For the long, rainy mid-October weekend I took it into my head to try two local heritage railways: the Western Maryland Scenic Railroad out of Cumberland, MD and the Potomac Eagle out of Romney, WV. It made for a nice, calm weekend in the mountains with views of early fall color and local wildlife — and of course, historic trains.
Western Maryland Scenic Railroad
The WMSR runs from Western Maryland Railway Station in Cumberland to Frostburg Depot, up the slopes of Big Savage Mountain, pulled by “Mountain Thunder,” a restored 1916 Baldwin 2-8-0 steam engine.
This being a long weekend in peak fall color viewing season the train was brimming with passengers, but we found a few quiet seats in the rearmost coach. Passing through open air vestibules we could smell sulfurous coal smoke mingled with the foggy scent of steam from the engine far forward.
The train passed over a bridge in a valley called The Narrows, arced around scenic Helmstetter’s Curve, plunged through Brush Tunnel, and up a steep grade on a forested slope called Woodcock Hollow en route up Mount Savage to Frostburg.
At Frostburg Depot the steam engine rolled onto a classic turntable for a few rotations.
We walked up the hill to Frostburg Main Street, swung right, and went a couple blocks to Princess Restaurant, home of the Truman Booth, where Harry Truman famously sat during a post-presidential road trip.
Unfortunately service was slow at the Princess, and we spent most of our stay in Frostburg waiting for the food. The “Savage Burger” was pretty good, though, even after we hastily packed our food into styro boxes and ran through fog and rain to catch the train back to Cumberland.
A trail runs beside the tracks, and it was fun to see the hikers and bikers along the way, and especially the rail fans who wait by the tracks to photograph the steam engine.
Arrival and disembarkation went slowly as there was only one exit point for coach passengers and we were near the rear of a twelve car train. There were interesting views of Cumberland out the carriage windows as we exited, and the older parts of the train were themselves visually interesting.
Near the station was the the northwest terminus of the C&O Canal. I used to work right by the Georgetown end of the Canal, so there was some sense of achievement and closure to finally seeing the Cumberland end. Sadly due to the government shutdown at the time, the towpath (under NPS management) was closed.
Next stop: Romney, WV (no relation to the presidential candidate), a 45 minute drive south, winding through wooded hills and valleys. We drove by Wappocomo Station, site of tomorrow’s train ride, passed through the town itself, and arrived at the Koolwink Motel.
We came just in time to reserve the very last available room for the weekend. Koolwink is known for its 1970s decor, every room a restored retro showcase, but with more modern amenities (like USB charging outlets) — and no cigarette smoke. It was both nostalgic and familiar, for relatively cheap.
Dinner was at nearby restaurant Italian Touch, with an excellent pizza and antipasto salad.
Next day we rode the Potomac Eagle, another scenic railroad that goes south from Romney, WV through The Trough, a river gorge, home to many wild bald eagles. The train departs from Wappocomo Station in Hampshire County just north of Romney, where an old red caboose serves as ticketing office.
Sawmill Ridge was a lovely sight from the station, shrouded in low clouds.
We splurged on this trip to ride in a historic 1951 Chessie Club Car, with meal service. (Steak and eggs for breakfast today, with bottomless sweet tea refills.) It was a classic couch seat facing out the left side of the train, with a little reserved table for food.
The ride went leisurely past cow pastures, historic homes and battlefields, old stone ruins, and the winding South Branch Potomac River.
The valley called The Trough was lush with trees and pulsing with natural beauty. Even without the bald eagles flying overhead and skimming the river, it was a wonder to behold, especially clothed in wisps of clouds as it was that rainy day.
After crossing Sycamore Bridge over the South Branch Potomac River (with a lovely view directly down the Trough), the train came to a stop and reversed direction to return to Romney. I was a bit disappointed that the itinerary didn’t involve a stop at a town, but the scenery was reward enough for the trip.
Back at Wappocomo Station we tarried a bit in the gift shop and picked out a couple of catnip fish plushes for the cats. Lots of interesting craft stuff in there.
We had a lot of day left and not much else to do in Romney, so I drove us back up to Cumberland for the afternoon so we could check out the Allegany Museum. It’s a bit confusing to find since it’s a floor up through winding hallways from the state parks and wildlife offices. Once we arrived there, however, a rich and information-dense collection of county artifacts and history provided hours (two of them!) of interesting browsing, admission free.
So those are the two closest heritage railroads to the DC area, each about a 2.5 hour drive from the Beltway. (Next one I want to try is the Cass Scenic Railroad, some other day.) Our trip was three days two nights total, but really, the whole thing can be done in half that time (or even just one day if you schedule right).