Tidewater Traveler - October 2006
There is a light breeze brushing my face. The leaves of nearby trees are stirring a little; stirring like trees do when a storm is approaching. The faint rumbling of Thunder is heard above nearby conversations, and to my left a bright light flashes. The sound becomes more intense and powerful; soon the open sky is blanked as darkness overtakes the area where I am standing.
The platform - the very ground around me - trembles as the grayish white cloud settles around me. Thunder has arrived. The nickname given to the huge black 1916 Baldwin steam locomotive seems so right; its very presence at the side of the rail station platform commands a level of respect often reserved for powerful weather events.
The drive wheels of Old Number 734 are as tall as I am - four giant spoked wheels on each side. Choreographed with steel connecting arms and concentric pivots, they roll with the smoothness and grace of a dancer. Except for the chush-chush-chush of escaping steam with each thrust of the mighty pistons, the movement of Thunder seems smooth and effortless. It is a symphony of iron and steel parts and gadgets.
Now perhaps I have a ‘thing’ for trains - like some folks are smitten with hemi-engines, fast pickups or Tupperware - that makes me stand here marveling at the paradox of an old steam locomotive. I call it a paradox because it seems like a complex and intricate collection of tubes, bolts, and black-iron parts; yet it is so simple in concept. Some water is heated until it boils; the pressure of the steam that forms is channeled to a chamber that forces a piston to move. The energy of the moving piston is transferred by a set of rods and gears to the drive wheels; and voila, Thunder begins to move!
Rolling up to the station platform is the easy part. Maybe as many as one hundred people have gathered here track-side at Western Maryland Station at Canal Place in downtown Cumberland, Maryland.
The old train station also serves as the C&O (Chesapeake & Ohio) Canal Museum. All of us will board the railcars that are coupled up behind Number 734’s coal tender. Some will board the first-class diner car; most will take seats in excursion coaches for an incredible ride up the mountain to Frostburg. Climbing the grade from Cumberland to Frostburg gives Thunder the opportunity to demonstrate its awesome power.
Mountains, farmland, woodland, valleys, creeks, a tunnel, and a horse-shoe curve are the ingredients for a perfect rail-sightseeing excursion. Over the course of about fifteen miles, the track bed that Thunder follows rises nearly 1,300 feet and has some grades as steep as 2.8 percent – pretty steep inclines by railroad standards.
Upon leaving the City of Cumberland, one of the first marvels along the journey is “The Narrows,” a natural narrow gap with steep walls, cut by running water through the first mountain in the Allegheny Range. The water gap is known to be the first passage gateway to The American West. The National Road (old U.S. Route 40), several rail lines, and a rocky creek all wind through The Narrows.
Steel-trestle bridges support the rails where Thunder leaves The Narrows and begins the climb north past Wills Mountain toward Mount Savage. A few miles further and I see a large black locomotive puffing on the tracks ahead. Thunder is almost through the half-mile arc of track that skirts Cash Valley; the rest of the train follows. Soon darkness engulfs the coaches as they glide inside the 900-foot-long Brush Tunnel hewn in 1911.
Emerging into the light again, Thunder prepares for a hairpin turn and steep grade at Woodcock Hollow. Moments later Number 734 rolls into the C&P (Chesapeake & Potomac) Railroad Depot in Frostburg, Maryland, and literally breathes a steam-sigh of relief.
Thunder relaxes on the turntable as she is rotated 180 degrees and pointed back in the direction of Cumberland. (Did I say “she”?!? Okay, so I do have a passion for trains.)
During Thunder’s well-earned rest, the passengers walk around the depot area, shop a little, some take the steep climb up to Frostburg’s Main Street; but soon everyone is ready to follow Thunder down the mountain and go home with a new set of travel memories.
From early childhood - books, songs and adults have linked the words train and choo-choo. Choo-choo? Youngsters today, unless they have seen and heard a real steam train operate, probably think we adults are witless at the suggestion that a train goes choo-choo. If your own infatuation with trains is not sufficient motivation to drive three hours from mid-DelMarVa to Cumberland at the Allegheny Front in Western Maryland, then perhaps you should take a child or grandchild for the experience of a lifetime.
Hot tip: To experience the steam locomotive go on Friday, Saturday or Sunday; a diesel engine is used on weekdays for the trip to and from Frostburg. Or in other words:
*Weekends – choo-choo-choo-choo-choo-choo!
*Weekdays –grhmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmm! You know my pick!
May All of Your Travels Be Happy and Safe!
George Sellers and his wife Priscilla are Certified Travel Counselors and Accredited Cruise Counselors who own Travel Selections by Priscilla and George, Inc. and the popular travel web site www.sellerstravel.com