Revisiting the Colebrookdale Railroad

By April 23, 2020Features

By Aaron Isaacs, HRA editor

Last year I took a railfan tour of eastern Pennsylvania and visited the Colebrookdale Railroad that is running tourist trains from Boyertown to Pottstown on 9 miles of the former Reading. See that post at https://heritagerail.org/2019/08/eastern-pa-tour-the-colebrookdale-railroad/. The Colebrookdale, then only 5 years old, was the most impressive startup I had seen, fielding a finished-looking combination of infrastructure, rolling stock, marketing and operations simultaneously, not easy to do.

With Covid-19 bringing the entire railway preservation industry to a standstill, I thought it would be good to check in and see how the Colebrookdale is faring a year later. To that end I called Nathaniel Guest, who has run the railroad from the beginning.

Guest has a particular vision for the railroad’s passenger cars. He wants to capture the look and style of the first generation of steel passenger cars that appeared from 1905 to about 1915. Esthetically they were a bridge between the incredibly ornate varnish of the wood palace car era and the spartan, no frills heavyweights of the 1920s. Although all steel, they featured art glass transoms and clerestory windows, end windows, small oval or arched art-glass bathroom windows and wood-lined interiors with a Victorian sensibility.

Such cars were largely unavailable, so he acquired 1920s heavyweights in derelict condition and backdated them. When I visited, another was in process, stripped of everything and painted in primer. It’s an actual first generation steel car, built in 1914 for the Maine Central as a coach and acquired from the Conway Scenic. It’s now much farther along, as the photos show.

The railroad had acquired a Brill doodlebug for hauling small loads. It was in need of mechanical attention when I visited. A cantankerous beast, it now runs except when it doesn’t run, an ongoing source of work for the shop crew.

Boyertown is the operating base. At Pottstown, trains stop at a temporary platform and runaround track next to Memorial Park. A new permanent station is under construction. It’s a joint project with Berks County, Montgomery County, the Borough of Pottstown, Pottstown Parks and Recreation, the Pottstown Health and Wellness Foundation, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and numerous private donors.  It will provide restrooms and other facilities both for the railroad and the Park. It is still under construction and is proceeding as time and funding allow.

Back at Boyertown, another project is approaching completion. Guest was able to purchase a group of original Philadelphia gas street lamps. When I visited, they were being installed along a walkway of ex-Pittsburgh paving bricks leading to the depot. Now most are up and lit, thanks to individual sponsorships. According to Guest, this is the biggest vintage gas light array in the area.

The recently installed Boyertown gas lights.

Recently, Guest requested county funding to help fulfill one of the purposes for which the County of Berks bought the line nearly a decade ago: freight. Guest says there are interested shippers, but first the line’s weight capacity must be increased from 263,000 pounds to the modern standard of 286,000 pounds. Work would include upgrading the rail, strengthening 13 bridges, and further developing a transload area.

The other big item on Guest’s wish list is a steam locomotive. If anyone has one to sell, he’s interested.

Now everything halted due to the virus. The railroad has 12 full- and part-time employees. Guest, like every other tourist railroad operator, is hoping to run in the fall, the peak season. He remains optimistic. “Tourist railroads are critical terrain in the pursuit of quality of life.  We connect people with a past they want to believe in in a way that makes them happy in the moment,” said Guest. “It may be a period of hibernation is required for our industry, but ultimately, we’ll all come back stronger than before because we are part of what makes life worth living.”