Full Steam Ahead: Wilmington & Western Railroad Celebrates 50 Years

The iconic structure is "one of the longest surviving tourist railroads in the United States."


Published:

David Ludlow has served as the railroad’s executive director since 1993.

David Ludlow’s passion for the Wilmington & Western Railroad is palpable as he recounts the stories of two storms that destroyed the wooden trestle bridges that carry the tracks over Red Clay Creek.

Like a steam locomotive rambling down the line, smoke billowing from its stack, Ludlow charges straight ahead with a fire in his belly.

He tells of the time he tumbled into the creek when Hurricane Floyd struck in 1999. Ludlow was trying to examine a bridge during the height of the storm when he lost his footing. The floodwaters churned by Floyd destroyed two of the railroad’s bridges and damaged others.

“It was a storm to turn your head around,” says Ludlow, the railroad’s executive director since 1993. “You couldn’t comprehend how fast something like this could happen.”

The bridges were rebuilt and other repairs were made for $3 million. Then four years later, almost to the day, Tropical Storm Henri hit. Again, Ludlow headed to the creek to survey damage.

“I go out by the Hercules golf course and I see water rushing over Hercules Road,” he says. “The crossing signals are flashing because the water shorts out the lights and it causes the batteries to go nuts.”

The two newer bridges were still standing because they were built with modern construction techniques. “But everything north of that, all the way up Route 82 through Yorklyn, is gone,” Ludlow recalls. “It’s obliterated. It’s lying in ruins in the water.”

Six bridges had fallen—which could have been the end of the line for the Wilmington & Western. But Ludlow worked with local and state politicians, the state’s congressional delegation, the Department of Transportation and private businesses to secure the funding to rebuild.

“We just had a lot of people behind us that wanted us to succeed,” Ludlow says. “With that combination of everybody pulling for us, we were able to qualify for disaster relief money from FEMA. Without that money, we would not be here.”

Today, as the Wilmington & Western celebrates its golden anniversary, the iconic railroad is going stronger than ever. It will hold a series of special events this month to recognize the milestone (see bottom of article).

“This is a big, big deal,” says Ludlow. “We are one of the longest surviving tourist railroads in the United States. There are a few others that have been around just a little bit longer than we have but, amazingly enough, the whole heritage or tourist railroad business was started some 50 or 55 years ago. We were one of the first, and we’re still here.”

All agree that the railroad would have crumbled long ago if it weren’t for the 85-plus volunteers. They handle everything from repairing the track and equipment to working the gift shop to maintaining and operating the diesel and steam locomotives.

“Our trains are just a bunch of obsolete pieces of rail equipment that the railroad companies couldn’t care less about. It’s our people that have made this thing happen,” says Tommy Gears, a volunteer since 1981. “The route itself is an incredible ride. It’s a ride back in time. But without our people to make it happen, it’s nothing.”

Ludlow sings the praises of each and every volunteer. “They’re the people running it on the weekends,” he says. “They’re the ones building the fire in the steam locomotive at 6 o’clock in the morning. They’re the people who are pulling the whistle when we cross Route 41.”

Gears, who became hooked on trains after taking his first ride on the Wilmington & Western during a kindergarten field trip, also credits Ludlow’s leadership for the railroad’s longevity.

“David deserves an immense amount of credit,” Gears says. “David was the guy at the controls to guide us through both of the storms and rebuilding the bridges. I don’t know if we could have done it without him.”

As director, Ludlow oversees, coordinates and develops railroad operations, schedules, capital improvements and restoration projects. He also handles volunteer recruiting, staffing and training.

Gears says Ludlow has the passion needed to run a nonprofit, and he knows how to stretch a dollar.

“He understands it’s the big picture,” Gears says. “When we’re all gone and the railroad is still chugging along and giving people a taste of what early American transportation was like, that’s what it really is all about.”

The Wilmington & Western has hauled hundreds of thousands of passengers young and old along its 10 miles from Green Bank Station near Prices Corner to Valley Road in Hockessin. The railroad, which runs about 300 trips a year, offers picnic outings to Mt. Cuba and special rides on holidays, among other adventures. Last year, W&W welcomed 31,000 visitors, including 9,000 in December. It also hosted more than 200 birthday parties on its red cabooses.

The stars of the show, however, are the diesel and steam locomotives.

As part of this year’s 50th anniversary celebration, the shiny SW1 diesel locomotive No. 8408, which just returned from a four-year, $400,000 renovation in Philadelphia, will be dedicated on May 28. The beautiful blue-and-yellow beast was built in 1940 for the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad and it now sports an authentic B&O paint scheme.

While they shipped out this renovation, W&W employs its own mechanics, who help maintain the railroad’s equipment.

“You don’t need to wear glasses because everything’s big, but everything is heavy,” jokes chief mechanical officer Steve Jensen. “It’s getting to be a dying art. There’s a lot to these things, but when you see that they’re running, that’s the payoff.”

While he loves the train aspect of the railroad, Gears says the preservation of the Red Clay Valley is the most important part of W&W’s mission.

“We’ve become so suburbanized now, it’s hard to imagine that each of these little villages were little industrial hamlets,” he says. “That history is so important. We’re much more than a scenic railroad. We’re a history lesson. We’re a science lesson. We’re industrial, technology and people—it all comes together here.”

So as the Wilmington & Western embarks on its next 50 years, passionate people like Gears and Ludlow will remain the railroad’s backbone as it strives to provide education and enjoyment to others.

Says Ludlow, “We’ve really come a long way in 50 years.” 


50th anniversary events:

  • May 28: Dedication of restored diesel locomotive.
  • May 29: Members and volunteers reunion day.
  • June 11: Pufferbelly (two or more steam locomotives) Steampunk Express.
  • June 18-19: More steam action with a visiting steam locomotive.
  • Aug. 26: Gallery exhibition of the Charles Phillips photographic collection. Fifty enlarged, archive photographs of the Red Clay Valley in 1895. Most of these images have never been seen by the general public.
  • Sept. 17: Exclusive on-board dinner train traveling to the end of the railroad line at Valley Road in Hockessin. Limited seating.
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View map »


Telephone: 302-239-2434
Contact Name: Nicole Schmid
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Cost: free

Where:
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Cost: Free for members. Included in Museum admission fee for non-members.

Where:
Delaware Art Museum
2301 Kentmere Parkway
Wilmington, DE  19806
View map »

More information

Pre-Raphaelite painter and women’s rights campaigner Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon (1827–1891) was an early female participant in the Pre-Raphaelite movement. Landscape was Bodichon’s...

Cost: Free for members. Included in Museum admission fee for non-members.

Where:
Delaware Art Museum
2301 Kentmere Parkway
Wilmington, DE  19806
View map »

More information

NEW HEIGHTS Erica Loustau  January 11 - December 11, 2019 Opening Reception: Friday, January 11, 2019  7 - 9 PM Seeking to engage the unused space of our atrium lobby, artist...

Cost: FREE

Where:
The Delaware Contemporary
200 South Madison Street
Wilmington, DE  19801
View map »


Telephone: 130-265-66466
Website »

More information

IN BETWEEN THEREShelley Thorstensen November 24, 2018 - March 17, 2019 Opening Reception: Friday, December 7 | 5 - 9 PM during Art Loop For her first solo exhibition in Delaware,...

Cost: FREE

Where:
The Delaware Contemporary
200 South Madison Street
Wilmington, DE  19801
View map »


Telephone: 130-265-66466

More information

A SENSE OF PLACE 47°-80° N Bethany Springer January 16 - May 12, 2019 Opening Reception: Friday, February 1, 2019 | 5 - 9 PM during Art Loop A Sense of Place 47° - 80°...

Cost: FREE

Where:
The Delaware Contemporary
200 South Madison Street
Wilmington, DE  19801
View map »


Telephone: 130-265-66466
Website »

More information

THE FAR IS NEAR Graham Dougherty & Ruth Ansel January 5 - 31, 2019 Opening reception: January 11  | 7 - 9 PM Graham Dougherty  ”We give shape...

Cost: FREE

Where:
The Delaware Contemporary
200 South Madison Street
Wilmington, DE  19801
View map »


Telephone: 130-265-66466

More information

It’s almost game time, and we’re comin’ atcha with a touchdown of a to-go special! Get two hand-tossed pizzas, two orders of wood-fired wings (20 wings total) and two 32 oz....

Cost: $40.00

Where:
Dogfish Head Brewings & Eats
320 Rehoboth Ave.
Rehoboth Beach, DE  19971
View map »


Website »

More information

HALF : HALF A Draper Experiment by Willie Yao January 4 -  February 24, 2019 Opening Reception: Friday, February 1 5 - 9 PM during Art Loop The Delaware Contemporary...

Cost: FREE

Where:
The Delaware Contemporary
200 South Madison Street
Wilmington, DE  19801
View map »


Telephone: 130-265-66466

More information

Schedule a private group tour followed by lunch or dinner with a historic, revolutionary war era presentation.* Ideal for conferences, corporate meetings, special interest groups. $25 per...

Cost: $25–$45

Where:
The University and Whist Club
805 N Broom St
Wilmington, DE  19806
View map »


Sponsor: The University and Whist Club
Telephone: 302-658-5125
Contact Name: Stacey Inglis
Website »

More information

ORIGINS Rick Rothrock & Stan Smokler January 8 - April 22, 2019 Special Reception: Friday, January 11, 2019  5:30 - 7:30 PM Artist Talk | 6:30 PM The Delaware Contemporary...

Cost: FREE

Where:
The Delaware Contemporary
200 South Madison Street
Wilmington, DE  19801
View map »


Telephone: 130-265-66466

More information

Delve deep into the watercolors and biography of Barbara Bodichon on a tour with Curator Margaretta Frederick. 

Cost: Free with Museum admission.

Where:
Delaware Art Museum
2301 Kentmere Parkway
Wilmington, DE  19806
View map »


Website »

More information

The Connected Series engages local creative community members to produce art-based programs at the Museum. Join us for appetizers, cash bar, and short introduction to the Connected Series followed...

Cost: Free

Where:
Delaware Art Museum
2301 Kentmere Parkway
Wilmington, DE  19806
View map »


Website »

More information

Three times James Beard Best Chef Semi-Finalist to cook at The Whist! LIMITED seating. Owner of a(MUSE) and Grampa(MAC) in Rehoboth, DE. Five to six courses with chef-selected wine pairings. The...

Cost: $200/person

Where:
The University and Whist Club
805 N. Broom St.
Wilmington, DE  19806
View map »


Telephone: 302-658-5125
Contact Name: Stacey Inglis
Website »

More information

By Michael Gotch Directed by Mark Lamos Stung by personal, political, and economic setbacks, a young, urban couple build an off-the-grid, tiny house in an isolated mountain paradise…or so they...

Cost: 15-32

Where:
Thompson Theatre, Roselle Center for the Arts
110 Orchard Rd.
Newark, DE  19716
View map »


Telephone: 302-831-2204
Website »

More information

Show More...
Show Less...

More than 50,000 books for sale!  Thurs., 1/24 from 5 PM to 9 PM Friends Members Only (membership available at the door for $10)  Fri., 1/25 from 9 AM to 9 PM  Sat.,...

Cost: $10 on Thursday night; free the rest of the weekend

Where:
Hockessin Memorial Hall
610 Yorklyn Road
Hockessin, DE
View map »


Sponsor: Friends of the Hockessin Library
Website »

More information

CCArts Winter class registrations are open   The Center for the Creative Arts presents its Winter 2019 class and workshop offerings. With over 50 classes and workshops there is...

Cost: 0.00

Where:
410 Upper Snuff Mill Row
410 Upper Snuff Mill Row
Hockessin, DE  19736
View map »


Telephone: 302-239-2434
Contact Name: Nicole Schmid
Website »

More information

Winter Group Show  A rotating group show featuring an eclectic mix of artwork including paintings, drawings, ceramics, art glass and jewelry. Custom Framing and Gift Certificates are always...

Cost: free

Where:
The Station Gallery
3922 Kennett Pike
Greenville, DE  19807
View map »


Telephone: 302-654-8638
Website »

More information

IN BETWEEN THEREShelley Thorstensen November 24, 2018 - March 17, 2019 Opening Reception: Friday, December 7 | 5 - 9 PM during Art Loop For her first solo exhibition in Delaware,...

Cost: FREE

Where:
The Delaware Contemporary
200 South Madison Street
Wilmington, DE  19801
View map »


Telephone: 130-265-66466

More information

NEW HEIGHTS Erica Loustau  January 11 - December 11, 2019 Opening Reception: Friday, January 11, 2019  7 - 9 PM Seeking to engage the unused space of our atrium lobby, artist...

Cost: FREE

Where:
The Delaware Contemporary
200 South Madison Street
Wilmington, DE  19801
View map »


Telephone: 130-265-66466
Website »

More information

THE FAR IS NEAR Graham Dougherty & Ruth Ansel January 5 - 31, 2019 Opening reception: January 11  | 7 - 9 PM Graham Dougherty  ”We give shape...

Cost: FREE

Where:
The Delaware Contemporary
200 South Madison Street
Wilmington, DE  19801
View map »


Telephone: 130-265-66466

More information

Pre-Raphaelite painter and women’s rights campaigner Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon (1827–1891) was an early female participant in the Pre-Raphaelite movement. Landscape was Bodichon’s...

Cost: Free for members. Included in Museum admission fee for non-members.

Where:
Delaware Art Museum
2301 Kentmere Parkway
Wilmington, DE  19806
View map »

More information

A SENSE OF PLACE 47°-80° N Bethany Springer January 16 - May 12, 2019 Opening Reception: Friday, February 1, 2019 | 5 - 9 PM during Art Loop A Sense of Place 47° - 80°...

Cost: FREE

Where:
The Delaware Contemporary
200 South Madison Street
Wilmington, DE  19801
View map »


Telephone: 130-265-66466
Website »

More information

For more than 90 years, the Delaware Art Museum has showcased contemporary craft by artists working locally and throughout the region. The Museum’s first juried Contemporary Crafts Show was...

Cost: Free for members. Included in Museum admission fee for non-members.

Where:
Delaware Art Museum
2301 Kentmere Parkway
Wilmington, DE  19806
View map »

More information

Glory of Stories introduces young visitors to art and the Museum through a story reading followed by an interactive tour of relevant works of art and a studio art project. This program encourages...

Cost: Free to Members, $5 per child and one adult free for Non-Members

Where:
Delaware Art Museum
2301 Kentmere Parkway
Wilmington, DE  19806
View map »

More information

Glory of Stories introduces young visitors to art and the Museum through discovery, exploration, and hands-on experiences.Ages 2 and up. Visit delart.org for list of books. ...

Cost: Free to Members, $5 per child and one adult free for Non-Members.

Where:
Delaware Art Museum
2301 Kentmere Parkway
Wilmington, DE  19806
View map »


Website »

More information

It’s almost game time, and we’re comin’ atcha with a touchdown of a to-go special! Get two hand-tossed pizzas, two orders of wood-fired wings (20 wings total) and two 32 oz....

Cost: $40.00

Where:
Dogfish Head Brewings & Eats
320 Rehoboth Ave.
Rehoboth Beach, DE  19971
View map »


Website »

More information

HALF : HALF A Draper Experiment by Willie Yao January 4 -  February 24, 2019 Opening Reception: Friday, February 1 5 - 9 PM during Art Loop The Delaware Contemporary...

Cost: FREE

Where:
The Delaware Contemporary
200 South Madison Street
Wilmington, DE  19801
View map »


Telephone: 130-265-66466

More information

Schedule a private group tour followed by lunch or dinner with a historic, revolutionary war era presentation.* Ideal for conferences, corporate meetings, special interest groups. $25 per...

Cost: $25–$45

Where:
The University and Whist Club
805 N Broom St
Wilmington, DE  19806
View map »


Sponsor: The University and Whist Club
Telephone: 302-658-5125
Contact Name: Stacey Inglis
Website »

More information

ORIGINS Rick Rothrock & Stan Smokler January 8 - April 22, 2019 Special Reception: Friday, January 11, 2019  5:30 - 7:30 PM Artist Talk | 6:30 PM The Delaware Contemporary...

Cost: FREE

Where:
The Delaware Contemporary
200 South Madison Street
Wilmington, DE  19801
View map »


Telephone: 130-265-66466

More information

By Michael Gotch Directed by Mark Lamos Stung by personal, political, and economic setbacks, a young, urban couple build an off-the-grid, tiny house in an isolated mountain paradise…or so they...

Cost: 15-32

Where:
Thompson Theatre, Roselle Center for the Arts
110 Orchard Rd.
Newark, DE  19716
View map »


Telephone: 302-831-2204
Website »

More information

Show More...
Show Less...

More than 50,000 books for sale!  Thurs., 1/24 from 5 PM to 9 PM Friends Members Only (membership available at the door for $10)  Fri., 1/25 from 9 AM to 9 PM  Sat.,...

Cost: $10 on Thursday night; free the rest of the weekend

Where:
Hockessin Memorial Hall
610 Yorklyn Road
Hockessin, DE
View map »


Sponsor: Friends of the Hockessin Library
Website »

More information

Winter Group Show  A rotating group show featuring an eclectic mix of artwork including paintings, drawings, ceramics, art glass and jewelry. Custom Framing and Gift Certificates are always...

Cost: free

Where:
The Station Gallery
3922 Kennett Pike
Greenville, DE  19807
View map »


Telephone: 302-654-8638
Website »

More information

CCArts Winter class registrations are open   The Center for the Creative Arts presents its Winter 2019 class and workshop offerings. With over 50 classes and workshops there is...

Cost: 0.00

Where:
410 Upper Snuff Mill Row
410 Upper Snuff Mill Row
Hockessin, DE  19736
View map »


Telephone: 302-239-2434
Contact Name: Nicole Schmid
Website »

More information

Pre-Raphaelite painter and women’s rights campaigner Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon (1827–1891) was an early female participant in the Pre-Raphaelite movement. Landscape was Bodichon’s...

Cost: Free for members. Included in Museum admission fee for non-members.

Where:
Delaware Art Museum
2301 Kentmere Parkway
Wilmington, DE  19806
View map »

More information

For more than 90 years, the Delaware Art Museum has showcased contemporary craft by artists working locally and throughout the region. The Museum’s first juried Contemporary Crafts Show was...

Cost: Free for members. Included in Museum admission fee for non-members.

Where:
Delaware Art Museum
2301 Kentmere Parkway
Wilmington, DE  19806
View map »

More information

IN BETWEEN THEREShelley Thorstensen November 24, 2018 - March 17, 2019 Opening Reception: Friday, December 7 | 5 - 9 PM during Art Loop For her first solo exhibition in Delaware,...

Cost: FREE

Where:
The Delaware Contemporary
200 South Madison Street
Wilmington, DE  19801
View map »


Telephone: 130-265-66466

More information

NEW HEIGHTS Erica Loustau  January 11 - December 11, 2019 Opening Reception: Friday, January 11, 2019  7 - 9 PM Seeking to engage the unused space of our atrium lobby, artist...

Cost: FREE

Where:
The Delaware Contemporary
200 South Madison Street
Wilmington, DE  19801
View map »


Telephone: 130-265-66466
Website »

More information

A SENSE OF PLACE 47°-80° N Bethany Springer January 16 - May 12, 2019 Opening Reception: Friday, February 1, 2019 | 5 - 9 PM during Art Loop A Sense of Place 47° - 80°...

Cost: FREE

Where:
The Delaware Contemporary
200 South Madison Street
Wilmington, DE  19801
View map »


Telephone: 130-265-66466
Website »

More information

THE FAR IS NEAR Graham Dougherty & Ruth Ansel January 5 - 31, 2019 Opening reception: January 11  | 7 - 9 PM Graham Dougherty  ”We give shape...

Cost: FREE

Where:
The Delaware Contemporary
200 South Madison Street
Wilmington, DE  19801
View map »


Telephone: 130-265-66466

More information

Schedule a private group tour followed by lunch or dinner with a historic, revolutionary war era presentation.* Ideal for conferences, corporate meetings, special interest groups. $25 per...

Cost: $25–$45

Where:
The University and Whist Club
805 N Broom St
Wilmington, DE  19806
View map »


Sponsor: The University and Whist Club
Telephone: 302-658-5125
Contact Name: Stacey Inglis
Website »

More information

It’s almost game time, and we’re comin’ atcha with a touchdown of a to-go special! Get two hand-tossed pizzas, two orders of wood-fired wings (20 wings total) and two 32 oz....

Cost: $40.00

Where:
Dogfish Head Brewings & Eats
320 Rehoboth Ave.
Rehoboth Beach, DE  19971
View map »


Website »

More information

HALF : HALF A Draper Experiment by Willie Yao January 4 -  February 24, 2019 Opening Reception: Friday, February 1 5 - 9 PM during Art Loop The Delaware Contemporary...

Cost: FREE

Where:
The Delaware Contemporary
200 South Madison Street
Wilmington, DE  19801
View map »


Telephone: 130-265-66466

More information

ORIGINS Rick Rothrock & Stan Smokler January 8 - April 22, 2019 Special Reception: Friday, January 11, 2019  5:30 - 7:30 PM Artist Talk | 6:30 PM The Delaware Contemporary...

Cost: FREE

Where:
The Delaware Contemporary
200 South Madison Street
Wilmington, DE  19801
View map »


Telephone: 130-265-66466

More information

Mr. Nathan Avakian from New York City will be performing on the 4th Largest Theatre Pipe Organ in the world  selections of comtemporary popular music along with Broadway and...

Cost: $20 Adults, $12.00 Students under 21

Where:
The Dickinson Theatre at John Dickinson High Schoo
1801 Milltown Road
Wilmington, DE, DE  19808
View map »


Sponsor: The Dickinson Theatre Organ Society
Telephone: 302-995-5630
Contact Name: Bob Dilworth
Website »

More information

By Michael Gotch Directed by Mark Lamos Stung by personal, political, and economic setbacks, a young, urban couple build an off-the-grid, tiny house in an isolated mountain paradise…or so they...

Cost: 15-32

Where:
Thompson Theatre, Roselle Center for the Arts
110 Orchard Rd.
Newark, DE  19716
View map »


Telephone: 302-831-2204
Website »

More information

This workshop will explore using pieces to create a larger whole. Using multiple small and simple objects, students will stack, hang, layer, or weave them into a larger sculptural...

Cost: $55 Members, $70 Non-Members.

Where:
Delaware Art Museum
2301 Kentmere Parkway
Wilmington, DE  19806
View map »


Website »

More information

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