For a taste of the golden age of train travel, when passengers enjoyed a relaxing meal and beautiful scenery on their way from Point A to Point B, hop on board a train operated by West Virginia Mountain Rail Adventures.
With locations in Durbin and Elkins, the company offers five different trains and routes from April to December. I rode two of them, the Durbin Rocket and the Mountain Explorer Dinner Train.
The first time I tried to find Durbin, I drove right through it. About 3½ hours south of Pittsburgh, the town smells distinctly like pine needles and makes you forget about the rest of the world — especially because there isn’t any cell service. It’s a quaint place built in the early 20th century to support the timber business, nestled between the east and west forks of the Greenbrier River in the Monongahela National Forest. It’s where I caught the Durbin Rocket.
The 1920s-era steam engine with vintage coaches and wooden benches takes an easy trip through the woods. For a really good look at the scenery, sit in one of the open cars. Best to wear a sweater and long pants and, if there is a breeze, you might also end up wearing some of the soot from the engine.
The route covers 10.5 miles in two hours, chugging along the Greenbrier River. The train stopped a few times to pick up campers who had spent the night in the forest and to put water in the engine. Many of the travelers were families with young children. They jumped at the chance to get off the train at one point and and walk around a creek, skipping stones while the parents took photos.
According to conductor Jim Bennett, the creek is filled with trout and bass, and wild animals aren’t hard to come by. One family who spent an evening camping were so bothered by a hungry bear that they had to scare it off with a rifle, said Chris Varner, 18, who’s spending his fourth summer serving as a staff member on the train.
Two hours later, the train lurched into the station the same way it had come, its passengers a little more soot-covered than before.
If you’ve never ascended a mountain with a glass of wine in hand while eating a four-course dinner, you’re missing out. The Mountain Explorer Dinner Train, which starts in the heart of Elkins, W.Va., offers that experience plus great views of the Monongahela National Forest.
Although Elkins is about only 36 miles north of Durbin, the many twists and turns make it about an hour’s drive. But the scenery more than made up for the time in the car. Elkins feels like a larger Durbin, a throwback town whose streets are lined with cafes and consignment stores.
The dinner train has seven cars and two engines, both built in 1952. My car, D-1493, was built in 1943 for the Santa Fe Railroad as a 32-seat diner and ran from Los Angeles to Chicago during the Korean War. Now, it’s a 48-seat car with a perfectly maintained vintage feel.
When we boarded, we found perfectly set tables with individual place cards and small votive candles. As we left the station, we were served fresh fruit and iced tea. At 15 mph, we rolled through picturesque greenery and past campgrounds. Children stood alongside the tracks, barefoot and muddy, waving at the passing train. I ate with Carol and Terry Poppe of West Liberty, Ohio, who had done this before. Dinner was excellent — definitely not typical airplane or train fare.
Two hours and three courses later, we arrived at the High Falls on the Cheat River, where we walked around for 30 minutes enjoying the forest. The altitude, conductor Lars O. Byrne said, was 2,900 feet. I asked him if he enjoys his job.
“This is my lunchroom,” he said, pointing to the trees and cascade of water. “Better than yours, right?”
On the way down, we topped out at 19 mph and enjoyed dessert and coffee while executive chef Valerie Bradon introduced herself at each table. Outside, more children waved at the train, and deer cavorted in the woods. As night fell, the train grew quieter. It was the sound of satisfied passengers, happy to be nursing a glass of wine instead of camping outside with everyone else.
Kate Mishkin: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1352.