Train's passengers catch glimpse of town Groups hope to use railroad to attract more visitors, trade

October 18, 1998|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,SUN STAFF

The town that wants to trade on its river and railroad just went through a weekend of training.

After 25 years, passenger trains returned to Sykesville this weekend. Nobody got off, but riders on excursions en route to Harpers Ferry, W.Va., got a look at the town of 3,500.

"I really wanted to get on, but I got to wave," said 5-year-old Allison Dearie, who watched the train go by yesterday from the deck of Baldwin's Restaurant, once the town train station.

Sykesville, which would like passengers to stop and visit next time, was more than ready to show its stuff.

"We are trying to treat them like they were the president rolling through," said Stewart Dearie, Baldwin's owner and Allison's father.

The Town Council explored a few ways to stop the train -- all in good humor. Councilman Michael Burgoyne suggested parking an old police car strategically on the tracks.

"Just remember it will take the train at least five minutes to stop," said Matthew H. Candland, town manager.

Ron Jackson, president of the Sykesville Business Association, traveled on the train, passing out town calling cards to passengers and urging them to look out the windows as they sped by the town.

"How about having Ron pull the emergency stop just as he gets into town?" said Councilwoman Jeannie Nichols.

The impractical suggestions were quickly rejected in favor of a more appropriate welcome.

The restaurant was decorated with patriotic red, white and blue banners. Welcome signs were mounted near the tracks. Members of the South Carroll High School, decked out in their uniforms, played marches, and town officials waved from the platform. A crowd of about 50 people waited nearly an hour, peering down the tracks.

"Who's performing?" a passing motorist asked the band.

"The train!" the musicians answered.

The train whistle sounded as its cars rounded the bend under Route 32. It took only fleeting minutes for the trains to pass by the old rail station and Main Street, where a restored caboose houses a model railroad collection. The band had hardly finished playing its fight song, "On Wisconsin," when the train whistled its farewell.

Still, Stewart Dearie thought the brief visit was worth the hoopla. "People on the train noticed," he said. "They were smiling and waving to us from the windows."

Excursions yesterday and today are traveling along the Old Main Line built in 1828, one of the oldest railways in the country and the original route west to Ohio.

About 800 passengers rode through yesterday and another 800 are expected to roll through today and get a glance at Sykesville, the town that straddles the border of Carroll and Howard counties along the Patapsco River.

Many residents, like Dan Withey, had their cameras ready for the train. Withey, a railroad buff, has a photo of the passenger train that came through town about 25 years ago. He took several more for his collection yesterday.

"I am really excited about them coming to town," said Withey. "I have been on these excursions and they are a great time for everybody."

The Old Main tracks, usually reserved for freight trains, parallel scenic rivers, rolling countryside, quaint farms and picturesque small towns. This weekend, the line carried hundreds of passengers west to Harpers Ferry and Martinsburg, W.Va.

Station is advantage

A stop in a town along the way is possible, but will take planning, said train organizers. Sykesville has one advantage: The station is still there. But, it will have to do some enticing of its own.

"We have to zero in on how to make Sykesville more what Harpers Ferry is all about," said Dearie. "Excursions can happen here, but Sykesville needs more retail and we have to find people other things to do."

The sold-out train left the B&O Railroad Museum in Baltimore yesterday, with 10 cars pulled by two locomotives.

"Old Main Line is more scenic, more historic and offers the best views of fall foliage," said Dennis Fulton, director of special services and railroad operations for the museum. "Construction dates to 1828, and it was the first common carrier in the U.S. It is a nostalgic and good experience."

Crew members dressed as traditional butcher boys, who predated the formal-clad servers in elegant dining cars, hawked snacks and newspapers. A barbershop quartet sang. Tour guides highlighted points of interest along the way.

'Phenomenal' response

The Washington Chapter, National Railway Historical Society, has been running excursions for 50 years, but has not used the Old Main Line since 1972. It sponsored this weekend's Autumn Colors Express, selling out 10 cars soon after announcing the trip. Tickets for the 200-mile round trip were $49 for adults, $29 for children.

"The response was phenomenal; we're sold out," said Kevin J. Tankersley, chapter president. "We haven't taken this long, scenic route since the early '70s. It really appeals to John Q. Public and the romantic idea of train travel."

When Tankersley learned of the town's interest, he said a stop might be possible.

Planning the excursions takes months, and trips are at the mercy of CSX, which does not like its freight lines disrupted. Although the trips cost groups about $12,000 to run -- including insurance, crew, fuel and track-user fees -- the trips are usually successful fund-raisers, said Tankersley.

Passenger trains can be a boon to their destinations. Riders stay several hours, visiting restaurants, shops and museums.

"There is vast interest in railroading," said Dearie. "It is part of our heritage. People really want to take a ride and get the feel of a train."

Pub Date: 10/18/98

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