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Full steam ahead

  • DONALD R. SERFASS/TIMES NEWS  The 1928 Baldwin #425 steam engine, seen here in Tamaqua Oct. 14, will be used for special steam excursion from the borough in early December, the first such event in 17 years.
    DONALD R. SERFASS/TIMES NEWS The 1928 Baldwin #425 steam engine, seen here in Tamaqua Oct. 14, will be used for special steam excursion from the borough in early December, the first such event in 17 years.
Published October 26. 2013 09:00AM

The destination isn't yet known and details are still being worked out, but passenger steam power will return to Tamaqua rails.

For the first time in 17 years, special steam train excursions will board at Tamaqua's 1874 Philadelphia & Reading Railroad passenger depot for scenic rides along one of the nation's oldest rail lines.

Baldwin steam locomotive #425, a Pacific light engine built 1928, will pull historic passengers cars that will offer seats during the 18th Annual Tamaqua Spirit of Christmas Festival late this year.

The last time steam excursions were hosted in Tamaqua was in 1996.

A spokesman for the festival confirmed the plans.

"As part of the 17th Annual Spirit of Christmas Festival this year, the Tamaqua Historical Society will sponsor 'Santa Claus Special Steam Train Rides' from the historic Tamaqua railroad station on Saturday December 7 in partnership with the Reading & Northern Railroad," said Dale Freudenberger, society president.

Three rides with Santa will be offered at 11 a.m., 1 and 3 p.m., rain or shine.

Passengers will ride in vintage passenger coaches. Each excursion will be a one-hour round trip and destinations will be announced shortly as the society and the Reading, Blue Mountain & Northern Railroad (RBMN) finalize details.

Freudenberger said the excursions will be advertised and seating is expected to be limited to 490 passengers per trip.

Tamaqua was well known as a steam excursion venue during the legendary Reading Railroad Iron Horse Rambles of the 1960s.

That tradition was reignited on Aug. 1, 1991, with the famous T-1 2102 steam engine running "The Anthracite Express," special excursions into Tamaqua. The runs were a collaboration between the Tamaqua Historical Society and the newly formed RBMN railroad.

That inaugural event celebrated 160 years of railroad heritage of the Little Schuylkill Coal & Navigation Railroad.

The 1831 Tamaqua-based operation was one of the oldest railroads in the country and the first to haul coal using a steam locomotive. The 1831 rail line is still being used daily in Tamaqua.

The Anthracite Express excursions took passengers from Tamaqua to Reading, passing through the towns of Zehners, Reynolds, Hecla, New Ringgold, Rauschs, Drehersville, Millers, Molino, Port Clinton, Pulpit Rock, Hamburg, Berne, Shoemakersville, Mohrsville, Dauberville, Leesport, Rickenbach, Peacocks Lock Bridge, North Reading and Belt Line Junction.

Tamaqua train excursions were wildly popular in the 1990s. The final steam excursion left town on Oct. 13, 1996, after which steam was supplanted by diesel engines through the end of the decade.

In honor of Tamaqua's founding bicentennial, 1999, and in conjunction with a push for Schuylkill County tourism, day trips operated from Aug. 8 to Oct. 30 of that year, using 1950s-era Budd diesel cars. That one-year promotion combined the efforts of the society and the Schuylkill County Visitors Bureau.

However, in 2000, the passenger train excursions were canceled due to mechanical issues. The regular runs never returned.

In recent years, society volunteers have been negotiating with the RBMN to resume passenger excursions from or to Tamaqua, continuing the tradition, said Freudenberger.

"We're happy to be working with the Reading & Northern Railroad on bringing the steam train to Tamaqua. The Tamaqua Historical Society and the railroad have worked together to bring trains to Tamaqua for nearly three decades," he said.

Excursions traveling north from the Schuylkill County town are spectator favorites in part because they pass through the 1850s-era Tamaqua Tunnel and atop the Hometown High Bridge. The bridge was built in 1931 by the Phoenix Bridge Company for The Central Railroad of New Jersey. It replaced a previous wooden trestle. The bridge soars 156 high, said to be 20 feet high than the Brooklyn Bridge.

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