Harry Stegmaier Jr. celebrated teen-age birthdays with rides on the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad from Cumberland to Grafton, W.Va. -- trips that awed passengers with Potomac River crossings, long tunnels, sharp curves and steep grades up and down the Allegheny Mountains.
Nearly 40 years later, Mr. Stegmaier, professor of U.S. military, diplomatic and transportation history at Frostburg State University, relives those "incredible" trips of his youth on once-a-year excursions during Maryland Railfest. This annual celebration of railroad history began yesterday in Cumberland.
"It was incredible going back on it," Mr. Stegmaier said of the Cumberland-to-Grafton ride. "It's unbelievable. The scenery is spectacular. You can't get to a lot of this area by car."
Amtrak ceased passenger service on the line, which ran to Cincinnati and St. Louis, in the early 1970s. Now owned by CSX Corp., successor to B&O;, the line is used by heavy coal trains out of West Virginia, Mr. Stegmaier said.
The 100-mile excursion from Cumberland to Grafton -- and another 92-mile trip from Cumberland to Harpers Ferry, W.Va., -- are the big draws for railroad buffs who attend Railfest. The event is expected to attract more than 20,000 people over nine days. Railfest was held for the first time last year to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the first train from
Baltimore to Cumberland. Last November's weeklong event drew about 12,000 people.
"The heritage of the railroad is a vital part of our history in Cumberland," said Margy Pein, Railfest's executive director. "It seemed like a good idea to commemorate the event."
Festival organizers decided to bring east and west together again and invited the Phillips company with seafood restaurants at Baltimore's Inner Harbor and on the Eastern Shore as well as Baltimore's B&O; Railroad Museum to participate.
Railfest, expanded to nine days, will feature country music concerts, a traveling art train and Thomas The Tank Engine, star of the children's PBS series "Shining Time Station." This year's festival marks the 80th anniversary of the Western Maryland Station in Cumberland. The B&O; Railroad Museum exhibit will feature Western Maryland Railway locomotives and cars.
"For rail enthusiasts, this is where it's happening," Ms. Pein said.
Motels in and around Cumberland are booked as the event is drawing railroad buffs from Pennsylvania, Virginia and West Virginia, said Natalie Chabot, manager of the Allegany County Visitors Bureau.
"The response has been incredible," Ms. Chabot said. "The special train runs are a big deal. These are things you can't typically do."
Ms. Pein said the excursion rides and the Western Maryland Scenic Railroad are the big attractions.
Although the Harpers Ferry and Grafton rides, offered next weekend, are popular, Railfest organizers said they are uncertain whether the excursions will be offered next year. CSX has increased the amount of liability insurance excursion sponsors must carry and Railfest officials haven't wrestled with the new figures yet.
"That's something we will address at our next board meeting," said Wendy Paskus, marketing director for the Western Maryland Scenic Railroad. "As far as we can tell, the insurance is a little too expensive. We may have to push toward corporate sponsorship to underwrite these excursions instead of relying on ticket sales."
Although the Grafton line is no longer used for passenger service, the Harpers Ferry run is still used by Amtrak's Capital Limited. It's a scenic trip that runs through the Potomac River Valley.
Charles S. Roberts of Relay, author of books on the former B&O; lines out of Cumberland, said the Cumberland to Grafton line, known as the "west end line," features a "terribly ferocious" 17-mile westbound climb and other severe grades.
"There's quite a bit of appeal," Mr. Roberts said. "It's a very historic railroad line. The Baltimore and Ohio was the first main line chartered in the U.S. The B&O; was first in many things."