers to choose from.
Mountaineer to the Notch: From June 16 through Oct. 31, the Conway Scenic Railroad runs trips to Crawford Notch on a section of railroad laid 150 years ago. The train runs to Crawford Depot through September 19, crossing exposed trestles with sweeping views of the dramatic cliffs and valleys that the White Mountains are famous for. Between Sept. 20 and Oct. 16, the train continues to Fabyan Station, just north of Crawford Notch, before resuming standard operation to Crawford Depot for the rest of the season. While onboard, guests will hear historic lessons and stories about the area. Expect trips to Crawford Depot to last five hours, while trips to Fabyan Station are about 40 minutes longer.
Valley Train: The Valley Train is a shorter excursion that stays in the Mount Washington Valley and runs historic routes to Conway and Bartlett. These trips are 60 and 90 minutes to Conway and Bartlett, respectively, and utilize century-old cars to whisk passengers to a time before personal automobiles were the norm. While neither of the Valley Train routes enter the same rugged terrain as the Mountaineer, there are still plenty of mountain views, river crossings and overall memorable experiences to be had.
The Cog Railway
At a maximum grade of almost 37 percent, the Cog Railway, which ascends the western flank of Mount Washington to its summit, is the second steepest railway in the world (only the Pilatus cogwheel railway in Switzerland, which reaches a maximum of 48 percent, is steeper). “The Cog,” as it is known by locals, was an engineering marvel during its inception in the mid-19th century, built purely for tourism. It used a rack-and-pinion design, in which pinion wheels on the cars engage with a “rack” on the tracks, allowing it to ascend steep grades. While a similar design had been used elsewhere in the world, this was the first of its kind in the U.S.
The idea to build a railway to the summit of the Northeast’s tallest peak was conceived by Sylvester Marsh — an inventor from Chicago — in 1852 after climbing the mountain, experiencing its alpine views, and realizing its potential for tourism. Plans for the design were put into motion almost immediately, and 17 years later, the project was completed.
Now, the Cog continues to bring tourists to the summit as it has for more than a century and a half. When the harsh alpine winters begin to set in at higher elevations around Columbus Day Weekend, the train ceases operations to the summit until early spring. It does, however, continue operating to Waumbek Station, which is located partially up the mountain at almost 4,000 feet above sea level.
Green Mountain Railroad
Formed in 1964, the Green Mountain Railroad consists of 52 miles of track between Bellow Falls, Vt., and Rutland, for tourist excursions.
Today, the railroad is part of the 350-mile railroad network in Vermont and continues to operate a variety of trips and tours from Chester and Burlington.
Pumpkin Patch Express: Starting in Chester, the Pumpkin Patch Express is a great all-ages train ride to a pumpkin patch where children will search for and pick their favorite pumpkin. Passengers are welcome to dress up in their favorite halloween costumes and various stories are told. The entire trip takes approximately 3.5 hours.
Chester to Rutland: This six-hour round-trip excursion includes a two-hour stop in the town of Rutland, which is a quintessential Vermont town with shops, cafes, restaurants and local businesses. The ride itself takes passengers through the heart of the Green Mountains, offering spectacular views of the countryside.
Champlain Valley Dinner Train: Operating from Burlington to Middlebury, this three-hour ride is a great way to wind down after a day of exploring Vermont’s quaint towns and peaceful trails. During the trip, guests enjoy a three-course dinner, coffee and drinks for an additional fee. Between May 15 and Sept. 5, trips operate from 5:30 until 8:30 p.m. before switching to 3:30 until 6:30 p.m. on Sept. 11 until Oct. 25.
Wine Tasting Train Ride from Burlington: When thinking about domestic wine, most people’s thoughts turn to California’s wine country. But the Northeast has its own roots steeped in quality grapes and wines. The Wine Tasting Train Ride in Vermont is exactly what you’d imagine — a train ride with a wine tasting. This three-hour round trip ride through the Champlain Valley provides guests with on-board brunch and professionally picked wine tastings to complement each of the four courses. Afterward, stop by the Shelburne Vineyard to see where some of Vermont’s finest wines are made.
Downeast Scenic Railroad
Originally built in 1884 as the Maine Shore Line Railroad from Brewer to Washington Junction, the Downeast Scenic Railroad operated for more than a century in some capacity before being shut down. This line was one of the premier railways of its day, transporting wealthy tourists to the resorts and hotels on Mount Desert Island.
While part of a larger rail network during its initial operation, today’s tours start and end at the Washington Junction Railyard, traveling through rural and residential areas during its one hour, 45-minute duration. Wildlife is not an uncommon sight while rolling through downeast Maine’s forests, with songbirds, beavers and even the occasional moose calling these areas their home.
Although times are much different now than they were when train travel was reserved for the wealthiest, the Downeast Scenic Railroad give guests a glimpse into what life was like during the turn of the century.