For railroad buffs, Strasburg, Pa., is choo-choo heaven

Four steam locomotives still carry passengers

Trips: road trips, regional events

March 17, 2005|By Bo Smolka | Bo Smolka,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

To visitors in Pennsylvania Dutch country, Amish horse-drawn buggies are usually among the star attractions. But in the small hamlet of Strasburg, Pa., tucked in the shadow of Lancaster about 90 miles northeast of Baltimore, trains reign supreme.

Steam locomotives dating to the turn of last century chug down the tracks of the Strasburg Railroad, the oldest continuously operating railroad in the country. Across the street, more than 100 vintage rail cars are on display at the Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania.

Nearby, Christmas morning comes alive every day at the National Toy Train Museum. And just a mile away, the Choo-Choo Barn captures life in Lancaster County in miniature, with 22 model trains coursing over a 1,700-square-foot layout.

No wonder this town of about 2,800 praises itself as "America's Favorite Train Stop."

For a rail enthusiast, Strasburg will seem like paradise. Actually, it's close; Paradise, Pa., is only 9 miles away, and Strasburg Railroad locomotives make the round trip several times a day.

Trains have run on the Strasburg Railroad line since 1832. A decline in rail travel and a series of damaging storms nearly doomed the railroad in the 1950s before a group of rail enthusiasts purchased it.

Now four steam locomotives - all built between 1906 and 1924 - take passengers on a leisurely ride through the Amish countryside aboard coaches meticulously restored to reflect railroading's heyday, with velvet bench seating, ornate stained glass and 80-year-old potbellied wood stoves.

Other cars of that era are on display at the Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania. Every locomotive and rail car here was either built or operated in Pennsylvania, including a 1914 business car from the Western Maryland Railroad.

Indeed, Strasburg's tight grip on the past is everywhere, from vintage trains to Amish farms to even local advertising. Not far from Lancaster's sprawling Tanger Outlet Center, a handwritten sign nailed to a roadside fence post offered "goat milk for sale, third house on right."

What to see

The Strasburg Railroad (Route 741 East, 717-687-7522, www.strasburgrailroad.com): Historic locomotives make the 45-minute "Road to Paradise" several times a day from early March until late November. You can ride coach, first class or even in an operating dining car. Prices vary. The wildly popular, life-size Thomas the Tank Engine rolls into town three times a year, hauling coaches teeming with toddlers. This year it's there June 11-19, Sept. 17-25 and Dec. 2-4. Beware: Attendance roughly triples when Thomas is in town.

The Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania (Route 741 East, 717-687-8628, www.rrmuseum pa.org): In addition to Rolling Stock Hall, there is a video demonstration, rare photographs and a library and archive section (by appointment only). Children will love Stewart Junction, a hands-on education center where they can operate model trains, learn how steam engines work and design their own rail lines.

The National Toy Train Museum (Paradise Lane, 717-687-8976, www.traincollectors.org/toytrain.html). Designed to resemble a Victorian-era train station, the museum serves as the headquarters for the Train Collectors Association. It has five model-train layouts running continuously, and many artifacts more than 100 years old. One display for a 1928 Lionel "Build-A-Loco" train that retailed then for $27.50 - roughly $300 in today's dollars - suggests how this little-kid hobby often requires a grown-up budget.

The Choo-Choo Barn (Route 741 East, 800-450-2920, www.choochoobarn.com). Nearly two dozen model trains of varying sizes circulate through local scenery, which includes miniature, automated versions of an Amish barn-building, the Strasburg Memorial Day parade and a zoo. It's impressive enough that Lionel trains replicated Choo-Choo Barn animations as part of its "Historic Layout Series."

Where to eat

The Strasburg Country Store and Creamery (1 W. Main St., Strasburg; 717-687-0766, www.stras burg.com). The deli sandwiches are good and large, but save room for homemade ice cream, made daily and dispensed at an 1890s marble soda fountain.

Isaac's Restaurant and Deli (Route 741 East, Strasburg; 717-687-7699, www.isaacsde li.com): Locals flock to this bird-themed restaurant for its French bread sandwiches, deli creations and homemade soups.

Miller's (U.S. 30 East, Ronks, Pa., 717-687-6621). Family-style smorgasbord, with one price covering everything from appetizer through dessert. Sunday-only breakfast includes a local specialty, chicken and waffles.

Plain & Fancy Farm (U.S. 340, a mile east of Bird-in-Hand, Pa.; 717-768-4400, www.spendtheday .com). Family-style dining with comfort foods like roast beef, mashed potatoes and apple dumplings. Amish buggy rides and a country store on the premises.

Where to shop

Each train destination listed above has its own gift shop. In addition, these are some other possibilities:

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