Where in North America is the best place to catch operating steam and learn about railroad heritage? Surely Sacramento, Scranton, Carson City, Spencer, and Promontory Summit immediately come to mind. Of course, one attraction that stands out above the rest is nestled in the Amish Country of southeastern Pennsylvania where coal smoke rises and chime whistles echo all year long — Strasburg, Pa., home to the venerable Strasburg Rail Road and its across-the-street neighbor, the Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania. Nearby is the popular National Toy Train Museum (headquarters of the Train Collectors Association) and the Choo Choo Barn, popular family attractions where there is much to see and do for not only the casual railfan but the intrepid traveler and connoisseur of all things steam. What follows is a concise guide for a first-time railfan visitor to Strasburg and all it has to offer.
Strasburg Rail Road
Founded on June 9, 1832, Strasburg Rail Road is America’s oldest short line, and is one of the most successful tourist railroads in the country. Its first century of existence was rather unremarkable — a sleepy carrier to connect a rural feed mill with the Pennsylvania Railroad interchange at Leaman Place Junction, a 4.5-mile distance. A brace of former PRR D-class 4-4-0s provided the power until the line purchased its first internal combustion power, a 20-ton Plymouth acquired in 1926 (and still in use today).
It wasn’t until 1958 when a group of enterprising railfans and businessmen banded together to save the line from abandonment, and transformed the forlorn railroad into a tourist mecca. From the start, the line hauled coal, lumber, grain, and feed, while tourists rode behind in an open-platform wooden coach acquired from Reading Company. On Labor Day weekend 1960, steam made a return when ex-Canadian National 0-6-0 31 was pressed into service. The goal was to recreate a typical turn-of-the-century branch line steam railroad, replete with wooden rolling equipment and rural scenery.
Through the 1960s and 1970s, the railroad grew rapidly in popularity and had a meteoric rise. The novelty of steam train rides coincided with the public’s newfound discovery of the Amish and Mennonites whose Old Order, plain way of life drew hundreds of thousands to ride the trains each summer. To handle the crowds, a new terminal was built east of town along Route 741 where a former Reading depot was relocated from East Petersburg, Pa.
By the 1980s and 1990s, the railroad had reached the pinnacle of its popularity. Its roster was, and still is, impressive: ex-Great Western 2-10-0 90, a Canadian National 2-6-0, and an ex-Norfolk & Western 4-8-0. Thomas — formerly an ex-Brooklyn Eastern District Terminal 0-6-0T built in 1915 — is the only steam-powered standard gauge version of the blue tank engine in North America. Stored is an ex-Reading 0-4-0 camelback (stored inoperable), CN 0-6-0 7312 (the formerly mentioned Strasburg 31, in overhaul), and a Canadian Pacific D10j 4-6-0 (disassembled). The railroad also owns a self-propelled railcar formerly of Lancaster, Oxford & Southern, an ex-Wellsville, Addison & Galeton snowplow built in 1902, 19 wooden open platform coaches of Boston & Maine, Reading, and Western Maryland heritage, a president’s business car from Reading, four baggage cars, two cabooses, and 20 vintage freight cars of various Northeastern lineage.
Former Great Western 2-10-0 90 approaches the Southside crossing west of Cherry Hill in August 1989. This area is now occupied by the Cherry Crest Farm corn maze and petting zoo. Steve Barry photo
Strasburg Rail Road Today
Strasburg Rail Road has become a prime destination for special events and the ever-popular thrice-yearly “Day Out with Thomas” events, while creating a new identity as a modern freight transload terminal for local businesses. The tourist trains average just under a half-million riders annually. Strasburg Rail Road is a for-profit company that answers to roughly 300 shareholders.
Generally speaking, SRC operations begin Presidents Day weekend and continue on weekends throughout the spring. It runs daily April through November, with two trains operating service every half-hour (subject to change) Memorial Day through Labor Day weekend, then open Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays in December as well as daily between Christmas and New Year’s. A number of seasonal and holiday specials operate throughout the year. In addition to the usual open-platform coach seating (depending on the season), there is a full-service parlor car with snacks and alcoholic beverages, two lounge cars, a dining car, and several open-air cars if you want to get up close to the locomotive. For those truly dedicated, unlimited rides may be purchased in the form of an all-day pass or a season pass.
The biggest announcement for 2019 is the first-ever visit of N&W J-class steam locomotive 611 which will run on the Strasburg weekends this September and October and is expected to draw huge crowds.
The railroad’s shop facilities are among the tops anywhere, with a 50’x170′ back shop fully equipped with drill presses, a quartering machine, a 600-ton 1913 90-inch Niles wheel lathe once used by Northampton & Bath Railroad, a 600-ton wheel press, a 3’x10′ milling machine, a 10-ton overhead traveling crane, drop tables, and other machinery rescued from area railroad car repair shops. SRC doubled its facilities with a new addition to the back shop in 2017. The railroad manufactures many hard-to-find steam parts not only for its own use but as products for sale, such as injectors, safety valves, firebox staybolt materials, coach seats, and reproduction coal stoves, and derives a significant portion of its income from outside contract work. The most recent restoration, a beautiful Baltimore & Ohio six-axle lounge car dating from 1911, debuted in service last December after more than four years of work, christened Linn W. Moedinger, in honor of the recently retired SRC official.
On days when the passenger train runs, a special shop tour is offered at noon which allows visitors inside access to the enginehouse, back shop, and carshops. The tour is not recommended for children under age 5; ages 5–17 must be accompanied by an adult. For those who want a more intimate exposure to steam, a premium Hostling Tour allows visitors to get up close in the enginehouse as the engine crew prepares the steam locomotives early in the morning for daily service (no children under age 10 permitted). There are 110 paid employees — both full- and part-time — working for the company, with more public-facing employees working in the summer season.
Canadian National 89 is in its modified Strasburg scheme as it leads a mixed train at Carpenters Crossing on February 16, 2019. When the railroad has enough warning from interchange partner Norfolk Southern, it will run the inbound freight move as a mixed, selling tickets to the general public. Steve Barry photo
Strasburg Freight Traffic
Since 2008, Strasburg has been steadily growing its freight business. It obtained state grants to upgrade the trackage to Class 2, using 112-pound and 115-pound rail, and replace the line’s antiquated bridge over an Amish farmer’s path with a substantial concrete arch in 2011. The line is now FRA-mandated 286K-compliant, capable of hosting 286,000-pound freight cars. Regular freight power is ex-New York Central SW9 8618, acquired in 2008. As a backup unit, SRC also purchased ex-Santa Fe SW9 1235 in 2018, which is awaiting its turn to be placed in service.
Traffic is mostly inbound three or four times per week and includes railcar-to-truck transfer of grains, bulk feed additives, dry fertilizers, and lumber. The railroad is also equipped to handle truck-to-railcar bulk transfers, public team track access, and transloading of liquid products that travel by tank car. Often, inbounds and outbounds are pulled by steam, though scheduled mixed trains are sporadic due to Norfolk Southern’s unpredictability in delivering carloads to the Leaman Place interchange. Strasburg’s radio frequency is 161.235.
This last year has been a time of change at Strasburg. Longtime President and CMO Linn Moedinger retired last December after 50 years of service, marking the first time in decades a member of the Moedinger family has not been involved in the daily management of the railroad. A scholarship fund in his name was recently set up at nearby Thaddeus Stevens College of Technology. The CMO torch has passed to Erich Armpriester, who has honed his machinist skills at the railroad over the last 20 years. New President Craig Lefever, whose dad worked as a carpenter in the railroad’s car shop for decades, and himself a veteran of 22 years, wishes to expand special event offerings.
Photography on the 4.5-mile Strasburg can be a bit challenging. Eastbound trains run tender-first. The engines run around at Leaman Place Junction where the line interchanges with Norfolk Southern and Amtrak’s Keystone Line (Philadelphia–Harrisburg). This is a great place to see much train activity and there is a trackside picnic grove where visitors can witness the action. Trains traveling westbound are headed up with the locomotives positioned properly with proper three-quarter lighting. At Carpenter’s Crossing there is an 18th century graveyard on top of the adjacent hill, making for an interesting optic. A slope on the south side of the tracks allows a great place to frame the entire train. At Groff’s Picnic Grove, the midpoint on the line, two trains running every half-hour on the summer schedule meet here, providing a fine location to see steam in action.
There is a 1.2 percent grade at Cherry Hill. Many photographers like to shoot trains at Southside Crossing at the Cherry Crest Adventure Farm. At the top of the grade at Esbenshade Crossing, trains usually rush past on a slight curve, before passing the Red Caboose Motel (which has an accessible tower in a converted barn silo for getting a semi-aerial shot) and heading into the yard. Grabbing a shot of the engines passing the Pennsy “J” Tower on the west end of the Strasburg terminal is always a classic image. If you arrive early in the morning you can watch the crew service and ready the engines for the day, including a chance to shoot the engines backing light upgrade to Fairview during hostling activities.
Inside Rolling Stock Hall, context is given to the equipment by displaying complete trains. A refrigerator car trails a string of freight cars headed by PRR 2-8-0 2846. Steve Barry photo
Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania
When you are ready to take a break from operating steam, venture across the street to the Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania, a world-class museum of railroad history in North America. Administered by the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, the museum is open year-round except for major holidays and certain Mondays in the shoulder season and is a must-see when in Strasburg.
The idea for the museum was born at a time of growing interest in preserving the state’s industrial and transportation heritage, as well as a growing concern that the Pennsylvania Railroad’s historical collection of locomotives and cars was endangered. With support from Governor William W. Scranton, the legislature resolved to establish a state railroad museum in 1963. Prospective sites for the planned museum considered early on included Altoona, Mount Union, Strasburg, and Honesdale.
In the meantime, PHMC officials began assembling equipment from across the country to grow the collection. The first locomotive acquired was Nickel Plate Road 2-8-4 757, donated by N&W in 1966, followed by a Heisler and a Shay. Other pieces would soon follow. Several acres of land were acquired by the Commonwealth in 1967 to build the railroad museum facility. Two years later, Penn Central placed on loan its inherited collection of PRR steam locomotives and rolling stock that had been stored at the Northumberland roundhouse since the mid-1950s. In January 1970, a 100-foot former Reading Company turntable from Bridgeport, Pa., was installed, and laying out the yard trackage began. Ground was broken for the new Rolling Stock Hall museum building and administration building on August 14, 1972. After considerable political and budget delays, the new 14-acre museum opened to the public on April 22, 1975.
In January 1983, the Friends of the Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania was formed to assist with various projects and provide help to spruce up the museum yard exhibits, which had deteriorated considerably due to weather exposure. With 1,800 members, it remains a major supporter through docent tours, volunteer participation, and fundraising that keeps the doors open, and fills needs in ways the state cannot. Memberships and planned giving opportunities are available. Its outstanding full-color journal Milepost is published throughout the year and features historical articles and photography on a variety of rail history topics.
After weathering the Great Recession due to a severe state-mandated budget cut in 2009 that saw its staff reduced by a quarter, the railroad museum has emerged stronger with a renewed focus for the future. In the 2010s, the museum did a reappraisal of its rolling equipment collection and deaccessioned several pieces to other rail museums, such as Brooklyn Eastern District Terminal 0-6-0T 13, a pair of U.S. Army flat cars, a Brookville switcher, an ex-NKP Berkshire, an ex-PRR Silverliner m.u., a PRR ore dock shunt, two ex-Reading/Lehigh & New England hoppers, an Alaska Railroad RS-1, and more. Recently, it has refocused on collecting modern pieces long absent, including an Amtrak AEM-7, a TrailerTrain TTX flat car, and other pieces germane to the contemporary railroading landscape.
The Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania continues to add to its historical collection as time marches on. Amtrak E60 603 and AEM7 915 continue to tell the story of railroading, along with PRR 4-8-2 6755. Steve Barry photo
In 2000, a new hands-on interpretive center for children of all ages dubbed “Stewart Junction” opened on Platform One in Rolling Stock Hall. If you have kids in tow, it is not to be missed — an interactive G scale layout, Thomas activity tables, an operating HO scale layout, a Kinnex station, and other fun activities await young and old visitors alike. Nearby is Steinman Station with an agent’s bay, functioning telegraph key and orientation video, and a 1900s street scene with period businesses. A full slate of special events all year greets visitors. School tours, classes, traveling programs, workshops, summer camps, and self-guided groups are offered and accommodated by advance reservation.
A unique aspect is the arrangement of entire trains indoors — a 1930s merchandise freight pulled by a PRR 2-8-0 H6sb, a 1950s passenger train headed up by PRR GG-1 4935, and an 1890s PRR wooden passenger train with day coaches and baggage cars with PRR D16sb 1223 on the head-end. There are all three representative examples of geared logging engines — Shay, Heisler, and Climax. You can walk down into a pit and look at the underside running gear of PRR H3 1187. There is the Baldwin-built 2-6-0 Tahoe from Virginia & Truckee; the first passenger diesel on PRR, a restored E7 cab unit; a deluxe President’s business car from Western Maryland; an RPO; Pullman restaurant-sleeper Lotos Club; and more.
Also here is the first GG-1, built in 1934, “Old Rivets” 4800; the 1940 replica John Bull of 1831; two fireless cooker-type steam engines; the oldest passenger car in America (1836) from Camden & Amboy; several first- and second-generation diesels including an EMD GP9, GP30, Alco C-415, EMD NW-2, and Baldwin S-12 switcher; a Mack-Brill railbus; a Lehigh Valley RDC-1; and the magnificently restored PRR E6s Atlantic-type 460. Many of the trains have authentically restored interiors, and platforms allow visitors to climb aboard or look in.
In addition to a robust library/archives available for research by prior appointment, the railroad museum houses about 17,000 artifacts, not all of which are on exhibit at the same time. It also has changing exhibitions in the second-floor art gallery on a variety of themes, including the PRR calendar art of Grif Teller. A larger-than-life bronze statue of PRR President Alexander Cassatt, formerly mounted in Penn Station in New York, greets visitors. The Railroader’s Hall wall honors the memory of thousands of railroaders past and present on bronze plaques.
On May 20, 1995, a new 65,000-square-foot building wing christened “Railroader’s Hall” opened. Three years later, a new restoration shop opened, allowing the museum staff to restore the 100-plus-piece vehicular collection and place much of it under cover. In 2007, a new museum store, atrium, and expanded lobby opened off the front entrance.
After fundraising by the Friends in conjunction with a state funding release, it is expected that a new $6 million roundhouse addition will be completed in the museum yard in 2020. New $4.5 million interactive interpretive exhibits that tell the human story of railroading in the Commonwealth are presently being installed in the Museum Lobby and Rolling Stock Hall.
There are more trains to view in the outdoor yard, where visitors will find a PRR K4s, M1b, L1s, A5s, and DD-1s; a Reading observation car from the Crusader; Tower View, an observation car from the PRR Broadway Limited; the former Reading 100-foot turntable (currently inoperable); and other significant pieces.
There is a well-stocked gift shop replete with toys, books, prints, clothing, souvenirs, and keepsakes to keep fans happy. Museum attendance averages about 150,000 visitors annually, and it remains the top income-producing museum in the state system. Bestowed Smithsonian Affiliation status in 2015, the Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania is one of the premier railroad museums in the world, and is a must-see for train buffs and the general public who enjoy railroad heritage and appreciate period trains from a bygone age.
Visit Lancaster County
Just visiting the railroad and the museum can easily occupy the better part of a day or longer. As part of a trip to Strasburg, don’t forget the aforementioned National Toy Train Museum and Choo Choo Barn, as well as the Red Caboose Motel and Restaurant. There are plenty of eateries nearby on U.S. Route 30, as well as the Hershey Farm Restaurant and Inn which runs SRC’s food services and offers its own smorgasbord. The railroad is a two-hour drive from Baltimore, four hours from New York City, and an hour-and-a-half from Philadelphia. The nearest airport is HIA, 45 minutes west. The railroad is accessible via Amtrak’s Keystone Line from Lancaster station, though Uber or a taxi service to Strasburg is necessary as Red Rose Transit discontinued service to the museum in 1992. Tourist railroads less than an hour’s drive away include Allentown & Auburn, Wilmington & Western, and others.
There is so much to see and do in Strasburg — make it all part of your next visit. If you haven’t been there recently, there are always new things, making it worthwhile for both railfans and the general public. You will not be disappointed!
KURT R. BELL worked for both Strasburg Rail Road and the Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania for almost two decades. His 2015 book on Strasburg, co-authored with Jeremy Plant and published by Morning Sun Books, is a standard reference in the field. He is presently an Archivist at the Pennsylvania State Archives in Harrisburg, Pa.
Strasburg Rail Road and the Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania are part of our fantastic five-day guided tour of heritage railways September 11–15, 2019. For details and reservations, please visit