Seeking the Spirit of the Holidays

With Thanksgiving behind me, I would have Saturday free to photograph and wanted to capture the holiday spirit that trains have a special way of bringing out in people. The New Hope and Ivy, Black River & Western, Delaware River Railroad Excursion, and Allentown & Auburn are all within a 90 minute drive and a scan of their respective websites showed each operating a holiday themed train that weekend. Solely based upon the scenic landscape possibilities and its newcomer status, I decided that the Allentown and Auburn Railroad would be my destination for the day.

From their website, I knew that their first scheduled run of the day was at 10am from the Kutztown station. What I didn’t know was their operational plan. My assumption was that their locomotive, a vintage SW-1 switcher painted in a nice Reading Railroad influenced scheme, would overnight at the engine-house in Topton and run to Kutztown to start the scheduled excursions. While my start was a bit later than planned, I figured that the train wouldn’t get to the Kutztown station much sooner than needed and set my sights on getting to Topton to hopefully catch them running light to the station.

Upon my arrival in Topton, the switcher and excursion train were missing, so I followed the line east towards Kutztown. Most of the line is visible from the road, which gave me the confidence that I wouldn’t miss the train if it was out on the line somewhere. I hadn’t gone far when I saw their doodlebug across a cut corn field and immediately came to a stop. It was traveling west to Topton and I quickly decided to turn around and investigate what was going on. I got to the engine house about the same time as the Doodlebug and saw that it had a dozen or more people on board. They quickly de-trained as the motor-car came to a stop and to my surprise started forming a photo line as the the former Pennsylvania Railroad unit backed up the track for an obvious run by. Knowing that there were better scenic opportunities on the line, I shot the spectacle of the railfans and found out that they were all part of a Garden State Model Railroad Club charter of the Doodlebug. I would never crash a paid private event, but since I just happened to stop by, had a clear conscious shooting the scene and the doodlebug runs up and down the line.

Members of the Garden State Model Railroad Club line up to watch the run-by.

Crewman watch the Doodlebug go through its moves.

After shooting the scene at Topton, I cleared my head and recalled the original motivation for this trip, which was to try and capture the spirit of the season with the scheduled holiday trains. That train wasn’t far away and noted that it had a nice mix of recently painted equipment that would have made a fine starter train set under a Christmas tree. While the Allentown & Auburn has only been in operation for about two years, they have had an admirable job in a short time refurbishing equipment and the roadbed to offer customers a quality and memorable train experience. Their equipment is all vintage and suits the role of the quintessential train pulled from the memories of railroad romantics.

The little “Christmas Tree Excursion” train.

Arrival at the restored Kutztown station.

Being right after Thanksgiving, the train trips for that weekend were billed as Christmas Tree Excursions that offered customers a train ride out to a tree-lot along the line where they could purchase and bring the tree back on the train. The theme is a nice and timely idea, but paying customers were sparse that Saturday and the few riders on each train didn’t generate the emotion or spirit that I was hoping to capture that day. I’m sure that it was there, but it’s more challenging to photographically capture such emotion when the crowd is small. There are both less opportunities and a heightened awareness of each other’s presence which makes it difficult to capture people naturally when they are conscious of a camera pointed at them.

The lack of customers didn’t seem to effect the mood of the crew one bit for they were all enthusiastic and cheerful as they went about their duties. They made sure that each customer received a memorable “train” experience that is the draw of such an event. Between scheduled runs, the crew would wait in the Kutztown station and they were all gathered there when I went in to buy a ticket. With about 30 minutes to pass, I milled around and before long got engaged in conversation with them and learned that all six of the on-duty staff were volunteers. I suppose I should have known that, but with the professional attitude and skills shown, it never occurred to me that these people were not paid employees.

It turned out that I was the only customer for that next scheduled trip. Instead of cancelling the trip, they offered to run the train for this solitary rider which was a bit of a surprise as I honestly expected them to ask me to wait for the last scheduled run of the day, to see if any more customers would show up. Not only did they follow through on running as planned, they astonished me by uncoupling the SW-1 locomotive from the train and then offed me a ride in the switcher cab to Topton and back.

A spirited, but bumpy ride along the line.

Bob Mitchell, worked for Norfolk Southern prior to volunteering about 18 months ago.

As I was enjoying my cab ride, it occurred to me that the spirit I was seeking was here all along… the volunteer staff.

While trains may be their outlet, the volunteers all share a common bond and passion of giving back to their community on so many levels. Their enthusiasm was genuine and heartfelt as well as contagious. Anyone riding this train will feel it and more than likely spread the word about this operation. The volunteers are the reason that this railroad has risen up and endeared itself within the local community.

At the end of the day, I couldn’t say that I captured that emotion with my lens, but I did walk away feeling warm and fuzzy. For me, the volunteer staff at the Allentown & Auburn Railroad moved the Spiritometer.

The Doddlebug charter passes a cut cornfield enroute to Kutztown.

The farmer and train head home.


Allentown & Auburn's Facebook page is a good place to get excursion information.

Coincidently, Robert John Davis was on that Doodlebug charter and wrote a beautiful piece about it.

1 Comment

  1. David Kahler

    Eric, Your first shot of the Pennsylvania RR doodlebug passing through the pastures of eastern Pennsylvania hit me like the first shot in the Revolutionary War at Lexington, Mass. As a student in elementary school at Chadds Ford, PA during 1942- 1949 my school bus crossed the Pennsylvania RR track at Chadds Ford Junction. Often I would have the opportunity to watch the same PRR doodlebug pass by that you photographed on the Allentown and Auburn Railroad. For all I know it could be the very same doodlebug that has been lovingly preserved there. I feel like someone who is seeing a ghost.Even the context looks very similar to the countryside along the venerable Brandywine River.

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