Most of the world sees steam locomotives only in movies. Here in Western New York, we have one of our own. And it's blowing its whistle. All aboard!
The Arcade & Attica Railroad, celebrating its 100th anniversary, is our personal short line railroad. Its steam engine, a beauty built in 1920, leads passenger excursions Wednesdays and weekends.
The journey begins at an adorable old depot in Arcade. Uniformed young men escort the crowds across the street. And there were crowds, even on a Wednesday. A string of century-old passenger cars awaited us, painted ornately, "Arcade & Attica." Funny, I'd always heard "Attica & Arcade." Why was that?
There was no time to figure that out. That lonesome whistle sounded. The locomotive was steaming up to the station.
A smell like gunpowder filled the air as, wreathed in smoke, the engine puffed to a halt. For some reason, watching it link up with the passenger cars, I got teary. There is a German word, "fernweh," that means homesickness for a place you've never been. Maybe this was something like that.
Whatever it was, I wasn't the only one feeling it.
Bob Sikorski, of Tonawanda, rode the Arcade & Attica train with his father when he was a boy. Now, he was here with his own boy, 11-year-old Bobby.
Bobby was in love with trains.
"I'd like to be a conductor," he confided.
Why is that? He replied quietly: "Because everyone has a dream of pulling on that rope and hearing the whistle blow."
Your ticket has a car and seat number. You are loaded on by the gregarious conductor, Dean Steffenhagen, or one of the young men assisting him. They say "sir," "ma'am," and "miss." It's like "The Music Man."
When the train started a-rolling, it wasn't like a modern train. It was a whole different feeling. The churning motion suggested songs by Muddy Waters and Johnny Cash.
"You can feel the surges, riding in a coach," Ronald Moeller, 81, reflected. Enthusiasm sparkled in his alert blue eyes. Moeller was 18 when he began working on the railroad. He was an engineer for Nickel Plate, later Norfolk Western, then Norfolk Southern, which interchanges with the Arcade & Attica. Retired now, he was still drawn back to the rails.
We chugged past creeks, over bridges, through cornfields – the same sights folks saw a century ago. Uniformed boys came through offering popcorn ($1) and pop ($1).
Steffenhagen went car to car, offering trivia. The train no longer goes to Attica, he explained, because that part of the track was washed up in a 1957 flood. Instead it goes to Curriers, a town six miles from Arcade. It moves slowly, just 15 mph.
I joined other riders in the open-air gondola car, in the back of the train. Kids ran around and strangers chatted as the countryside slipped past. It felt like being in a picture book.
We reached Curriers.
There's a little station there – and rest rooms, which are handy because the train has none. The locomotive stood wheezing and panting and the crowd was invited to board it. You could look right into its fiery furnace. Nearby sat the coal shovel that the fireman – that's his title – uses to stoke the engine. We met the engineer, a man of few words.
The best was yet to come.
The engine can't turn around. And so it uncoupled itself from the train and rejoined it at the other end. It was now facing the gondola car and would be backing up, pulling us, all the way home to Arcade.
What fun! The whistle blew, deafening up close. Riders stuck their fingers in their ears. Someone shouted: "God bless America!"
Thrilled, I thought of railroad folk heroes, such as Casey Jones and John Henry, the steel-driving man. In the open air car, it felt as if we were in "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid." Only in a quirky Western might this spectacle make sense – a steam locomotive chugging backwards, pulling a string of quaint passenger cars.
Close to the smokestack, we all grew smudged. Passengers alerted each other to wildlife. Look, a deer, a groundhog! Every time we neared a road, the deafening whistle blasted. We waved at a pickup truck stopped for the train. The driver waved back. What if he were from out of town? He would think he was dreaming.
I almost did, too.
Back in Arcade, after the crowd had dispersed and the locomotive had snorted off to its garage, it all can seem like a mirage. Did that really happen?
It almost didn't. The A&A has had a rocky history. It began in 1870 as the Attica & Arcade and went bankrupt. Later it was the Buffalo, Attica & Arcade. Challenges abounded. A Buffalo paper ran this jingle: "The wind was high, the steam was low, the train was heavy, and hard to tow. The coal was poor, and full of slate, and that is why the B.A. & A. is late."
In 1917, the short line faced extinction. Rural businessmen banded together, bought part of it, and renamed it the Arcade & Attica. The corporation still owns it today. It added tourist excursions in the '60s and it also has a World War II-era diesel that hauls freight. It needs both the freight and passenger businesses to survive, and – wait!
So that was why I'd always heard "Attica & Arcade" – that was the word order before 1917. Maybe the name change will register in another 100 years. Maybe not.
Either way, bet that the train will still be running.
It's our own little engine that could.
Story topics: Arcade and Attica Railroad