May 30 – Thomas Germroth remembers the fascination he felt growing up in Baltimore and watching trains go by with his father. On Saturday, some 70 years later, he was sitting on a locomotive driving through Walkersville, wearing a hat with illuminated letters proclaiming, “Always play with the trains.”
Germroth was among hundreds of visitors from across Maryland – and up and down the East Coast – to Walkersville on Saturday, aboard an antique motor-drawn train dating from 1928. They range from infancy to old age , from the railroad fanatic to the casual observer. And once a year, they flock to Frederick County to experience the sights, sounds, and smells that can only come from steam.
“It’s a total sensory experience,” said conductor John Meise.
Each summer, the Walkersville Southern Railroad hosts a steam locomotive for three weekends. It’s a treat, especially for train enthusiasts, said Meise, and a change of pace from the usual diesel rail cars.
The engine is one of five owned by Barney Gramling and his father. Based in Indiana, the couple travel the country with their locomotives in tow.
“It’s a hobby that got out of hand,” Gramling said. “We bought the second to get parts for the first. We bought the third to get parts for the second. The fourth was because I opened my mouth. And the fifth because I’m an idiot.”
It started when Gramling was 14 and volunteering on a tourist train line. He was already good at helping repair antique tractors, and the owner of the train he volunteered on convinced him to try his hand at restoring an old steam engine.
Now he and his father use trucks to transport them to small tourist lines that only have diesel engines. In 15 years, they’ve been to 20 states – as far west as Oklahoma and as far south as Florida.
And in the same time, Gramling estimates that he has taught 5,000 people to operate particularly demanding machines.
“A steam engine is as close to a living, breathing animal or person as a machine can ever be,” he said. “They each have their own personality. They all have their own quirks. If you treat them badly, they will treat you badly. If you treat them well, they will treat you well.”
The engine currently visiting Walkersville was built in 1928 in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., To haul overburden – the rocks and soil that block access to a coal seam. Gramling bought it behind a restaurant in New York City and spent six years getting it up and running.
It is one of the 150 steam engines operating only in the country. On Saturday, he took visitors on an hour-long tour of Frederick and back, winding through woods, farmland and down the Monocacy River. He’ll do the same next weekend, before Gramling packs his bags and leaves town.
Observers stationed at various locations along the tracks, many of which were equipped with tripods and cameras, waved and applauded as the train passed. Inside, it was packed with families and teeming with little children bouncing between cars with excitement.
Alice Nehring was one of them. It was her third birthday and her cousin, James, was two years old. His father used the same railway line when he was three years old.
“Every 3 year old loves a train,” he laughs.
Jerome Meise, 4, of Virginia Beach, wearing a Thomas the Tank Engine sweatshirt for the occasion. His eyes lit up as he watched plumes of smoke explode from the engine and listened to his whistle pierce the air.
“Growing up my dad really loved trains,” Jerome’s dad John said. “He exposed me to it, so I’m just trying to do the same.”
And for the Fluitt family of Ohio, the trip meant a welcome break from electronics. The five children laughed and played games with each other as the train headed for Frederick.
This year alone, the Walkersville Southern Railroad has trained more than 80 volunteers, said manager Paul Kovalcik. It’s a huge commitment, he said, and no one – not conductors, engineers or event planners – is getting paid.
As the rain began to fall in earnest on Saturday, Kovalcik smiled at the crowd of families around him. For more than 20 years since he’s been with the railroad, he’s actually lost money, he said.
But he sure was worth it.
“The big railroads spend a million dollars a mile to maintain the tracks and the cars,” he said. “We do it for fun.”
Follow Jillian Atelsek on Twitter: @jillian_atelsek