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Fall Travel

10 vintage railroad rides in New England

Climb aboard for a unique way to soak in the fall foliage.

This fall, why not try riding “car-free” as a passenger on one of New England’s vintage railroads, focused on autumn’s patchwork quilt of colors, not traffic? You’ll rumble along networks of historic track, most originally laid to transport passengers and goods and now restored for these excursions. From your window, relish the movable vistas, some visible only by train: woodlands, cranberry bogs, wooden bridges, steep ravines, gorges, forts, waterfront, sand dunes, lighthouses, wildlife. Listen to the tour guide and, on most trains, dine on options from simple snacks to elegant dinners. Trips last from 35 minutes to 5½ hours. The memories last a lot longer.

CAFE LAFAYETTE DINNER TRAIN

  • North Woodstock, New Hampshire

  • Of Note 1952 Pullman Planetarium, 1953 Canadian National Railroad cafe, and 1924 Pullman-Standard Victorian coaches

  • Duration 2 hours

  • Length 20 miles

  • In 1989, owners Lance Burak and Leslie Holloway got this feast-on-wheels rolling, one of about 20 fine-dining trains in North America. Leaving North Woodstock, you travel round trip on former Boston & Maine track, along the Pemigewasset River and through the Jack O’Lantern resort in Woodstock. Admire the scenery while enjoying an elegant five-course meal. At night, 6,000 watts of halogen floodlights showcase the view. For a panoramic view, reserve a spot in the 24-seat observation dome, the top level of the three-tiered 1952 Pullman Planetarium car. One of five built by the Missouri-Pacific Railroad, it’s the last in operation in the United States.

  • > Through October 26; $59-$89; 603-745-3500; nhdinnertrain.com


Cape Cod Central railroad

CAPE COD CENTRAL RAILROAD

  • Hyannis, Massachusetts

  • Of Note 1950s MC 2007 locomotive

  • Duration 2 hours

  • Length 50 miles

  • The Patti Page song “Old Cape Cod” neglected to mention this railroad, running on lines among the oldest in America. Constructed circa 1850 by the Old Colony Railroad, these tracks transported passengers and local goods, including blocks of ice, sand, and seafood. Departing from either Hyannis or Sandwich, view an idyllic Cape, complete with cranberry bogs, sand dunes, and salt marshes. As you parallel the Cape Cod Canal, listen to the guide describe the waterway’s own chapter in New England history. Meals are served on some excursions.

  • > Through October 26; $15-$79; 888-797-7245; capetrain.com

Jim Young

DOWNEAST SCENIC RAILROAD

  • Ellsworth, Maine

  • Of Note 1948 and 1950 diesel-electric locomotives, 1917 Delaware Lackawanna & Western and 1910 Maine Central coaches, and an open-air car converted from a 1964 log car

  • Duration 90 minutes

  • Length 10 miles

  • “Newest” among New England’s vintage train rides, the Downeast four years ago revived operation on the historic Calais Branch line, built in 1884 as the Maine Shore Line Railroad (later bought by Maine Central Railroad Co.). In 2006, five local businessmen seeking to renew the tourist railroad business leased 30 miles of track, closed since 1985, from the state of Maine. Volunteers restored the rails, an engine, passenger cars, and caboose. In 2010, the Downeast began operating on 5 miles of track, along which you may spot fox, bald eagles, bear, osprey, and moose. In 2012, the newly rebuilt wye, a triangle of tracks used to turn a train around, was back in use at the Washington Junction rail yard. Consider volunteering with the Downeast Rail Heritage Preservation Trust through November as a conductor, brakeman, or car attendant. Or help out restoring passenger cars, including a 1904 Delaware & Hudson Combine (half baggage, half passenger).

  • > Through October 20; $8-$15; 866-449-7245; downeastscenicrail.org

ESSEX STEAM TRAIN & RIVERBOAT

  • Essex, Connecticut

  • Of Note 1920s Mikado 40 and 1989 Mikado 3025 locomotives, and 1920s coaches

  • Duration 2½ hours (train and riverboat) or 1 hour (train only)

  • Length about 12 miles (train)

  • Essex is home to the last steam train and riverboat connection in the United States, one of only two worldwide. Ride an old-fashioned train pulled by a powerful engine on the Valley Railroad line and behold the white billows of smoke belching out overhead. At Deep River Landing, jump aboard the Becky Thatcher. On this land-and-water journey you’ll see the Connecticut River, Gillette Castle, Goodspeed Opera House, and the Haddam Swing Bridge. Don’t be surprised if you spot cormorants, swans, or blue herons; this section of the river has never been industrialized.

  • > Through October 27; $9-$36; 800-377-3987; essexsteamtrain.com

GREEN MOUNTAIN FLYER

  • Bellows Falls, Vermont

  • Of Note Alco RS-1 405 diesel locomotive and 1930s steel-and-wood and 1940s all-steel cars

  • Duration 2½ hours

  • Length 26 miles

  • Boarding at the historic Bellows Falls Station, which was built in the 1800s and is now shared with Amtrak, the Green Mountain Flyer runs on tracks owned mostly by the state of Vermont. The Rutland Railroad, the Boston & Maine, and the Central Vermont Railroad once carried New England passengers from state to state and even to Montreal on these tracks. Meander through the woods, over the Williams River seven times, over the Brockway Mills Gorge, and past a few wooden bridges. In addition to tourists, this train still carries freight, including wood, salt, and ethanol.

  • > September 20 through October 25; $20-$25; 800-707-3530; rails-vt.com/green-mountain-flyer

MAINE NARROW GAUGE RAILROAD CO. & MUSEUM

  • Portland, Maine

  • Of Note 1949 diesel locomotive and 1918 Monson steam locomotive

  • Duration 35-40 minutes

  • Length 3 miles

  • Narrow-gauge railroads, so named because their tracks are about half as wide as standard ones, served people and businesses in the rural areas of central Maine. On this railway, built just for the museum, you can ride al fresco if you like (some passenger cars are open) along picturesque Casco Bay, or as a guest engineer with your hands on the throttle in a special hourlong program. Either way, you’ll view Portland’s historic and still active waterfront, with four forts (dating back to the early 1800s) and three lighthouses (Portland Head Light, Portland Breakwater “Bug” Light, and Spring Point Ledge Lighthouse), not to mention colorful ferryboats, sailboats, and cruise ships. Vintage passenger cars and hands-on activities for kids share the museum with the only 2-foot-gauge parlor car ever built in the United States.

  • > Through October 27; $6-$10 (museum included); 207-828-0814; mainenarrowgauge.org

Joel Benjamin

THE NOTCH TRAIN, CONWAY SCENIC RAILROAD

  • North Conway, New Hampshire

  • Of Note 1965 and 1966 GE diesel-electric locomotives, 1955 Budd Vista Dome, and 1940s and 1950s passenger coaches

  • Duration 5 hours (Crawford Station) or 5½ hours (Fabyan Station)

  • Length 52 or 60 miles

  • The Notch Train, one of three trains operated by the Conway Scenic, runs on tracks laid by the Maine Central Railroad in the 1870s. Once integral to tourism, 57 trains ran daily in 1915, the peak for train travel, to the White Mountains’ grand hotels, including the Mount Crawford House and Mount Washington Hotel. Heading to the Crawford and Fabyan stations, steady your cameras for a spectacular view of the entire Mount Washington Valley. Experience a thrilling ride over the Frankenstein trestle, an engineering marvel more than 520 feet long and almost 85 feet off the ravine floor. From September 14 to October 13, the popular steam locomotive No. 7470 pulls the Conway Valley train.

  • > Through October 20; $10.50-$108; 800-232-5251; conwayscenic.com/notch-train

OLD COLONY & NEWPORT RAILWAY

  • Newport, Rhode Island

  • Of Note 1884 parlor car, 1904 open platform coach, and 1940s GE diesel-electric locomotive

  • Duration 80 minutes

  • Length 10 miles

  • Newport’s known for its mansions, and you’ll feel like Vanderbilt himself as you travel in this museum on wheels. Once a major player in Boston’s transportation network, the OCNRR operates on tracks laid in the late 1860s. Rumble past the Point, a historic Newport neighborhood lined with Early American and Colonial homes, and the decommissioned USS Saratoga in the Newport Naval Station. You’ll catch stunning views of Narragansett Bay. On November 9, take the special North End train and travel an extra 8 miles of track not normally used by OCNRR.

  • > Runs year-round; $6-$15; 401-849-0546; ocnrr.com

WHITE RIVER FLYER

  • White River Junction, Vermont

  • Of Note Alco RS-1 405 diesel locomotive and 1930s steel-and-wood and 1940s all-steel cars

  • Duration 2½ hours

  • Length 26 miles

  • Something extra is in store when you board the White River Flyer, operated by the same company as the Green Mountain Flyer. After leaving Union Depot in White River Junction, once an important meeting spot for the Boston & Maine and Connecticut River lines, and now shared with Amtrak, you chug along the Connecticut River, heading north. Along the scenic waterway you might spot members of Dartmouth College’s crew team practicing. The train makes a half-hour layover at the Cedar Circle organic farm in East Thetford, where you can pick up fresh veggies and baked goods, and a brief stop at the Montshire Museum of Science in Norwich; there’s an option of spending time at the museum and riding the train for only a portion of the trip.

  • > September 26 to October 27; $20-$25; 800-707-3530; rails-vt.com/white-river-flyer

Hobo & Winnipesaukee Scenic Railroads

WINNIPESAUKEE SCENIC RAILROAD

  • Meredith and Weirs Beach, New Hampshire

  • Of Note Two 1924 Erie Lackawanna coaches, two 1950s Budd coaches, and a 1954 Pullman

  • Duration 1 hour (from Weirs Beach), 2 hours (from Meredith), or 4 hours (Fall Foliage Special)

  • Length 9 miles (Weirs Beach), 18 miles (Meredith), or 40 miles (Fall Foliage Special)

  • Colorful maples, lakes and streams, deer grazing on a farm. The view outside is scenic, while the view inside shows you how railroad barons rode the rails. The Pullman car, for example, offers a baby grand piano, overstuffed chairs, and stewards who serve with white gloves. The tracks were laid in the late 1800s, along the shore of Lake Winnipesaukee. Choose a trip boarding in Meredith or a shorter one starting in Weirs Beach. Both head down along the lake shore to Lakeport; you’ll see islands and grand houses dotting the rolling hillsides. Another option: Jump aboard the Fall Foliage Special, which includes an hourlong stop for lunch at the Common Man restaurant in Plymouth.

  • > Through October 27; $10-$99; 603-279-5253; hoborr.com

  • Kathy Shiels Tully is a writer in Melrose. Send comments to magazine@globe.com.

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