Fifty Miles of Track and Ties
New Hampshire's Conway Scenic Railroad Rides

copyright © 2006 by Mike Colclough and New Hampshire ToDo Magazine, all rights reserved. Published July 2006.

In 1921, six steam-driven trains per day carried passengers from Boston to Dover, NH, where connecting trains took them up to North Conway. There, they could ride over the Maine Central's dramatic line-a feat of engineering-across the steep walls and gullies of Crawford Notch. It was the height of the railroading era for travelers to the White Mountains. That year, the Grand Trunk Railroad manufactured steam engine #7470 at its iron works in Point St. Charles in Ontario.

Today, 7470 plies the rails that still connect Conway, Bartlett, and Crawford Notch as part of the Conway Scenic Railroad. The tracks between Dover and Conway haven't seen passenger traffic since 1961, but an annual six-figure passenger count from "all over" drives to North Conway's gingerbread-trimmed grand Victorian train station, built in 1874, to ride the rails.

Avia Lukacs, publicity specialist for the Conway Scenic Railroad, says she's seen tourists from as far away as Great Britain and Japan come to ride the rails over the 80-foot-high Frankenstein Trestle in Crawford Notch. For many, the railway is their reason for booking a New Hampshire stay, she says. The Crawford Notch line, formerly the Maine Central's "Mountain Division" from Portland, Maine to St. Johnsbury, Vermont, is one of the most scenic rail routes in the United States.

"There are not a lot of bridges like that out there," says Avia, of Frankenstein Trestle. Avia has seen the romantic and historic lure of trains, and comments about how they appeal to a "wide range of individuals from all ages, social classes, and both genders."

Railfans come to ride "Valley Trains" that go for two-hour rides between Conway, North Conway, and Bartlett, and "Notch Trains" that tour through Crawford Notch. The Notch Trains last around five hours and are the Conway Scenic's most popular attraction, says Avia-especially in the fall.

One might think a child could become bored with a scenic train ride, especially one that only goes 20-or-so miles per hour, but Avia says think again. For years, the Conway Scenic Railroad has operated "The Polar Express" in cooperation with Believe in Books Literacy Foundation, a non-profit literature society that uses these trains and rails to re-create the magic of Chris Van Allburg's children's book each December. That event is so popular, tickets are available by lottery only.

Encouraged by its success with child riders, the Conway Scenic is beginning a "Day Out With Thomas™" (of Thomas the Tank Engine fame) event this summer. Avia says older kids have come with their teachers to learn first-hand about New Hampshire's economy, and they've left smiling. For the military, the Conway Scenic Railroad is promoting an "Armed Forces Appreciation Day" on Veteran's Day. On that day, former and current members of the U.S. Armed Services may ride free on selected trains, with proof of service.

Adults usually come for the scenery, but often fall in love with the food. Avia says people "rave" about the boxed lunches that are served on board, which are prepared by the Courtyard Café. Passengers desiring an old-fashioned upscale railroad dining experience will enjoy the Dining Car Chocorua, whose food is prepared fresh, to order, on board, by chefs from Crawford's Restaurant at Attitash. There are two lunch trains that travel to Conway and Bartlett, followed by a dinner train to Bartlett.

"The food is prepared fresh on board," says Avia. "It's not catered." It's a fine dining experience on the rails, just as New Hampshire's first well-to-do tourists enjoyed before the age of the automobile. Every year, several couples make their wedding arrangements on the Conway Scenic. As well, they work with customers to help them celebrate in all kinds of ways-everything from corporate outings to birthday parties and anniversaries. The folks at the railroad will coordinate with the area's other attractions so they can tailor the train ride to the wishes of the party. So if it's on your event wish list, ask. They'll do what they can to accommodate you.

But the Conway Scenic doesn't just celebrate passengers with human companions. This is, after all, New Hampshire. A lot of us have dogs. The Conway Scenic Railroad plans to recognize the human-canine relationships with special "Dog Daze," when "Dogs can bring their owners on the train."

Dog Daze, military appreciation days, kids' events, fine dining, and dramatic scenery all help sustain the Conway Scenic, but the people running its offices in North Conway's grand depot say nothing gets more attention than their steam engine, old 7470. For the past four years, it's been out of service with age-related problems, says Paul Hallett, who oversees the equipment and the tracks.

This year, Paul expects #7470 to be up and running. In the past four years he's seen people walk in and ask, "Are you running steam?" and some leave when they were told no. The Conway Scenic Railroad has been pouring a lot of love and money into the engine, with oversight from the Federal Railroad Administration. Why go to such trouble?

"It's said that the general public doesn't know the difference [between steam and diesel] but my experience is that's not true," he says. "The difference is striking. You have the smell of the soft coal smoke, and the whistle, and there's no mistaking that noise." For the older crowd, it reminds them of the trains they rode until diesel engines replaced steam in the 1950s. For the children, it brings alive the images of The Polar Express and Thomas the Tank Engine.

"The Conway Scenic Railroad is dedicated to bringing people the steam experience of the golden age of railroading," says Paul, who's been maintaining tourist railroads since 1972. He says the most rewarding part of his career is, "When I see young boys or girls on the platform who are obviously seeing trains for the first time, and that's what it's about for me: keeping railroad history alive for the next generation."

Doing that, says Paul, has been anything but easy for the Conway Scenic. It all began when Dwight Smith, now a White Mountains-area resident, first arrived in North Conway aboard a special ski train from Boston in 1968. Passenger service was coming to an end in North Conway as the automobile stole peoples' hearts. Smith "saw the buildings, the turntable, and the village of North Conway and got an idea that this would make a dandy little tourist train," says Paul.

Smith waited until the Boston and Maine ran its last freight train from North Conway in 1972, then made his move. The B&M wanted to maximize their profit by selling the property to developers, so Smith and two co-founders fought the necessary legal battles and got seven miles of track between Conway and North Conway.

In 1983, the Maine Central Railroad gave up the tracks in Crawford Notch, and the state of New Hampshire stepped in to make the purchase. After the mountain route had weathered over a decade of non-use, the Conway Scenic successfully bid on its lease in 1994. Their new challenge was to remove tree and brush that had grown up from years of neglect, boulders and gravel that had washed onto the tracks from the towering mountainsides, repair washouts, and repair several bridges. Additionally, thousands of ties had to be replaced.

"It's a true mountain railroad. The way it was designed is pretty remarkable," Paul says. While Willey Brook Bridge and Frankenstein Trestle steal the spotlight, there are more rail bridges up in the notch than Paul has counted. Maintaining them all still presents challenges, and this summer-with his hired summer help-he's embarking on a project to replace 4,000 ties.

Modern challenges for the railroad also include fuel for the 1950s-era diesel engines, two of which power the Notch Train. Paul says #7470 occasionally makes a ceremonial trip over Crawford Notch, but steam engines aren't easy to replace so it normally gets light duty on the Valley Train.

Maintaining old train locomotives means "a lot of our earnings go back into the upkeep," says Paul. "A lot of things we have to make ourselves; a lot of things aren't available anymore. For steam [engines], everything has to be made from scratch or 'begged and borrowed.' You're dealing with a lost art."

Using Amtrak's Downeaster-which passes the southern end of the Conway Branch in Dover (NH)-as an example, Paul says he sees the age of passenger railroading returning as gas prices climb. Although the Conway Scenic Railroad is not planning any expansion at the moment, he says the company would likely "look at any plan that makes good business sense."

For now, the nightly gravel train is the only thing making its way along the rails of the old Conway Branch from Ossipee to Boston, so tourists still have to drive to North Conway. Many of the thousands who make the trip have written letters of appreciation upon returning home, says Avia.

One came from a parent looking for a stuffed animal her child had left on the train, "and we found it and mailed it back," says Avia. Another came from Massachusetts resident Scott Isbell, who wrote to request photographs of trains for the funeral of his grandfather, a railroad enthusiast.

"The railroad has always been a special place for my family and I to go," Scott writes. "When my grandfather died, the only thing my father wanted to do was go on the railway. He and his father had always enjoyed going into the White Mountains so it was a great way to remember my grandfather."

Six years into the new Millennium, the Conway Scenic Railroad carries people of all ages and social classes over 50 miles of track on which they can remember their forefathers, who found ways to build railroads in such impossible and stunning terrain as the White Mountains of New Hampshire.

Russ Seybold, president and general manager says, "Working at the railroad is a labor of love and everyone who works at Conway Scenic Railroad finds much of their reward for their hard work in the smiling faces of delighted children and comments of appreciation expressed by their parents. For many older people, a ride on the railroad is a nostalgic return to their younger days when trains were the major form of transportation. Here, at Conway Scenic Railroad we try to have a wide selection of choices for people to enjoy their ride. There is coach, first class, dining, and dome car seating."

They have certainly been working on the railroad-a fantastic reason to take a ride on it!