A special request brought a grand dame of the railroad to Tamaqua and points north on Monday. But it wasn't a typical fall foliage excursion.
Engine #425, a legendary locomotive of the Reading, Blue Mountain and Northern Railroad, turned in a command performance on behalf of close to two dozen railfans who paid premium fees for a chance to ride and photograph the historic iron horse at just the right locations.
"We had a group of people for this," explained Andy Muller, president, Reading, Blue Mountain and Northern Railroad (RBMN), while railfans toted cameras and tripods, scurrying for best position.
With its fancy, blue-and-white paint scheme and roaring steam whistles and loud bell, engine #425 attracts a crowd. The excursion was private and unannounced. But many passers-by with cell phone cameras were lucky enough to be at the right place and the right time to snap shots.
Muller said special excursions happen once in a while. It is, however, very expensive for the steam engine to operate.
According to reports, 20 rail enthusiasts paid $200 a ticket to charter the train from Port Clinton.
Two additional railfans reportedly paid $500 each for the opportunity to ride in the engineer's cab.
"This is nice," said Herb Curvey of Tamaqua, who chatted with Muller while the engine idled near the center of town.
Another enthusiast on hand was Bob Malay, West Penn Township, a 42-year veteran engineer with Norfolk Southern, Reading and Conrail.
"I was able to get pictures on the bridge," Malay said, referring to the steel railroad bridge at the south end of Tamaqua, originally part of the wye junction along the Lehigh and New England line.
The event brought anthracite photographer Scott Herring from Hellertown. It was Herring's second trip to Tamaqua in as many days. He had spent all day in the Schuylkill County town on Sunday for the heritage festival. But he said he wouldn't miss Monday's photo opportunity.
"It's appropriate that the train comes to Tamaqua because this town is foremost in railroad heritage," said Herring.
A local historian spoke of the historical significance.
"They brought a steam engine with coal cars attached," said Dale Freudenberger, president, Tamaqua Historical Society. "This is reminiscent of Tamaqua's status as the first railroad in the nation to haul coal using a steam engine."
Just like the bus driver who takes a bus ride on his day off, Tamaqua resident Kyra Dale was on hand to shoot photos.
Dale works as a passenger attendant for RBMN and most recently worked the weekend tours in Jim Thorpe.
"It's the best job under the sun because I'm a total railfan," explained Dale. She showed up on her day off to see the train and welcome it to Tamaqua.
The locomotive spent much of the day in the area, drawing considerable interest.
"It's always nice to see the steam engine come to downtown Tamaqua," said Linda Yulanavage, executive director, Tamaqua Area Chamber of Commerce. "I wish we could see it more often."
Accompanying the train was Mike Painter and others of the RBMN police and security crew, and other employees such as Tyler Glass, executive vice president, operations.
Muller told the TIMES NEWS that rail traffic - both freight and passenger service - continues to be brisk.
"Business has been good with freight, moving coal, and the passenger trains are sold out. They sell out every year," he noted, in reference to fall foliage runs. Other runs, such as the Santa Special, are also very popular, Muller added.
"Our main line runs from Reading to Scranton and everything in between," Muller said. The railroad has hauled all kinds of products, including things one might not expect, such as cocoa beans.
"Business is so good that I don't even need to advertise," said Muller.
Engine #425 was built on Jan. 16, 1928, by Baldwin Locomotive Works of Eddystone, Pa. The engine and tender tip the scales at almost 400,000 pounds.
RBMN is a short line operating two divisions on 300 miles of track. The Reading Division runs from Reading north and east to Packerton along former Reading Company and Central Railroad of New Jersey lines. At its south end, it connects to the Norfolk Southern Railway's Reading Line; its east end is at the RBMN's Lehigh Division and the Norfolk Southern's Lehigh Line.
The railroad's Lehigh Division forms a fork from Jim Thorpe with one branch running easterly through Nesquehoning and connecting via a junction to Mahanoy City or Hazleton, and the second branch runs northerly via the Lehigh River Gorge, climbs to Mountaintop with a double track running from there most of the way to the Duryea Yard and Taylor Yard.