A historic train line used to service iron forges in Pennsylvania’s rural Berks and Montgomery counties has been revived to serve a nascent tourism industry.
The Colebrookdale Railroad, an 8-mile stretch between Pottstown and Boyertown to the north, uses century-old passenger cars on a 150-year-old rail bed to take passengers through what operators call a “secret valley.”
“It’s comprised of the valley of the Ironstone Creek and the valley of the Manatawny Creek,” said conductor Nathaniel Guest. “In these two valleys are among the oldest ironmaking sites in the New World. That industry that made Pennsylvania an international power and garnered our reputation as the Keystone State grew up here along what became the Colebrookdale Railroad.”
Guest encourages passengers on the restored vintage rail cars to look out the windows to see remains of those long-gone 19th-century iron forges, remnants of original stone bridges built by Civil War soldiers, a bald eagle nest, and sheer-cut rock passing inches from the train.
“We ask that you please keep your head, your hands, your arms, all the body parts you wish to keep inside the train at all times,” Guest warned the 110 passengers during a recent sold-out ride.
Guest is not just a conductor; he is the executive director of the Colebrookdale Preservation Trust, a group he started as a law student six years ago when he learned the former owner of the underused railroad was petitioning to legally abandon it. As a train enthusiast, a preservationist, and a budding lawyer, he saw a way to utilize all of his interests in a single project.
The revival of the Colebrookdale Railroad is the centerpiece of a planned network of recreational trails for hiking, biking, camping, and watersports in the adjacent creeks.
“The creeks are stocked. There’s wonderful fishing, but it’s hard to access. That’s one thing the train will provide,” said Guest, who envisions a railcar designed to transport canoes and kayaks.
Six years ago, the railway was ready to be abandoned. Its owner at the time, East Penn Railroad, was filing the paperwork to legally abandon the tracks. Berks County Commissioner Mark Scott thought that would have not only effectively destroy an historic amenity, but create a public liability. He urged his fellow commissioners to purchase the railway, using $1.3 million from an already existing environmental fund.
Scott admits it was a gamble.
“There are plenty of people in my party — the Republican Party — who want smaller government and would be quick, as they were, to criticize the county getting involved in buying a marginally profitable – at best – railroad,” said Scott. “Nevertheless, in my experience, once a railroad is abandoned, it’s gone forever. Many railroad companies who abandoned rail lines in the ’70s and ’80s rue the day they did it.”
Seeking Montgomery County’s support
The rail straddles a county line: Boyertown is in Berks County, Pottstown in Montgomery County. To make the enterprise work, both counties need to be on board. So far, they seem to be.
The Colebrookdale Preservation Trust approached the Montgomery County commissioners for matching funds to buy an abandoned, historic rail station, believed to have been designed by architect Frank Furness, which is now propped up in nearby Birdsboro.
Guest would like to move it 10 miles, to Pottstown, to serve as the railroad terminus.
The commissioners are considering investing some economic development funds into the project.
“All of our boroughs – the older boroughs like Pottstown – are in need of economic development,” said Montgomery County Commissioner Bruce Castor. “Pottstown is clearly on the rise. Pottstown is forward-thinking.
“If you want to attract top restaurants and social gathering spots, you have to have patrons who utilize them,” he said. “If you provide attractions, then you have an influx of people to stimulate the economy.”
Commissioners are expected to vote on how to spend the county’s economic development funds in early 2015.
Right now, the Colebrookdale Railroad is in beta-version, with a single vintage passenger car, an open flatbed car, a partially refurbished car used as a makeshift lounge, and no stops along the route. If all goes well, Guest said, he should have the Furness rail station and another vintage passenger car refurbished next fall, in time for the holiday season.