Pennsylvania Steam

Pennsylvania Steam
"Thy black cylindric body, golden brass and silvery steel, Thy ponderous side-bars, parallel and connecting rods, gyrating, shuttling at thy sides, Thy metrical, now swelling pant and roar, now tapering in the distance, Thy great protruding head-light fix'd in front, Thy long, pale, floating vapor-pennants, tinged with delicate purple, The dense and murky clouds out-belching from thy smoke-stack, Thy knitted frame, thy springs and valves, the tremulous twinkle of thy wheels," -Excerpt from "To A Locomotive in Winter," by Walt Whitman

The golden age of steam locomotives chuffing through a bucolic countryside ended in the mid-20th century, but the romantic allure of these massive metallic beasts lives on. With nostalgic thoughts of finding working steam engines, we depart for central Pennsylvania. My wife, Karen, is riding pillion on my orange KTM 990 Adventure, and Bruce Read, our wingman, rides a Honda Interceptor.

Narrow Gauge Survivor

Escaping the traffic of Washington, DC, we pick up our route near Caledonia State Park in south central Pennsylvania. Temperatures are in the low 90s and the humidity makes distant mountain ridges look like faintly etched monochromatic images. These ghostly geological sentinels almost seem to be monitoring our pedantic progress across the expansive Cumberland Valley.

Our path follows a series of switchbacks on its climb out of the valley on Kittatinny Mountain. We arrive at the historic East Broad Top Railroad (EBT) in Rockhill Furnace, PA, in early afternoon. The EBT's narrow-gauge, steam-powered trains carried coal, lumber, ore and passengers for some 75 years. In time, though, the demand for coal subsided and the EBT could no longer compete, and it finally shut down in 1956. The trains, track, roundhouse, yard and shops, however, were spared from the wrecking ball and remain largely intact.

Tourist operations started on a 5-mile segment of the line in 1960. Restored passenger cars are pulled by one of the four remaining steam locomotives. The EBT is said to be the only narrow-gauge railroad still operating east of the Rocky Mountains. Locally mined coal, also known as black diamonds, is the fuel that boils water, making the steam that powers the locomotives. An EBT steam engine is chugging along the track, belching black smoke and rumbling through the valley. I find this spectacle just as thrilling today as when I was a lad.

In addition to train rides departing from the 100-year-old Rockhill station, guided tours of the shops in the train yard are available. Also on premises is the Rockhill Trolley Museum. It has a collection of beautifully restored antique trolley cars, which run through rural countryside along Blacklog Creek, a slow-paced ride that transports passengers back to a more graceful era of travel.

Evening finds us at the day's destination on the banks of the Juniata River in Huntingdon, PA. We're perched on a pedestrian bridge, spanning the river, where we fondly reflect on the ride and events of the day. The setting sun glistens off the water like a cache of sparkling diamonds. A lone fisherman in a small boat darkens to a silhouette in the fading light.

A Jaunt Along the Juniata

Sunday morning finds us riding east along the Juniata River. While the river is only 90 miles long, it's the second largest tributary of Pennsylvania's mighty Susquehanna River. The steep slopes along much of the river's course have discouraged widespread development; only two towns, with a population of more than 10,000, are within its watershed. The word Juniata is believed to have derived from the Iroquoian word "onayutta," meaning standing stone.

Not far past Mount Union, PA, we go down a secondary road that traces the Juniata's gentle, flowing course. To our left a tattered, largely unoccupied campground stretches to the water's edge, while a mountain ridge looms not far to our right. A field of emerald-green cornstalks extends from the road to the mountain's base. This isolated stretch of road is just off the beaten path of a major highway, and I wonder what mysteries and secrets abound along this "road less traveled."