Milton Bicentennial Train Ride

May 2017

The Borough of Milton, Pennsylvania, turned 200 years old in 2017, and in a community long known for putting on good shows (their Harvest Festival parade in September had six high-school bands the last time I attended, not to mention dozens of floats and a LARGE number of fire trucks), one could count on the citizenry to mark this anniversary in good style.  Among all of the events planned, one caught my eye: excursion trains, to run on one day only, Saturday, the 10th of June.

Operated by the North Shore Railroad, the three trips would leave from alongside the ConAgra plant (formerly the Chef Boyardee manufactory; Ettore Boiardi started the company in Cleveland but chose Milton for his new base because of the proximity to tomato and mushroom farmers).  Once upon a time, the Reading Company's Catawissa & Williamsport Branch crossed the Pennsy's Buffalo line just east of Chef Boyardee; a short spur to the north went to a classic Reading wood-frame station right across the street from the Pennsy's brick depot, and both buildings survive today, the former as the borough offices and the latter as the police station.  I believe both the Reading and the Pennsy served the American Car & Foundry plant just a few blocks north of the depots; the original section of that factory actually dates as far back as 1864, and a replica of a very early tankcar sits in front of the plant -- two wooden casks, looking like a couple of hot tubs, sitting on a flatcar.  ACF still builds and repairs covered hoppers and tankcars here.  With the coming of Conrail, the spectacular, mountain-climbing Catawissa line east of Milton got torn up, as far as Lofty (the Reading & Northern uses a stub of the line there), but the multi-span bridges crossing the Susquehanna River west of Milton (one from the east shore to an island, the other from the island to the west shore) remained in place, as did remnants on the west shore of the former Reading Shamokin, Sunbury & Lewisburg Branch, which the Catawissa joined at West Milton, just beyond the end of the bridge; the North Shore has operated these pieces for 30-odd years, now as the Union County Industrial Railroad.

 

A public passenger excursion had last run in Milton in 1964, one of the storied Reading Rambles; for those trips, diesels pulled the trains on the Catawissa Branch (the T-1 4-8-4s did not fit the clearances), and the double-headed Northerns which had pulled the eye-poppingly long trains from Philadelphia would run light up the S. S. & L. from East Mahanoy Junction, rejoining their trains at the West Milton engine terminal, which included a roundhouse in the old days.

 

It seemed likely that the tickets for these Bicentennial trains would sell out quickly, and I could not go to Milton to buy one on the Monday they went on sale at the borough building, but fortunately a friend planned to go and pick up a few, so I put in an order.  I knew I would only have time to go over and ride the first trip: The rest of Saturday the 10th I would spend at the Lycoming County Fairgrounds manning the Destination Blues booth at the Billtown Blues Festival.

 

Saturday dawned cloudy, and it rained as I got in the van for the drive to Hughesville to set up at Billtown, but the weather cleared, and by 10 o'clock perfect puffy clouds skipped happily through the blue sky.  I drove down to Milton with Susquehanna University's public station, WQSU, on the radio; on Saturdays their volunteer DJs play the old country and bluegrass music that I grew up on.  I had actually forgotten that the trains would leave from ConAgra (and I had forgotten that the Reading spur to the depot disappeared decades ago), so I took a little tour of Milton before finding the train on the high fill just south of the plant.  North Shore SW1500s bracketed the eight-car train: two North Shore cabooses; three North Shore passenger cars (two of them smooth-side streamliners, with air conditioning, and the third a former Lackawanna M.U. car, all three in Lackawanna-inspired gray and maroon); and three of Jeff Pontius's former Lackawanna M.U.s in Pennsylvania Railroad Tuscan red.  A crowd had already gathered on the grass below the track, waiting to board, and more vehicles continued to pour into the parking lot across the street (on the site of a now-vanished industry -- Milton had quite a range of them way back when) as I waited in line.

 

When I reached the train, I ran into a couple of North Shore people I know: Tom Avery, the railroad's operations director (I rode the cab of one of their Geeps with him on an Iron Heritage Festival train in Danville circa 2009), and Scott Bauer, one of the newest employees; he hired on in 2016 and now works in train service.  I met Scott in 2016 at Minersville when he came to volunteer on C.N.J. 113, and I went to see the Bauer family's own railroad, the two-foot-gauge Bucksgahuda & Western, that September.  Tom had only a moment to chat between calls on the radio about getting passengers seated in the streamlined cars, and likewise Scott too had tasks at hand, so I made for the coach steps.


I knew I did not want to ride in the A/C cars -- what fun in that? -- so I stayed to the right, expecting to board the open-window cars and head for the very back of the train; I wanted to try to get a photo of the whole train on the curve west of the bridge.  The car host, though, directed me to my left, into the North Shore open-window car: "We want to fill the single seats first and leave as many as possible available in the other cars for groups and families."  Oh.  Well, okay.  I found a seat next to an older gentleman (he already had the window seat, of course, and on the wrong side of the train too), and we chatted while we waited for departure; a retired contractor and homebuilder, he remembered the Rambles passing through, and fondly enough, but I would not call him a fan.

A few minutes before 11, the car host came by to say that they had plenty of seats in the last car, so I jumped up -- not before a pleasant goodbye to my seatmate (who would now find it easier to talk to his wife and granddaughter across the aisle) -- and headed through the crowded sixth and seventh cars to the mostly-empty last car: window seats galore!  I chose one close to the front of the car; right in front of me sat a woman and young girl, out for their very first train ride -- and exactly the sort of photo subject that I have come to appreciate.

Across the aisle, a young couple had brought their toddler, also for her first train ride; in later conversation with him, I learned that the father had ridden trains in the area in prior years (before the Union County Industrial, the Lewisburg & Buffalo Creek ran excursions from south of West Milton, through Lewisburg towards Winfield; Sara and I rode one of their dinner trains in 1992 or '93 and found the cuisine unmemorable); he loved this opportunity to share this experience with his daughter.

A couple of minutes off the advertised, we rolled west; some of the ConAgra employees came to wave.

In the car ahead of us, throughout the ride, a group of kids ignored the posted signs to keep their hands inside; you can see them waving in the photo here.  The little girl sitting in front of me waved much more demurely, and within the rules, at the fishermen near the west shore.

Yes, I will admit to putting my hands out the window too, with a camera in them, but I made almost all of these photos with my head still inside, aiming by the seat of my pants, so to speak.

 

Once upon a time, had you ridden a Ramble, say, you would probably have gotten a clear view of the train all the way around the curve west of the bridge; decades of unchallenged photosynthesis meant I could not see more than a couple of cars ahead until close to the end of the curve; from here on north, the track runs arrow straight for miles, so this photo will have to serve as my record of the whole train:

On the left of the train, and at first considerably below us, I could see the single track of the erstwhile S. S. & L., long ago a double-track high-volume railroad.  Now the track goes south through downtown Lewisburg and down as far as Cargill in Winfield; beyond that, only a disappearing right-of-way remains, and one would never know that a multi-span, half-mile-long bridge used to cross the Susquehanna into downtown Sunbury -- except for one panel of the flood wall, newer than the rest, that filled in the gap after the railroad's abandonment and the scrapping of the bridge.

 

At every crossing we passed, a few locals and a few chasers waved and filmed; we ambled along at 10 miles per hour, waving back and enjoying the breeze that came through the car (not due to the speed of the train, of course).  The car host in my coach recognized me, and when he introduced myself I realized I recognized him: John Bower, who volunteers with Jeff Pontius's Penn Valley Railroad during the Christmas season; John plays an elf to Jeff's Santa, and I see them in Bloomsburg every year for the "North Pole Express" trains that run the weekend after Thanksgiving.  We talked about the passing scenery and the history of the line; in New Columbia, the Reading station survives, still painted in yellow and brown, and just up the track, a house sits so close to the right-of-way that I can imagine pictures flying off the walls when a T-1 blew from the Main Street crossing.  Another retired gentleman, a lifelong Milton resident who had worked for 40 years as an administrator in the schools and remembered steam here, joined in our conversation.  On our left we passed a recently-rebuilt siding into an industry; John said that some of the large machinery for the new gas-fired power station in Shamokin Dam had come in here by rail, to get transferred to truck for the fifteen-mile trip downriver.

Presently we slowed and then stopped, across from another modern industry, a typical nondescript metal building.  Down at the end of the car, through the open door, I saw Scott Bauer climb up on the engine, so I went out onto the vestibule to see if he would have time to talk.  He did, just a little, and he had time enough to pose for a photo as well:

North of here, the track continues as far as Allenwood (history buffs, remember when some of the Watergate conspirators got prison time there in the federal pen?); Google Maps' satellite view shows almost two miles of stored tank cars below the end of track, almost reaching the White Deer depot, now owned by the Central Pennsylvania Chapter of the National Railway Historical Society.  In addition, the Chapter owns a variety of passenger and freight equipment and at least one 44-ton diesel locomotive or the like, all stored on the long station siding.

 

Someone closed the vestibule door after we began our southward leg, slightly reducing the impact of the engine's horn at the crossings.  We saw more or less the same people along the way; except for the river bridges, which required a drone or a boat to photograph, it would not have taken any fancy driving to document almost every foot of the train's progress.  As we crossed back into Milton a few minutes before noon, I did indeed stick my head out of the window in order to properly frame a photo of one of the naked telegraph/signal poles on the bridge, with the ConAgra smokestack in the distance; until someone in corporate decides it requires painting over, the stack says "CHEF BOYARDEE FOODS" in white bricks laid into the red.

Before we debarked, I made one more photo, of the grateful father thanking John Bower for hosting us; I told the couple about Project 113's Santa trains in December, and perhaps his daughter will indeed become a railfan one of these days.

On my way back to Hughesville, I took the two-lane roads instead of the Interstate, paralleling the Buffalo Line through Watsontown (where the branch to the power plant at Washingtonville leaves the Buffalo Line), Dewart, and Montgomery.  Not surprisingly, I saw no trains.  ​By 1 o'clock I had gotten back to the festival, where music had started on two stages, and for the rest of daylight I worked our booth, talking to a lot of Blues fans and enjoying the gorgeous day.  From where I sat, I could hear all of the music from the main stage; perhaps I did not pay close enough attention, but I don't think I heard any train songs.