There is something magical about trains as seen through the eyes of a child. But as grown-ups we’re often too busy to stop and reflect on the nostalgic appeal of the old iron horses. From scenic rides, to museums, to sleeping in a restored caboose and even a lesson at the train controls, here are seven experiences to make the kid in all of us fall back in love with trains.
Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania
With its rich railroad history, Pennsylvania is chock full of train themed experiences and some of the best are in Lancaster County. To check out an astounding collection of historic locomotives, head to the Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania in Strasburg. With 100,000 square feet of indoor space, the museum displays the locomotives alongside railroad artifacts, archives of railroad records and other memorabilia. There is also a simulator where you can try your hand at the controls. The museum is a tribute to the history and importance of the railroad industry and appeals to young and old alike with a variety of exhibits and activities.
Learning about trains is fun but riding them is even better. Directly across the street from the museum is the Strasburg Railroad. Here you can climb aboard America’s oldest short-line steam train for a ride through the Amish countryside. Recognized as one of the country’s most significant examples of early 20th century railroading, the railroad is one of Lancaster County’s most popular tourist attractions. Now and then Thomas the Train leaves the Island of Sodor to visit the Strasburg Railroad for a "Day Out with Thomas." As you might imagine, those weekends are a kid favorite. The railroad also offers a number of other special events throughout the year including dinner trains and a Wine and Cheese Train.
There is one place that is sure to catch your eye as you chug along on the train – the Red Caboose Motel – a collection of 46 historic cabooses and railroad cars turned motel rooms. An onsite restaurant in a restored railroad dining car serves home style country cooking. Every now and then the train will rock and the whistle blows as you dine – just to keep things authentic.
New York City Transit Museum
Love it or hate it, the New York City subway system runs 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Each ride promises adventure with the colorful characters that call New York City home. But did you ever wonder how it all works? Located in downtown Brooklyn in a decommissioned 1936 subway station, the New York Transit Museum has all the facts. Housed in a 60,000 square foot facility, visitors enter the museum the same way you enter a subway – down the steps.
On the mezzanine level of the subway station there are exhibits about the building of the New York subway system – the maze of tunnels that created New York’s underground world. There is a collection of tokens and turnstiles, an educational center, and an interactive bus exhibit. The station’s platform level is connected to the New York City subway system with a live third rail and houses a spectacular collection of restored subway cars dating from 1904 through 1963.
Shore Line Trolley Museum
As the oldest continuously running suburban trolley line in the country, the Shore Line Trolley Museum is a National Historic District. Located in East Haven, Connecticut, the museum has a collection of nearly 100 vintage vehicles as well as other artifacts. You’ll see an old Yale trolley car used to take fans to football games in days gone by. And in 2015, the Shore Line Trolley Museum received PATH car 745 which survived the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center unharmed in the subway tunnel below. The car received a hero’s welcome in East Haven with a police, fire fighter and bagpipe escort.
Step back into the past with a three mile round trip on board one of the historic clanging cars through the scenic salt marshes. Or do what I did, take over the controls. The museum offers guests the opportunity to drive either a trolley car or a rapid transit subway car. I chose the subway car where I was given a lesson before I was turned loose to drive the car down the tracks – at least for three miles. Now I’m fully prepared to take charge should I run into trouble on the New York City subway.
Lookout Mountain Incline Railway
As the site of the Civil War "Battle above the Clouds," Lookout Mountain in Chattanooga, Tennessee is a site steeped in history. It’s also home to Rock City and Ruby Falls and if you’ve ever traveled along Interstate 75 you’ve no doubt see the numerous "See Rock City" billboards.
Following the Civil War, tourists flocked to Lookout Mountain to see the historic battle sites and attractions. However, the grueling two-dollar, four-hour buggy ride up the mountain was a bit of a deterrent. The solution? Build an incline railway to climb the steepest part of the mountain.
In November of 1895, the passenger railway known as "The Incline" was born. Dubbed "America’s Most Amazing Mile," The Incline is a technical marvel that reaches an incline of 72.7%, making it one of the steepest passenger railways in the world. The original coal-burning steam engines were replaced by two 100-horsepower motors in 1911, but other than that the railway hasn’t changed much in its more than 100 years of operation.
Riding the rails with Amtrak
Traveling cross-country in the USA is one of the best ways to appreciate the country’s diverse landscapes. Doing the cross-country trek by train makes it easy to soak in all the views. Amtrak offers numerous cross-country routes and one of the most beautiful is The Empire Builder from Chicago to Seattle. The three-day journey passes through Wisconsin's woodlands, Minnesota's lake country, the North Dakota prairies and the snow-capped Rocky Mountains en route to Seattle. There is also an unforgettable 60-mile run along the southern edge of Glacier National Park.
Explore on the Alaska Railroad
If you really want to fall back in love with trains, climb aboard the Alaska Railroad for the ride from Anchorage to Seward. This 114-mile stretch travels through the Kenai Mountains and along the coast of the Turnagain Arm before heading into the woods for areas inaccessible by car. The train glides through five tunnels and over a river gorge passing within 800 feet of Bartlett Glacier. Keep an eye out for moose, bears, bald eagles and other wildlife as you travel through the spectacular postcard worthy scenes.
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