Lancaster County & the Strasburg Rail Road

Life is not complex. We are complex.

Life is simple, and the simple thing is the right thing.

-Oscar Wilde

We live on the edge of suburbia. The crowded college campus of the University of Delaware is not quite ten minutes away; Wilmington about twenty minutes. That’s if I turn right out of my driveway.

If I turn left, then I very quickly encounter fields of corn and a farm equipment auction house. Alpacas and longhorns for sale.

If I keep going, I pass the farm that provides the free-range eggs to the co-op where I shop. Cows and cows and cows, with some horses and sheep thrown in. Windmills.

lancaster county windmill

Soon enough, I’m in Lancaster County, perhaps most widely known as Amish Country. Generally I refrain from taking too many pictures in Amish Country; it feels disrespectful as I know some factions don’t like to have their photos taken. I want to be a traveler in these parts, not a tourist, to be appreciative and a part of my surroundings. It’s hard, though. I love to see the tobacco drying in the tobacco houses, the draft horses pulling the plows, and the clotheslines pinned with traditional Amish garb stretching up to the sky.

There was an Amish brother-sister pair selling homemade root beer that were so flipping cute.

homemade root beer for sale

I should mention Jacob took these pictures out the window of a moving vehicle. Be forgiving of their blurriness.


We travel through this stretch of countryside a few times a year, on our way to visit relatives, and Jeff and I often discuss how we’d like to live back here. I imagine it’s a conversation lots of people have while visiting. It’s such a slice of Americana, of how life was and could be: simple, laid back, down to earth, at the pace of nature. It seems honest and clean. But still, close enough to “civilization.” And, apparently, outlet shopping (I’ve never shopped the outlets in Lancaster, but I know plenty of people who have raved about it.)

What always gets me is how you’ll pass dozens of handmade signs letting you know what each little farm has to offer. “Raw milk for sale.” “Organic watermelon.” “Tomatoes, blueberries, fresh flowers. Honor system, leave $ in jar.” “Free-range eggs.” “Pies after 4:00.” How much more fulfilling would it be to spend an hour picking up milk and eggs and dessert from your neighbors, than to run to the Acme?

Anyway. A few weeks ago our family was invited to participate in a blogger meet-up in Strasburg; our first stop was at the Strasburg Rail Road. We’d been there once before, when Thomas the Tank Engine chugged in for a visit (this during the absolute heyday of Maverick’s fascination with trains. He had the train table, along with every piece of track and train car that exists on the Island of Sodor). I remembered we got lost along the way- this being before GPS was widely available- so I printed out directions, and thank goodness I did. The GPS on my BlackBerry lost the signal twenty minutes away from my house and didn’t pick up again until we were pulling into the station. (Thanks Sprint!)

strasburg rail road engine

This is a group of lovely Philly area blogging ladies. Of which, I suppose, I am one.


Going to the Strasburg Rail Road is like stepping into a storybook. A really pretty, old-timey storybook. There’s such a sense of history: railroads in general are, for me anyway, a source of romance and wonder. (To this day I really, really enjoy picking someone up or seeing someone off at the train station, even though they never wave a hanky out the window for me like I ask. This is probably due to the fact that I am the only person I know who carries hankies.)

Philadelphia & Reading train passenger car

I travel not to go anywhere, but to go.

I travel for travel’s sake.

The great affair is to move.

~Robert Louis Stevenson

Once upon a time, the only way to get from place to place was by boat, by foot or by horse. Can you imagine? What was it like, laying the line, in the middle of dusty nowhere? Seeing- feeling– the train chug into sight for the first time? How about being at the station when a shipment of fresh fruit came up from Florida in the middle of winter? Or seeing train robbers alongside the train. My mind swoons.

At the Strasburg I’m flooded with these sorts of thoughts while actually getting to experience the chugging of a steam engine, up close. The thunder, the smoke and the whistle.

I wonder if people were afraid to step onto these things when they first arrived. Trains are so impressively massive, powerful. The term “Iron Horse” is wonderfully apt.

close-up black steam engine

My kids, of course, aren’t carrying around these romantic images from history textbooks and old movies, or mentally singing Midnight Train to Georgia the whole time, either. They are more in love with the mechanics and the bustle, the promise of travel, the “going for a ride.” The “All aboarrrrrd!”

My olders probably carry around some images of the Hogwarts Express. Or maybe they have this in the back of their mind:

My very favorite episode of Tom & Jerry, ever.

In any case, we had a fantabulous morning at the railroad. We took a 45 minute train ride to Paradise, passing picnic grounds and the Cherry Crest Adventure Farm along the way (more on that tomorrow). My daughter took great pride presenting our tickets to the conductor. It was impossible to keep from beaming and waving at those standing and watching the train go by.

There is something to be said for “slow living.” This summer we also went to Disney, and Hershey Park, and to a number of shows and events where it felt like so much of our time was spent rushing from place to place.

Sometimes it’s nice to just sit and listen to the rhythm of life. To watch the world go by with your kids.

Maverick looking out train window

Maverick is introspective.


This is one of those rare experiences that really are fun for the whole family. Seriously.

Side note: since our house was built in the 1820s I’m always keeping an eye out for design details somewhat contemporary to that time period. (I spend a lot of time window shopping Restoration Hardware and Rejuvenation.) The earliest timetables suggest the Strasburg train first ran in 1851 or thereabouts, so not quite right, but I still wouldn’t mind a lamp like this one over our dining room table.

brass light fixtures train passenger car

The kids were not willing to pose for an old-time photo with me (I’ll wear them down next time) but Cass went for a nice long ride on a miniature steam train and the “cranky cars”- handcranked cars on a mini track. She really seemed to enjoy that. They did pose on an Amish buggy, but they look so hot and sweaty in that photo that I am respecting their wishes to not publish it.

strasburg miniature steam train

hand cranked train car

hand cranked train car

One of the few shots where she's not flashing her underoos. What a lady, sheesh.


Cassidy also, as you can see, got herself a pink mining cap, as opposed to the engineer’s and conductor’s caps all the other kids opted for. She uses it to read at night. Cassidy is an odd duck.

Then it was a picnic lunch for all and off to the Cherry Crest Adventure Farm. Since I’m already over a dozen photos and close to 1500 words, I’ll save that for another day.



Day out with thomas the tank engine

Day Out with Thomas, 2004. OMG look how little they are.

Thomas will be rolling along into the Strasburg Rail Road station September 11th-19th and again November 19th-21st for Day Out with Thomas: The Celebration Tour 2010. Sir Topham Hatt will be on hand for hugs, high-fives and photos, and there’ll be an “Imagination Station” with coloring, arts & crafts and temporary tattoos. If you go over the weekend I VERY HIGHLY SUGGEST giving yourself a good amount of lead time to find parking, and of course mentally budget for some Thomas merch to take home- the gift shops have tons of cool stuff for your little engineer that you don’t find just anywhere.

If your kids are past the Thomas stage, “The Great Train Robbery” will be taking place on October 23rd (I think we’ll have to do this one). Santa will be on board weekends between Thanksgiving and Christmas. Or, make it a date night and check out the Wine & Cheese Train: first-class accommodations on the Parlor Car and complimentary wine, cheese and crackers.

Details on Day Out with Thomas and other special events can be found here, along with ticket info.

Remember the once-in-a-lifetime double header snowstorm we had this past winter? Yeah, I thought you might. Here’s a neat video of the engine, fitted with snow plow, moving all that snow.

OK, I’m all done talking. For now. It’s your turn!

Tell me your impression of Amish living (I’m especially interested if you didn’t grow up in the area), and whether your kid went through the Thomas stage!

On board the Strasburg steam train

strasburg steam train- family photo


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