Special events planned over the next few weeks, months
For the last half a century, the Wilmington and Western Railroad has given thousands of riders a glimpse of a different side of New Castle County.
Held together by a relatively small staff, and fueled by the efforts of dozens of dedicated volunteers, the railroad is poised to continue moving forward down the track and into another 50 years of service.
Over the past 23 years, the man at the wheel has been David Ludlow, executive director of the WWRR, who in that time said he’s seen the railroad have its ups and downs.
“I would say the recent trend, in general, puts us on the ‘strongly moving uphill’ side of things,” Ludlow said, adding that the upward tick in the economy has people out spending cash on themselves and their families once again.
Families, he noted, which are often the main source of the railroad’s passengers.
“On any given weekend, we see plenty of moms and dads and kids – and, sometimes, it’s grandmas and granddads and kids,” Ludlow said. “Where else in Delaware can you go and see – and ride – a steam train through the woods to a picnic meadow?”
The railroad runs weekend trips in season between Greenbank Station, on Route 41, to Hockessin Station, with stops at Mt. Cuba and a gorgeous view of the Red Clay Creek and surrounding environs.
Ludlow attributes the railroad’s success to a carefully refined package that keeps its rates reasonable and offers a unique recreational opportunity not found in other places locally.
Looking back at the last 50 years, Ludlow said he recognizes the impact that the volunteers have had on the organization, adding that the railroad wouldn’t’ have made it this far without them.
“We wouldn’t be here without the perseverance, dedication and passion of those volunteers,” he said.
Volunteers like Baltimore resident John La Costa, who still makes the 140-mile round trip from his home to Greenbank Station once a week to work the rails.
Known as the “Singing Engineer,” La Costa spends as much time in overalls helping maintain the cars as he does in conductor gear, where he collects tickets and entertains riders with his booming singing voice.
La Costa’s time with the railroad started in 1968, when he was a student at the University of Delaware taking photos for the yearbook.
“I do have a personal interest in trains,” La Costa said of his dedication to the railroad. “I like steam, which they’ve got. I end up doing a lot of electrical work for them, because I’m in electrical engineering.”
A singer his entire life, La Costa blends his two loves without being urged.
“They’re not related other than I like trains, and I like to sing,” he said with a chuckle.
Tom Marshall, a lifelong Yorklyn resident and co-founder of the railroad’s umbrella organization, Historic Red Clay Valley, Inc., said that the WWRR has always operated on volunteers like La Costa.
“You can’t run a railroad like that unless you have a lot of volunteers who are pretty dedicated; it would cost too much to run if you hired everybody,” Marshall said.
Although the line was originally chartered to ship goods from the Red Clay mills to the Port of Wilmington, the organization that would come to be known as the WWRR started in the mid-60’s, as Marshall and a group of friends negotiated with B&O to use a portion of the line.
The first trip on the newly christened WWRR was on Memorial Day in 1966, according to Marshall.
“I thought it would be fun to do,” he said of his interest in the railroad. “I said, wouldn’t it be fun to have passenger trains on these old lines? Thing is, I didn’t realize what I was getting into. It was a major undertaking to work out the deal.”
Marshall said he’s very pleased that the railroad keeps on going, and that they have enough volunteers to run it.
“it’s an expensive thing to run a railroad, with all the maintenance,” he said. “And most of its income is from ticket sales, so they have to do pretty well.”
Last year’s estimates put the total passengers at around 30,000, Marshall said.
“Compare with Strasburg (Railroad) in Lancaster County – I don’t know what they do now, but traditionally they used to carry 300,000 people a year,” Marshall said. “We’re small compared to them, but we’ve done some great things.”
That includes rebuilding nine bridges and whole portions of the track after severe flooding in Yorklyn in 1999 and 2003, adding a new station in 1997, and new office just four years ago.
Although he hasn’t been active with the railroad in a number of years, Marshall – whose family founded many mills along the Red Clay, and established what would become National Vulcanized Fiber (NVF) – said he’s still excited by the possibilities the railroad offers.
That includes a possible home in the revitalized Yorklyn community, and the former NVF site.
“It’s a place you can get to by car, so you have limited possibilities, but they can do special things like some of the special things they do now,” he said. “I can’t see Yorklyn being the main terminus, but as it develops it will become better known and we’ll have somewhere else to bring folks and brag about.”
“It’s a huge accomplishment, turning 50,” Ludlow said. “It’s remarkable and outstanding, and we couldn’t have done it without the volunteers. A lot of the heritage railroads fail, but somehow we keep rolling along.”
The official Kickoff date for the 50th season is Saturday, with the dedication of engine B&O SW1 No. 8408, and featuring train rides to Mt. Cuba Grove and Hockessin. For a complete list of the railroad’s 50th anniversary events, visit wwrr.com.
IF YOU GO Armed Forces Day at WWRR WHAT Celebration of Armed Forces Day with the Wilmington and Western Railroad WHERE Greenbank Station, 2201 Newport Gap Pike, Wilmington WHEN Sunday, May 22, 2 p.m. DETAILS Speakers will include “Gen. Douglas MacArthur” and HRCV founder Tom Marshall, along with numerous other veterans of military service. For reservations or more information, call 302-998-1930