Nearly all of my Free Daytrip Sample Chapters entries on this blog have been about travel in Europe, but now with a souring economy many folks are looking for less expensive adventures right here in the U.S.A. I had already posted Heart of the Amish Countryside from my guidebook Daytrips Pennsylvania Dutch Country & Phildelphia, so here's a companion chapter that goes well with it. This has been updated to Fall 2008, and has both a new map and new photos to get it ready for a new edition of the book.
Railfans (and normal folk, too) will literally be in Paradise when they take this daytrip into America's railroading past. That's the name of the village to which the antique steam train takes you as you ride across the Pennsylvania Dutch countryside, and that's the feeling you'll get as you marvel at the workings of these hissing black beasts.
Strasburg has become quite a center for train enthuisiasts ever since the once-defunct Strasburg Rail Road, founded in 1832, came back to life in 1959. No mere tourist attraction, this is a real, standard-gauge working railroad that operates all year round. You've probably already seen its meticulously-restored trains in movies and TV commercials.
Just across the street from the station is the fabulous Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania, one of the largest and most comprehensive of its kind in the world. You can easily spend hours here examining dozens of locomotives and cars dating from the 1820s to the near-present, both inside the museum and out in the yards.
Having two major attractions so close together has naturally brought on other related sights to help make your day even more enjoyable. The village of Strasburg itself is of more than passing historic interest, with houses dating back as far as 1764 and a Main Street that was once part of the first route leading from Philadelphia to the booming West.
By Car, Strasburg is about 10 miles southeast of Lancaster via US-222 and PA-741, or 63 miles west of Philadelphia via US=202, US-30, PA-41, and PA-741.
The Strasburg Rail Road operates from February until late December (check listing). The Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania is open daily from May through October, and daily except Mondays the rest of the year, closing on some holidays. Most of the other attractions are open on a similar schedule. Strasburg can get quite crowded on summer weekends.
For further information on this region, contact the Pennsylvania Dutch Convention & Visitors Bureau at 501 Greenfield Road, Lancaster, PA 17601, T: 717-299-8901 or 1-800-PA-Dutch, W: 800padutch.com. Another local source is at W: strasburgpa.com.
FOOD AND DRINK:
Some good restaurants in and around Strasburg are listed below. You can check their menus online::
Historic Revere Tavern (3063 Lincoln Highway/US-30, in Paradise, about 5 miles northeast of Strasburg) Steak and seafood in a 1740 inn; lighter fare ar lunch. T: 717-687-8601, W: reveretavern.com. X: Sun. lunch, Mon. lunch. $$ and $$$
Iron Horse Inn (135 East Main St., Strasburg) A 19th-century country inn with atmosphere. T: 717-687-6362, W: ironhorsepa.com. X: Tues. $$ and $$$
Strasburg Rail Road Dining Cars (At the Strasburg Rail Road, below) Enjoy lunch or dinner while riding the rails. There are special fares plus food costs. T: 717-687-6486, T: strasburgrailroad.com. Lunch $$, dinner $$$.
Red Caboose (312 Paradise Lane/PA-741, just northeast of the R.R. Museum) Railfans will enjoy having meals in an old dining car surrounded by rolling stock, now part of a motel. T: 717-687-5000, W: redcaboosemotel.com. $ and $$.
Isaac's Restaurant & Deli (Route 741 in town, at the Shops of Traintown) Soups, salads, sandwiches, and the like in a friendly atmosphere. T: 717-687-7699, W: isaacsdeli.com. X: Major holidays. $
Numbers in parentheses correspond to numbers on the map.
Since its ticket may be used repeatedly all day long and since it opens first, has a huge parking lot, and is just across the street from the station, you'll probably find it most convenient to start with the Railroad Museum.
*RAILROAD MUSEUM OF PENNSYLVANIA (1), Route 741, Strasburg PA 17579, T: 717-687-8628, W: rrmuseumpa.org. Open Mon.-Sat. 9-5, Sun. noon-5; closed Mondays from Nov.-April and some holidays. Adults $8, seniors $7, children $6. Tickets valid for multiple entries throughout the day. Gift shop.
This modern, state-operated mudseum has one of the very best collections of historic motive power, rolling stock, and railroading artifacts to be found anywhere on Earth. At last count there were over 100 locomotives and passenger, freight, and service cars on display inside the hall and out in the yards. Two of these are exact replicas of pioneer locomotives from the 1820s, and at least one of the electrics is of recent enough vintage to bear the Amtrak logo. But mostly there is a lot of steam. You can stand in the cab of one engine, climb into the pit beneath another, and peer into all kinds of passenger cars.
Along with the trains are displays on the rich history of Pennsylvania's railroads and a vast collection of old-time memorabilia. Don't miss the 20-minute video shown continuously inside a period station, or the view from the upper balcony. Near the exit is a gift shop with an enticing selection of railroading books, videos, and related matter.
*STRASBURG RAIL ROAD (2), Route 741, Strasburg PA 17579, T: 717-687-7522, W: strasburgrailroad.com. Open daily April to mid-Nov., weekends Feb.-March and mid-Nov.-Dec. Train schedule varies, usually hourly 10-7 in peak season, hourly noon-3 in off-season. Check their website. Ride takes 45 minutes round trip. Basic fares: Adults $12, children (3-11) $6, $2 extra for observation car, premium for parlor and dining cars. Gift shop. Bookstore. Restaurant and snack bar.
America's oldest short-line railroad has been hauling passengers and freight from Strasburg to the Main Line of the Pennsylvania Railroad, a 4½-mile distance, ever since 1832. Decreasing revenues and destruction caused by violent storms forced it to file for abandonment in 1957, but it was saved and eventually brought back to health by a group of local railfans in 1958. Money for this endeavor was raised by the simple gimmick of making every investor a vice-president! In addition to its considerable tourist trade, the Strasburg Rail Road still carries occasional freight to Paradise, PA, where it connects with the Main Line as Amtrak trains speed by.
A steam locomotive was acquired in 1960 (the line had switched to gasoline power as early as 1926), and some ancient coaches were discovered on a remote siding in New Hampshire, brought here, and restored. Also hauled in pieces to this spot was the Victorian station of 1882, where the tickets are now sold. Over the years since, additional old locomotives and cars were found and refurbished, so that today the railroad boasts one of the finest stables of vintage rolling stock in the nation. In addition to six steam locomotives, these include both open and closed coaches, a fantastic open observation car used in the film Hello Dolly, and a parlor car of palatial luxury. On a siding sits the elegant private car built in 1916 for the president of the Reading Railroad, which may be boarded for inspection.
One of the delights of riding the Strasburg Rail Road is the bucolic countryside through which it travels. Small farms, mostly owned by Amish families who still rely on animal power, line the right-of-way. The few small roads that cross the tracks are just as likely to be used by horse-drawn buggies as by automobiles, so you may truly feel that the clock has been turned back nearly a century.
Your ride on the steam train takes you from the East Strasburg Station (2) to Goff's Grove, and then to the end of the line at Leaman Place (3), by the village of Paradise, where the tracks join Amtrak's main line and the engine is run around for the return journey.
TOY TRAIN MUSEUM (4), 300 Paradise Lane., Box 300, Strasburg, PA 17579, T: 717-687-8976, W: nttmuseum.org. Open daily 10-5 May-Oct.; weekends in April, Nov. to mid-Dec.; plus Good Friday, Easter Mon., Thanksgiving Fri., and Dec. 26-31. Adults $5, seniors $4, children (5-12) $2.50. Gift shop.
Not just another commercial enterprise, this is actually the national headquarters of the non-profit Train Collectors Association, an organization devoted to the preservation and history of toy trains. Don't confuse these delights with the more serious model trains that stress authentic detail in scaled miniature. Toy trains are the stuff of childhood dreams, and bear such famous names as Lionel and American Flyer.
The vast collections exhibited here include examples dating from 1880 to the present. There are five huge operating layouts in O, S, G, HO, and Standard gauges, all of which respond to the buttons you push. A continuous video show entertains and educates visitors about the joys that adults (and even children) can have playing with toys.
Almost next door to the Toy Train Museum is the Red Caboose Motel (5) (T: 717-687-5000, W: redcaboosemotel.com), which houses its guests in a yard full of real cabooses! This is a perfect overnight stop for dedicated railfans, who might also want to take on fuel at the motel's Dining Car restaurant.
CHOO CHOO BARN (6), Route 741, Strasburg, PA 17579, T: 800-450-2920, W: choochoobarn.com. Open daily mid-March-Dec., 10-5, closed Easter, Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year's. Adults $5.50, children (5-12) $3.50. Model train shop.
Many of Lancaster County's charms have been re-created in O-gauge scale in this 1,700-square-foot model train layout. Thirteen trains whiz around while some 130 animated scenes depict barn-raisings, a circus, a parade, an amusement park, and even a house on fire. Days are compressed, too, as the lights periodically dim and a nightime scene appears.
THE AMISH VILLAGE (7), Route PA-896 a mile south of US-30, P.O. Box 115, Strasburg, PA 17579, T: 717-687-8511. Open daily 9-5 in summer, spring and fall. Opens at 10 am on Sundays. Adults $7.75, children (6-12) $3.75. Picnic area. Gift shop.
Almost as far removed from railroading as you can get, the nearby Amish Village makes a nice contrast to all those mechanical goings-on. Visitors are treated to a half-hour tour into the world of the Old Order Amish, with stops at an authentically-furnished farm house of 1840, a spring house, an Amish village store, an operating smokehouse, a blacksmith's shop, a windmill, and a waterwheel. The schoolhouse was built by Amish craftsmen, and is typical of those in use today. And, of course, there are live farm animals, including pigs, goats, horses, and others.
CHERRY CREST FARMS (8), 150 Cherry Hill Rd., Ronks, PA 17572, T: 717-687-6843 or 1-866-546-1799, W: CherryCrestFarm.com. Open on complex schedule June to Nov.; check website or phone. Early season (no maze) all ages $8.95; main season adults $13.95, children $11.95, all ages without maze $10.95. Complete visit takes about 4-5 hours. Food stands, picnic tables.
Kids and the young-at-heart will love a visit to this adventure farm, complete with barns, animals, farm activities to participate in, wagon rides, pedal karts, and best-of-all the Maize Maze. The latter is a five-acre maze of corn, with 2½ miles of paths to get lost in while enjoying various attractions along the way.
A visit to a friendly winery can add a pleasant finale to the day's exploration. Fortunately, there's a good one just ten miles to the east, on the way to Philadelphia. The Twin Brook Winery (9) offers visits to the vineyards, tours of the 18th-century barn now used for wine making, tastings of vinifera and hybrid varietals and blends, and, of course, sales. There are also picnic facilities. 5697 Strasburg Road (PA-741), Gap, PA 17527, T: 717-442-4915, W: TwinBrookWinery.com. Open Mon.-Sat. 10-6, Sun. noon-5.
Copyright © 2000 by Earl Steinbicker, updated to 2008.
A Personal Recollection:
Back in the late 1960s, when I was half-owner of an advertising photography studio in New York, we rented the Strasburg Rail Road for a few hours on one fine day. This was to do a nostalgic old-time photo for a men's cologne ad, featuring a steam passenger train passing through bucolic countryside. We positioned our cameras on a hill overlooking the scene, and then had the train move back and forth. The trick was in getting the engine's smoke to flow just right. To accomplish this I outfitted the engineer with a walkie-talkie, and had the other one with me on the hill so I could tell him just when to blast away. After about an hour we had enough good shots, so we had a nice Pennsylvania Dutch meal before driving back to the city.