Click on the train cars for a 360° view inside.
A breeze whips through the open windows of the mid-1950s engine’s cab. From the driver’s seat Micheal Mullins pokes his head out to check in front and behind the train. The 26-year-old’s long ponytail and beard catch some of the wind. As the train approaches a street crossing, he tugs on a small lever. A deafening series of short and long whistles breaks the silence of an otherwise calm Memorial Day weekend. It’s a sound that can transport Mullins back to his childhood growing up in a small town near Charleston, West Virginia, where a train ran by his neighborhood.
“It was just far enough away that it was like a lullaby at night. It would put you right to sleep,” he says. “Then when we moved away I couldn’t sleep.”
His young fascination morphed into a career as a freight engineer during the weekdays and, at least once a month, as a volunteer engineer for the Hocking Valley Scenic Railway in Nelsonville, Ohio. Under Mullins guidance the passenger train tugs along, tucked beneath a sheet of gray clouds. It travels alongside the Hocking River and passes through backyards with chickens and gardens. Little boys look out the windows with wide eyes and seniors sit back and remember days gone by.
“This is one of my favorite stretches right here,” Mullins says, as the train approaches a verdant hollow. The trees swallow the train for a moment before opening back up. It’s a short two-hour joyride for the passengers aboard.
Inside, junior conductor Hugh Woods, collects and hole punches the passenger’s tickets.
“How are we doing today? Do you have your tickets?” He asks as he approaches a couple. “Is she walking or riding back?” he asks the man as he takes their tickets and gives each two punches.
Depends how she acts when we get to Hadenville,” the passenger replies.
“Alright, well I’ll give you the tickets and you can decide,” Woods says.
Along the ride Woods narrates historical facts about the railroad and the surrounding area. The railroad was built in 1867 to carry salt and coal between Columbus and Athens, Ohio. Later it transported the locally famous starbricks. Passenger service on the rail began a few years later and eventually the line extended to connect to Toledo.
“People can come out and experience that ride they had years ago,” says Bob Baughman, scenic railway president. “This is not Disney Land or a place like that — what you see out the windows is what you’ve seen out the windows when you were riding trains back then.”
After a decline in the railroad’s operation the non-profit tasked themselves with keeping a section between Nelsonville and East Logan running in 1985. They offer weekend trips along with themed rides including one where faux bandits on horseback rob passengers of Monopoly money. “The mission statement for the scenic railway is the operation, preservation and restoration of historic railroad equipment. If we didn’t do this, this stuff would be gone forever,” Baughman says.
The train is made up of a motley assortment of restored coaches pulled by a 160-ton locomotive. On this particular hot afternoon, most of the passengers squeeze into the 1930s Baltimore & Ohio car that's equipped with air conditioning. A few crack open windows in one of the three Chicago, Rock Island & Pacific commuter coaches from the 1920s. Others, like the Miller family, opt for a ride in the open air car with an unencumbered view.
Jeff and Janell Miller of Grand Rapids, Ohio decided to take their 3-year-old son Blake on the train while they were in the area camping.
“Its been a really neat experience. It’s been fun going through the bridges, over the bridges,” Janell Miller says.
“[Blake] really likes trains because of Thomas the Train, so he was really excited to ride the train,” Jeff says.
Perhaps one day his fascination will evolve into a career like Mullins'.
“There’s a lost romance in railroading if you will and it’s a nostalgia, a mutual fascination among the volunteers here for how we got to the future, how we got to here,” Mullins says.
Back in the engine cab a few cicadas bump around on the floor, having been swept up on an unexpected ride. Two men hang off the short nose of the train. The larger of the two hooks the heel of his boot over a front ledge and inspects the rails while the other does the same from a more precarious spot, hanging off the front steps to get a closer look. Mullins says they have been his mentors. On the train the three are perfectly at home, no matter the decade or century.