View from the rails

View from the rails

Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad offers excursions

Story by Jane Beathard

Photos courtesy of Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad

Story by Jane Beathard

Photos courtesy of Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad

Chugging along on the Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad, passengers hardly realize they are just miles from some of northeast Ohio’s busiest urban areas.

All around are the sights and sounds of untouched nature with deep forests, rolling hills, cascading waterfalls and open farmlands visible from the train’s windows.

Riders may see bald eagles circling overhead and whitetails scampering near the tracks. They are all part of the experience as the train winds between the Cleveland suburbs and Akron through the 32,000-acre Cuyahoga Valley National Park — Ohio’s only true national park.

The Cuyahoga River is visible at many spots.

Once infamous as the nation’s “burning river,” the Cuyahoga has come a long way since the 1969 fire that set the modern American environmental movement ablaze.

Today, the upper portions of the river (22 miles inside the park) are pristine and serve as a testament to what can be accomplished when government and ordinary citizens work together to achieve a common goal.

At other points on the trip, riders can glimpse portions of the historic Ohio & Erie Canal.

Once a lifeline of the state and nation, the canal ferried people and goods between Lake Erie and the Ohio River in the early 1800s and helped open the western and southern United States to settlement.

Today, the canal is a recreational destination for anglers and other outdoor enthusiasts. Its old towpath is a 19-mile hard-surfaced trail that draws thousands of cyclists and hikers each year.

All these things are visible to the more than 168,000 riders that hop on the scenic railroad annually, according to Katie Brewer, the railroad’s public relations director.

Most are local or hail from surrounding states like New York and Michigan, she added.

Trains operate year-round with 2 to 3.5-hour scenic tours offered daily.

Cyclists — and their bikes — are welcomed aboard from May to October.

Joe Johnson traveled 2,000 miles from Las Vegas to celebrate his 60th birthday on the railroad.

He biked a portion of the towpath trail before jumping aboard the train (with his bike) to return to his boarding station near Cleveland. He loved the contrast between the natural surroundings and the immediacy of major thruways.

“It was like being in the middle of a forest even though there were tall highway bridges far overhead,” Johnson said.

He also liked touring the Canal Exploration Center that is located at Valley View along the trail. The center is a museum dedicated to the construction and operation of the old Ohio & Erie Canal.

Breakfast rides on the train are scheduled on Saturdays in July and August with dinner rides on Friday nights from June through October.

Other special events like beer and wine tastings, murder mysteries and child-themed Christmas rides are scheduled seasonally.

Most popular trips are the “Polar Express” (based on the movie) and “Steam In The Valley.”

Families dress in pajamas to board the “Polar Express” train which runs 42 nights from mid-November to late December and drew 46,000 riders last year, Brewer said.

The railroad brings in a fully restored steam locomotive in late September for “Steam In The Valley.” The event is popular with rail enthusiasts and collectors.

Riders can board year-round at the Cleveland suburb of Independence on the north or Akron on the south. Another boarding station along the route is in Peninsula.

The railroad was incorporated in 1972 as a non-profit dedicated to preserving and renovating historic railcars for the benefit of future generations. Those collected cars now number two dozen, Brewer said.

A current capital campaign aims at restoring a Rail Diesel Car, which is a self-propelled passenger car driven by an engineer. It would attract group events and small parties, Brewer said.

Other planned capital projects involve restoration of a handicapped-accessible dining car and a “Edutrainment” car where children can learn about rail history.

“It will be sort of a rolling children’s museum,” Brewer said of the car.

The scenic railroad runs on rails of the old Cuyahoga Valley Line that served Cleveland, Canton and smaller towns in between during the late 1800s.

A cooperative effort with the national park began in 1989 as a way of offering sightseeing excursions and make the park more accessible to people of all ages and abilities.

No other national park in the country has a non-profit heritage railroad operating within its boundaries, promotional literature boasts.

A core group of 200 to 300 volunteers help the 50 full-time employees keep trains moving. They are at the heart of the railroad’s mission. They do everything from routine maintenance of passenger cars and locomotives to staffing the ticket offices and onboard concession stands, Brewer noted.

“As a non-profit, we would not be able to operate without our volunteers,” she said.

Salt Magazine