Full Steam Ahead

By Josh Bishop

In the 1850s, more than a decade before the completion of America’s first transcontinental railroad, poet Walt Whitman wrote a few lines about traveling by steam engine in Leaves of Grass:

“To go with a locomotive!
To hear the hiss of steam, the merry shriek, the steam-whistle, the laughing locomotive!
To push with resistless way and speed off in the distance.”

It’s been 150 years since Whitman wrote those words; in the meantime, the popularity of railway travel has fallen to the convenience of airlines and highways. Passengers aren’t composing poems about the New York City Subway or Chicago’s “L,” and Amtrak’s utilitarian routes don’t exactly inspire song. Which isn’t to say that the pleasures of rail travel are gone — just that they take a little more effort to find.

There’s something unmistakably nostalgic about stepping aboard a passenger car that’s been harnessed to an old-fashioned steam engine. It billows and smokes like something from another world. Its sounds — the shrieking whistle, the steady, rhythmic chug-a-chug — are both familiar and foreign to the modern traveler.

Fortunately, there are more than a handful of steam locomotives that offer passenger trips in the West. Take the Mount Rainier Scenic Railroad in Washington state, for example. In 2007, Trains Magazine included Mount Rainier’s engine, HLC 17, as one of their “Extreme Steam” locomotives, a selection of seven engines that the magazine’s editors considered must-sees.

The highlight of an excursion showcases historic logging towns, passes through forests, and provides views of mountain scenery. Groups will be able to view Mount Rainier and Storm King Mountain. Steep grades on the way back to Divide give the locomotive plenty of work (and the opportunity to show off) on its way uphill.

It’s steam engines’ performances on inclines like these that are a testimony to the power and technology that has driven progress for so many years. Sure, diesels and electric trains are faster, newer, stronger, and safer — but it was steam that first conquered the impossible distances of the North American West. It’s still conquering them today.

Nearer the Four Corners, the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad works to keep the steam engine past alive as a joint effort between the states of Colorado and New Mexico. When the Rio Grande’s San Juan extension was abandoned by the railway, the two states purchased and preserved the most scenic portion of the track that runs along the border. In addition to the track and line-side structures between Antonito, Colo., to Chama, N.M., the railroad also bought 130 freight and work cars and nine steam locomotives.

Cumbres & Toltec is called America’s longest and highest narrow gauge railroad, traveling some 64 miles and reaching the Cumbres Pass at 10,015 feet, higher than any other mountain pass reached by rail in the United States.

Even the railroads that don’t run on steam power draw groups with stunning scenery, often viewed from restored passenger cars pulled behind vintage locomotives. Scenic railroads resuscitate a dying from of travel, the sort that insists the journey isn’t just part of the experience — it is the experience. Groups interested in a closer look at America’s amber waves of grain or Canada’s rugged Rocky Mountain gorges are increasingly finding that train tours are the way to go.

The White Pass & Yukon Route was built during the Klondike Gold Rush in 1898, and passes from Skagway, Alaska, through British Columbia and into the Yukon Territory. A steam ride that takes groups past the White Pass Summit is available, but the real draw here is the Northwest terrain. Several scenic day trips, each behind a vintage diesel, show off a panorama of mountains, glaciers, and gorges.

Longer trips, such as the Yukon Adventure, are six hours one way with an additional 2.5 hours for a motorcoach return. The trip takes passengers up the White Pass Summit and back down to Bennett, British Columbia before continuing to Carcross, Yukon Territory. Historic sites, restored train depots, a stunning lake, and mile-high mountain peaks are highlights of “the scenic railway of the world.”

In addition to the aesthetics of nature, railroad tours are introducing groups to the pleasures of fine dining, wine tasting, birding, old-fashioned railway banditry, and other niche interests. This sort of trip isn’t so much about where you go or what you see (though that’s certainly part of it), but the things that entertain passengers along the way.

Verde Canyon Railroad in Clarkdale, Ariz., has done just that. The railroad, known as Arizona’s longest-running nature show, has supplemented the landscape (think red rock pinnacles and Indian ruins) with a variety of themed train ride offerings. Evening trains throughout the summer and into the fall shed a different light — a twilight glow, sunset, starlight — on the Verde Canyon and River. Grape Train Escapes cater to wine lovers, while a yearly summer Tequila Sunset Limited celebrates Mexican culture with a festive buffet and specialty tequila drinks. There are Fourth of July trains, trains that highlight the changing colors of the leaves along the river in autumn, trains for viewing bald and golden eagle migration. In short, Verde Canyon Railroad, and others like it, keeps scenic trains fresh and new with a line-up of events that can please groups of any interest.

Steam engines, scenic train tours, and special events can be found in most of Western North America’s states and provinces — and in the pages of this magazine. Spend some time exploring the articles that follow, where group-friendly railroad destinations are explored in more detail.

Note, too, our special international section on page 22, which features an article about scenic, historic, and steam trains in Switzerland — an ideal destination for coupling an interest in trains with an international flair.

This article was published in the Summer 2008 Western issue of Group Tour Magazine. To see the full archived magazine, click here. Click here to print a pdf.