In the years after World War II, the heyday of the steam locomotive came to an end. Diesel locomotives were more efficient, reliable, and did not have to stop regularly for water like steam locomotives did.
At least among rail buffs and young children, there remains a nostalgia for these engines of yesteryear. Perhaps part of it is the steam locomotive’s classic, graceful shape. Certainly, no diesel locomotive can match a steam engine in beauty; while there’s something elegant about the streamlined appearance of some of the higher speed electric locomotives, it’s an aesthetic of an entirely different sort.
But perhaps the biggest difference is only evident in person, seeing a steam locomotive run on a scenic railroad. An electric locomotive is mostly silent, while a diesel gives off a steady hum. A steam locomotive, on the other hand, is like a living creature, puffing, snorting and belching steam even at idle.
This year, Delaware’s scenic railroad, the Wilmington & Western, celebrates its 50th anniversary. The railroad travels over a portion of a line, completed in 1872, connecting Wilmington, Delaware with Landenberg, Pennsylvania. The line eventually came under the control of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, which by the 1950s had truncated the branch line to its present end point of Hockessin, Delaware, about half its original length.
Historic Red Clay Valley, Inc. began running a scenic railroad in 1966, first leasing the tracks on weekends before buying the line outright from the B&O’s successor, the Chessie System, in 1982. Rather than operate the trains as the Red Clay Valley Railroad (or something), HRCV revived the Wilmington & Western name originally used from 1869 until 1877.
Although its steam engines are the stars of the show, many W&W trains operate powered by World War II-era diesel locomotives instead. Even on steam excursions, a diesel runs at the rear of trains going all the way to Hockessin to help with the somewhat steep grade.
The passenger cars are also quite old; most of them were manufactured in 1914 or 1915. When low ridership is anticipated, the railroad uses a 1920s self-propelled railcar known as a Doodlebug.
The average railroad is viewed with indifference if not outright apathy by nearby residents inconvenienced by noise or a blocked road crossing. The Wilmington & Western is quite different. Whether by virtue of its infrequent schedule or its charming vintage rolling stock, a W&W train is typically greeted with smiles and waves from the occupants of cars stopped at its crossings. The railroad is even popular with residents living along its right-of-way, which decorate the backs of their houses (facing the tracks) during the holiday season.
Wilmington & Western passengers board the train at Greenbank Station, located off Newport Gap Pike a few miles west of downtown Wilmington. The line heads northwest uphill along the banks of Red Clay Creek to the old industrial town of Yorklyn. Departing from the creek, the route then heads southwest to the town of Hockessin. Some trains go the full 10.2 miles (16.4 km) all the way to the end of the line at Hockessin, while others stop halfway at the Mount Cuba Picnic Grove. (It’s only a mountain by Delaware standards.)
Riding the Wilmington & Western is usually a pleasant experience (notwithstanding the trip in which I sat across the aisle from a boy who spent the entire ride squealing with glee!). Its variety of scenery makes for an interesting ride. The W&W route crosses over Red Clay Creek several times as it passes through forests, rolling hills, and farmland. Here and there are remnants of the businesses that the railroad once supported. With the exception of the preserved Greenbank Mill, the factories that were once plentiful along the line are now demolished or in ruins. Similarly, the once bustling Brandywine Springs Amusement Park has also fallen into obscurity; after being closed in 1923, its buildings were razed, though the site is a quiet county park today.
The Wilmington & Western has faced numerous challenges over the years. There are considerable costs in both dollars and man hours to keep steam locomotives (now over a century old) in service. The W&W’s oldest locomotive, Engine No. 58 (manufactured by Baldwin Locomotive Works in Philadelphia back in 1907) has been undergoing maintenance since 2013, leaving W&W with only one operational steam locomotive.
Perhaps the W&W’s greatest enemy has been the weather; most of the line is extremely vulnerable to flooding given its proximity to Red Clay Creek. Hurricane Floyd in 1999 damaged the tracks and destroyed two bridges. The damage took a year and a half to repair. Just four years later, in 2003, Tropical Storm Henri caused flooding (unmatched since record keeping began) that demolished six more bridges. This time the damage took almost four years and millions of dollars to repair, with the railroad finally returning to full service in 2007.
The railroad has special events like dinner trains, murder mysteries, and various holiday rides. Over the years I’ve attended two. One involved visiting vintage steam cars, possibly from the nearby Marshall Steam Museum. Passengers who thought these antique vehicles would simply remain on static display at the station were sorely mistaken. A sky blue Stanley Steamer shadowed the train on the back roads north of Greenbank, waiting for the train at crossings and then racing ahead on a parallel road, trailing a cloud of vapor!
For steam engine fans, Pufferbelly Day is perhaps the most exciting time to visit the Wilmington & Western. One day each year, the W&W runs a doubleheader of two steam engines. Disappointingly, they only go halfway (Mount Cuba), either because they can’t handle the grade all the way to Hockessin or because Pufferbelly Day is so popular, they can run more trips with shorter rides.
The Wilmington and Western Railroad by Gisela Vazquez (a book of mostly photos in Arcadia Publishing’s Images of Rail series, but with more detail than is available on the W&W website)
Bridges by Marjorie G. McNinch (a book about New Castle County, Delaware’s covered bridges)