Getting on track: Steam Into History has plans to stop near York
A historic train attraction is picking up speed in southern York County – and may soon be pulling into a station near the White Rose city.
New Freedom-based Steam Into History is restoring the tracks to Seven Valleys, which parallel the Heritage Rail Trail. And the nonprofit is seeking a grant in hopes of extending the tracks to a spot just west of York College’s West Campus in Spring Garden Township.
Its long-term goal is to occasionally offer trips into the city of York for special events.
In its fifth season of operation, the nonprofit’s gross income from admissions, merchandise and services has seen its share of ups and downs over the years. But it has added distinct ride experiences designed to attract new passengers and bring back repeat passengers.
“As with any new nonprofit, we’re still a startup. We are constantly reviewing riders’ feedback and developing innovative train excursions to attract new riders,” said Sharon Dorn, CEO of Steam Into History.
Tracking the future
Track restoration work to Seven Valleys is expected to be completed by spring 2019. The work was funded by a grant of about $500,000 awarded in 2017 by the state Tourism Office under the Department of Community and Economic Development.
To fund the track extension to the city’s edge, the nonprofit has applied for a grant of about $700,000 from the same state department, to be awarded in the next few weeks. This expansion is expected to appeal to even more potential passengers and will allow for longer train rides.
In the long-term, Steam Into History hopes to offer occasional trips into York city, for events like the Christmas Tree lighting, known as “Light up York,” First Fridays, the opening of the new York County History Center on East Market Street and the York Revolution’s opening baseball game.
However, there are some logistical conflicts as the tracks that run north into the city are operated by the York Railway Co., which is owned by Connecticut-based Genesee & Wyoming.
Steam Into History has asked to lease or purchase the tracks from Genesee & Wyoming, but no deal has been reached, mostly due to the rail company’s active use of the tracks.
“The tracks … provide essential freight service to approximately 30 businesses in and around York. York Railway has been approached in the past regarding third-party access to its freight tracks, without the parties coming to any agreement,” said Michael Williams, spokesman for the railway.
Gov. Tom Wolf’s office is involved with talks to access the tracks.
“[Wolf] has been so supportive of the project, and we’re hopeful that he will help us make that happen. He loves the city,” said Dorn.
Over the last five years it has been in operation, Steam Into History has brought in about $20 million to York’s tourism revenue, estimated through a formula by the York County Convention & Visitors Bureau, the county’s official tourist promotion agency.
The estimate is not limited to the revenue generated by Steam Into History’s ticket and gift shop sales; it also takes into account revenue at gas stations, hotels, shopping centers, and bars and restaurants. As the rail trail – and tracks – expand closer to York, more overnight guests are expected to visit the area.
The Heritage Rail Trail alone brings in $7 million to $8 million annually, according to Silas Chamberlin, vice president of economic and community development for the York County Economic Alliance.
“In terms of tourism development, the trail is one of the county’s major tourism sectors. It’s a great economic driver,” Chamberlin said.
Through Lincoln’s eyes
Steam Into History allows passengers to relive Civil War railroad history through a scenic, guided tour on the restored Northern Central railway, which runs from New Freedom to Hanover Junction.
It’s the same railway that once transported President Lincoln to deliver the Gettysburg Address. It is said he even made some edits to his speech, which he stored in his top hat, en route to Gettysburg. Later, Lincoln’s body was transported on the Northern Central, passing through New Freedom and Hanover Junction on the way to the slain president’s home state of Illinois for burial.
“Steam Into History helps to interpret Civil War history in Southern York County. It’s complementary to the communities that are close to it,” said Chamberlin.
One of the most popular rides is the Tannenbaum Christmas Tree Train, where passengers are taken to Bricker’s Tree Farm in Springfield Township to select a Christmas tree to bring back on the train. A horse-drawn carriage, provided by Gettysburg-based Victorian Carriage Co., carries passengers from the train to the farm.
Another popular ride is the brunch train, offered on Sundays, where passengers ride to the Glen Rock Mill Inn for brunch, which is adjacent to the tracks in the borough of Glen Rock.
Another option available to passengers is to purchase a one-way ticket on the train and bring their bicycle with them, space permitting. The passengers then ride on the Heritage Rail Trail back to the station.
“You have to look at the interest of the riders,” said Sharon Dorn. “They’ve come from every state in the country and from 34 foreign countries.”
Chamberlin agreed: “It’s sort of a mix of people who stumble across it – locals going for an excursion, or people who travel to the area specifically to see it. There’s a number of trains throughout the state but only a few that do authentic historical excursions.”
Regardless of the type of ride, there is always a local historian onboard, like Mike O’Dell, a retired insurance agent who has taken up the role of conductor and tour guide on the train. He is a Civil War reenactor who already knew much about the era. He sees Steam Into History as a way to use his knowledge of American history to teach others.
“It’s a new ride every day. It’s fun; I enjoy it. I get to meet people from all over the U.S.,” O’Dell said.
Arts events, like Lincoln impersonations and Civil War reenactments, are funded in part by the York Cultural Alliance, whose mission as an independent nonprofit is to “bring arts and culture to life in York.”
“Our involvement started with the Civil War reenactment, and every year they do bigger and better things, and we’re happy to fund them,” said Mary Anne Winkelman, president of the alliance.
Steam Into History uses two locomotive engines, a diesel engine and a steam engine: a replica of what would have been ridden by Lincoln in the 1860s.
The cars, or coaches, currently accommodate 128 passengers. Many of the train’s popular rides, especially the Christmas-themed events, are sold out weeks in advance.
Each of the three coaches are newly built but are designed to be historically accurate. Everything from the upholstery to the woodwork were created by local craftsmen with attention to historic detail.
The nonprofit is building a fourth coach that will be ready in late 2019, which will fit an additional 68 passengers, made possible by a grant from the York County Convention & Visitors Bureau.