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Steam Into History seeks to connect York County to Civil War action

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G. Robert Gotwols, right, is chief operating officer of Steam Into History Inc., a nonprofit that will offer rides through southern York County on a replica Civil War-era train. On Feb. 18, Gotwols drove volunteer historians Mike Beshore and Brenda Yarrison along the route. Photo/Amy Spangler
G. Robert Gotwols, right, is chief operating officer of Steam Into History Inc., a nonprofit that will offer rides through southern York County on a replica Civil War-era train. On Feb. 18, Gotwols drove volunteer historians Mike Beshore and Brenda Yarrison along the route. Photo/Amy Spangler

Walkers, pedalers and runners will have company starting this summer along a portion of a popular rail trail in southern York County.

The whistle and chug of a train coming around the bend will be the sound of additional tourism-related economic development, particularly considering the local Civil War anniversary milestone hitting this summer.

The nonprofit Steam Into History Inc. is acquiring a train and is turning an old building in New Freedom just north of the Maryland line into the starting point of a ride through York County countryside.

President Abraham Lincoln traveled the attraction's nearly 11-mile route up to Hanover Junction on his way to deliver the epic Gettysburg Address in 1863.

The anniversary of the speech and the preceding Battle of Gettysburg is expected to draw an above-average number of visitors into the area this year.

According to figures from the Gettysburg Convention & Visitors Bureau, the 4 million visitors expected in Adams County this year is about 1 million higher than normal.

Visitor spending could be almost $150 million higher than the spending in 2011, the bureau said, with economic impact spilling into neighboring areas.

The $2.5 million engine for Steam Into History is expected to arrive at the station house and retail store this spring, said Debi Beshore, manager-sales and administration for Steam Into History.

The idea for Steam Into History was started about 10 years ago by the late York County business and civic leader William Simpson and D. Reed Anderson, an attorney with York-based Stock and Leader, out of their love for history and trains, she said.

They also both wanted to see a big visitor attraction for economic development. The train will be able to, for example, catch tourists who might go back and forth between the Gettysburg area and Lancaster County, Beshore said.

Illinois-based Kloke Construction is building the engine.

As a hobby project, owner David Kloke said he created a replica of Leviathan 63, a steam engine from the 1800s. It led to interest from others who wanted projects built, Kloke said.

Steam Into History placed the order in mid-2010, and the contract called for it to be delivered within three years, Chief Operating Officer G. Robert Gotwols said.

Replica rail cars of roughly that time period will give riders an authentic ride on the excursions, he said.

In addition to Civil War narratives, riders will get to learn about how the railroad helped shape the history of York County, Gotwols said.

There is still a lot of work to do before the opening this summer, Beshore said.

Crews and volunteers are working to turn the front portion of the former feed facility facing Main Street into a retail store lined with memorabilia hanging on the walls and from the ceiling, Beshore said.

At the same time, volunteers will turn a back area of the building into a viewing area for a model-size replica of the train and its route, she said.

The entire first phase is estimated to be an almost $6 million project.

Other than the engine itself, the costs include work to existing track along the York County Heritage Rail Trail, renovations to the new station in New Freedom, and buying and leasing the coaches for passengers.

The attraction is expected to start up around June 1 and have a grand opening celebration the weekend of June 22.

The weekend will commemorate the 150th anniversary of Confederate forces raiding Hanover Junction, Beshore said.

When it's fully up and running, Steam Into History will run three excursions per day, Tuesdays through Sundays, she said.

Much of the route is farmland and is relatively undeveloped — appearing similar to what it would have been around the 1860s, Beshore said.

For its first year, Steam Into History hopes to draw about 40,000 riders, she said. The project has been financed so far through private donations and support, Beshore said.

The nonprofit also will fund itself through its ticket sales, by seeking grants or hosting special events on the train, she said.

Organizers envision the rail line as a seasonal destination such as to see the foliage in the fall and host holiday events for winter, Beshore said.

Elsewhere, train attractions help bring in riders even with help from the likes of Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny.

The Wilmington & Western Railroad outside Wilmington, Del., is a 10-mile rail line that has operated for nearly 50 years, said David Ludlow, executive director. The owner and operator is Historic Red Clay Valley Inc., according to the organization's website.

The attraction draws about 30,000 or more visitors annually, and about 8,000 of the riders in 2012 came in December, thanks to having Santa Claus on the trains, he said.

Other themes range from the Easter Bunny to murder mysteries, Ludlow said.

The organization does an annual giving campaign and fundraisers, but ticket sales provide for most of its needs, he said.

"As long as you're very, very careful, and you're watching your incomes … you can do it," Ludlow said.

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