My husband, a long-time rail fan, can never pass up a chance to ride on a train. So when the Massachusetts Bay Railroad Enthusiasts (MBRRE) offered a day long ride on the “Washington County Limited” which would run from White River Junction to Newport, Vermont up on the Canadian border, he signed right up to go.
Since my father was a railroad engineer, my family had railroad passes and I spent much of my young life traveling by rail so trains don’t have that great appeal to me. But when I learned that the MBRRE had arranged for folks going on the trip to stay overnight at the Hotel Coolidge in downtown White River Junction, I signed up too.
Traveling around Vermont in past years, I had noticed the historic old Hotel Coolidge sitting on Main Street right across the tracks from the White River Junction Railroad Station and marveled that the historic old place was still in business. Intrigued, I wasn’t going to pass up a chance to stay there. Now run by innkeeper David Briggs and his wife Peggy, the place fairly oozes turn of the century country charm. Yes, the rooms still have old fashioned radiators and the creaky elevator takes forever just to get to the second floor, but the small lobby is invitingly cozy and upstairs hallways are softened by small tables bearing lamps set next to comfy chairs. I loved it.
Early the next day, powered by a Green Mountain Railroad locomotive named the F. Nelson Blount, our five-car excursion train left about 9:15 after MBRRE’s Dave Brown and his contingent of yellow-capped car hosts had checked folks into their seats and box lunches had been loaded aboard.
The train rocked along at a slow but steady pace through woodlands and along rivers with newly planted crops (mostly corn) sprouting in the flat fields on fertile flood plains. Wide vistas of rolling green countryside interspersed with small busy towns marked our progress.
On two occasions, the train stopped, let off camera buffs and backed up along the track, then in a burst of speed roared past the photographers in a fast run-by as cameras clicked. Time after time, the engineer blasted the warning whistle for intersections where traffic was held up as we passed. Many of the cars became familiar as railroad fans “chased” our train along the route.
Towns we’ve sped past on the highway became real, lived-in communities as we rumbled through: Thetford, Fairlee, Bradford, Wells River. We stopped an hour at St. Johnsbury for the train to be watered and serviced. Some folks explored downtown while others remained in the station, sampling the maple sugar, honey, jams and other goodies offered for sale there by local growers.
The afternoon was declining as we reached the South Bay of Lake Memphremagog near Newport, VT and the Canadian border. Here the Washington County Railroad tracks end and the train isn’t allowed on the Montreal, Maine and Atlantic trackage. So we backtracked 15 minutes to Orleans (home of a huge Ethan Allen furniture factory) where buses waited to take us on the hour and a half trip back to White River Junction.
Another group would be making the return train trip the next day. My husband would have loved to do that too but after eight hours on a rocking train, I was ready to return to the welcoming comfort of the Hotel Coolidge to spend the night.