Most people who travel often, like Carl Yastrzemski and John Madden once did, get to a certain age and wonder how many more chances you may get to fly in an airplane before you run into a big problem at seven miles in the sky.
Of course it’s irrational, or let’s say, less rational than worrying about how many more car trips you can take before your luck runs out on the highway.
Be it luck, crowded airports, canceled flights and tiny seats, there’s a whole cadre of Americans who just prefer travel by track. Either for necessity of getting from place to place, or the sheer fun of cruising to no place in particular, taking the train appeals to a huge and growing fan base.
Last summer my wife and I combined a trip up Mount Washington on the Cog Railway followed by a trip on the Conway Scenic Railroad from North Conway Station through Crawford Notch to Fabyan Station, not far from the Mount Washington Hotel. It’s about a 55-mile round trip.
Obviously, nostalgia is the idea here, as both railroads ride over America’s original outdoor playground — the White Mountain National Forest. On one of the rides, we met a couple of pals from Pittsburgh who wore jeans, identical RR commemorative T shirts, and engineer caps. About once a year, they said, they left their wives (who didn’t dare ride the Cog) at the shopping mall and got on the steam-driven cog train for an incredibly loud, environmentally incorrect chug-a-lug up a three-mile wooden track on a pitch up to 37 percent in places — anyway, so steep that the trees look like they’re bent nearly to the ground.
For those who do have a cringe reaction to giant clouds of black coal smoke, the Cog does offer rides on comparatively silent biodiesel engines. You might pick up an occasional odor of onion rings, but it beats coal smoke so thick it makes your eyes water.
The two Pittsburgh fellows who had been pals from youth, reckoned they had ridden every historical recreational railroad in the country, and of course made frequent trips through the rolling hills of the Keystone state on The Pennsylvanian, with its own railroad museum at the site of the famed “Horseshoe Curve” in Altoona.
You can’t ride the Cog without learning the history of its creator — a meat-packing magnate from Chicago named Sylvester Marsh, who had more in mind than building a mere amusement ride.
Since the early 1800s, people from all over had been climbing Mount Washington, and several buildings had appeared. But it was hugely challenging to get materials and workers up the mountain, so once, when Marsh got lost in the fog on a mountain climb, he had some time to think about things, and the idea of the Cog sprang to mind.
It would be 17 years of very hard labor, and overcoming obstacles legal and material, before Marsh had built the Cog, but in July 1869 “Old Peppersass” — so named because her vertical boiler resembled a pepper sauce bottle — made the first railroad ascent up Mount Washington.
These days, the trip to the summit usually entails (after donning coats and ski caps) a hike around the rocky top, and a trip to the museum and cafeteria, located in a virtual fortress where a weather team spends the whole winter.
Back at the bottom, in the railway station, visitors might want to take in the macabre display of a locomotive whose front axel broke in the 1920s during a descent, sending the rig out of control down the mountain. Amazingly, only one person died, and the rest jumped off with the result of several broken bones. That was one of just two such accidents in two centuries of regular service.
Of course riders are always vulnerable to the ancient tradition of “Mooning the Cog” — that is, the train encountering irreverent hikers who occasionally drop their draws in honor of the passing vacationers.
A ride up the Cog is $75 (steam locomotive), $69 biodiesel, $65 seniors and $39 children. Call 603-2788-5404 for more information.
Headquartered in a historic station built in 1874 in North Conway, N.H., the Conway Scenic Railroad offers a variety of trips of varying length and duration, May through December. The Conway Valley Train runs 11 miles total and takes just under an hour, traveling south past North and South Moat mountains and crossing the scenic Saco and Swift rivers. The Bartlett Valley goes north and provides equally picturesque vistas of fields, woods and river crossings. The Notch Train travels north through Bartlett into Crawford Notch with a stop at Crawford Station before continuing on to Fabyan Station.
Other New England faves:
Cape Lafayette Dinner Train, Woodstock, N.H. This is a two-hour run of about 20 miles, but the point is fine dining. It leaves the village of Woodstock and follows the former Boston-Maine track along the Pemigewasset River, through the famed Jack-O-Lantern Resort as you enjoy an elegant five-course meal. At night floodlights illuminate the view, and for a full view of the surroundings on this trip, there is a 24-seat observation dome on the top level of the 1952 Pullman Planetarium car, once built for the Missouri-Pacific Railroad at the very height of luxury train travel in the United States. This trip runs through the summer and fall, nearly to Halloween.
White River Junction in Vermont was, as its name suggests, one of the important railroad hubs in northern New England, and the White River Flyer offers a 2½-hour tour of the region, a 26-mile run mainly along the Connecticut River. The Boston & Maine RR and Connecticut Lines share the rails with a regular Amtrak run. From the Flyer, you can see the Dartmouth crew team out practicing near its massive shoreline rock with its green ‘D’ symbol painted on (which during the Harvard-Yale showdown one year, Harvard students painted crimson overnight before the race.) At Cedar Circle organic farm in the town of Thetford, the train has a half-hour stop where riders can explore and buy fresh produce and bakery items before the train pushes on to a quick stop at the Montshire Museum of Science. You can even skip a portion of the ride to peruse the museum in Norwich. 800-707-3530
Cape Cod Central Railroad. Daily through the summer, a single set of tracks takes all kinds of goods and services down to one of the country’s storied summer playgrounds, and also daily that same line brings back several carloads of trash to be dumped off Cape — sort of like an F. Scott Fitzgerald story. Well, between the working life of this railroad, there is a two-hour, 50-mile excursion ride and a dinner train that connects the “mainland” of the South Coast to Hyannis, the virtual Capital of Cape Cod. The train runs across the century-old Corps of Engineers dropping RR Bridge and plunges into the land Patti Page once sang about in “Old Cape Cod” — beaches, sand dunes dotted with beach plum roses, cranberry bogs and roadside vegetable stands. It’s classic Cape Cod without the auto traffic. For a complete schedule and dining options, call 888-797-7245.
Essex Steam Train and Riverboat, Essex, Conn. The lower stretch of New England’s longest river — the 400-mile Connecticut with its rise on the Canadian border — was once a thoroughfare in the days before the Industrial Revolution, when this region was the heart of Colonial America. One of the strong echoes of this era is found in one of the only steam train/riverboat ride combinations left in the world. The 1920s-era coaches behind the steam locomotive of the Valley Railroad line lead to Deep River Landing, where riders disembark and get aboard the riverboat Becky Thatcher (yes, Mark Twain lived in Connecticut) and plies out onto the river. The combination of fixed features — Gillette Castle, the Goodspeed Opera House, Haddam Swing Bridge — and the proliferation of wildfowl keep the cameras going. The whole 2½-hour ride covers 12 miles and runs to the end of October. Reservations are a must. 800-377- 3987.
Old Colony & Newport Scenic Railway, Newport, R.I. In lower Rhode Island, Newport, the one-time home of famous mansions and the America’s Cup, the Old Colony and Newport offers an 80-minute ride along the region’s fabled shorelines, where you’re liable to see the early American and colonial homes along Narragansett Bay, past the Newport Naval Station with its ship, the now decommissioned naval frigate USS Saratoga. On occasion, the train will travel an extra eight miles on the North End line. 401-849-0546
Owned by the same company that runs the White River line, the Green Mountain Flyer boards at Bellows Falls Station and runs 2½ hours for 26 miles on tracks that run to Montreal for the Central Vermont company. Through deep woods with spacious views of the Green Mountain peaks, this train crosses the Williams River, over the Brockway Mills Gorge and along several more wooden and steel bridges. Passengers share this ride with freight loads of salt, ice and lumber. 800-707-3530
The Edaville Railroad in Carver, Mass., now Edaville Family Park, is one of the oldest heritage train rides in the country, dating to 1947. A narrow-gauge track (about two feet wide) leaves the theme park for a loop around the working cranberry plantation, stretching through woods decorated with various themes — jack-o-lanterns in October, Christmas lights in December. There’s now a section called Dino Land (needs no explanation), and a section dedicated to Thomas the Tank Engine and some of his friends on the Island of Sodor. This is definitely an option when the little kids get their summer crankiness on. 508-866-8190