There's a nostalgia that accompanies a passenger the second they step foot onto a train. Something about the sound of heavy wheels turning against a steel rail track, combined with the anticipation that fills a person's senses when the train comes to a screeching halt, brings many back to a time and place they may not even be familiar with. When it comes to classic, restored passenger trains, this sense of being frozen in time is only heightened.
This is the experience that passengers will have the moment they board New Hampshire's Conway Scenic Railroad. The railroad offers several historic and scenic routes for those eager to be transported to a time when trains were the primary mode of transportation and were also an elite luxury - and we had the chance to ride along on their unique, once-a-year Rail Fan's Photo Excursion with them.
However, it's not only the iconic nostalgia of Conway Scenic Railroad's former 470 Club's Boston & Maine F7As that will take you back in time roughly 140 years for this trip. It's the incredible beauty of the route, which glides right past the famed Crawford Notch White Mountain pass, the historic Frankenstein Trestle, and also includes stops between North Conway's circa 1874 station, Bartlett, Crawford Depot, and Fabyan Station.
Conway Scenic Railroad's Historical Presence In North Conway
For more than a century now, the North Conway station has been a permanent cornerstone fixture in regard to transportation. Following World War II, train travel was a luxury that was not afforded to everyone, but symbolized the utmost in modern travel accommodations. This same experience is exactly what's delivered by Conway Scenic Railroad, allowing passengers a choice of two train tours: Heritage Rides and Scenic Railroad Excursions.
- Fun fact: The last passenger ride was in 1958, while the last freight train on the line continued until 1983.
According to Conway Scenic Railroad, their scenic Mountaineer "consists of 1950s-era streamlined passenger cars to recreate the experience of a post-World War II Transcontinental streamlined train. You choose from a variety of different experiences including premium class travel in [their] Premium Class Dome Car, Rhonda Lee." Alternatively, their Conway and Sawyer River Valley Trains are "classic heritage train rides that feature vintage railroad passenger cars from the 1920s and offer the pastoral experience of traveling by train from town to town."
The historic opening of the scene that Conway Scenic Railroad has painted for its guests, however, begins when you make your way into the North Conway train station. Upon walking through the doors, future passengers are face to face with an authentic taste of what it would have been like to enter a 19th-century, Victorian-style station.
From the winding stairs to your right and the old-fashioned ticket booth ahead, to the historic memorabilia and impressive Lego train display that's set up at the back of the station, it's all quite breathtaking. While it's easy enough to spend several hours combing through every newspaper clipping, black and white photo, and 19th-century artifact, there's limited time before the conductors outside are calling "all aboard!" for what will surely be the most scenic New England train ride of your life. But don't worry; there's plenty of time for photos on the way back, as passengers begin to draw connections between what they're experiencing with their own eyes, and all the stories told through those same black and white photos taken more than 100 years prior.
All Aboard Conway Scenic Railroad's Rail Fan's Photo Excursion
We were lucky enough to experience the entire ride with Conway Scenic Railroad from start to finish on their Rail Fan's Photo Excursion. This trip was slated to run for only one day in 2022, making it quite the event not only for passengers, but also for residents throughout North Conway and neighboring Bartlett. There were crowds gathered to wave the historic Mountaineer off as it left not only with its Premium Class Dome Car, Rhonda Lee, but with Boston & Maine's vintage F7A Diesels, as well. The combination of cars presented a classic 1950s-style experience that preceded and raised expectations upon entering each car.
This excursion was the very first time in history that both Boston & Maine trains ran together with the Conway Scenic Railroad. North Conway's usual B&M No. 4266 was built in 1949 and operates fairly regularly; however, No. 4268 was built in 1950 and was only recently restored to its active service. The latter made its first debut in April 2022, with its full passenger route running for the May 22nd Rail Fan Photo's Excursion.
Once boarding, those sitting in Premium - as we were - were immediately greeted by sunlight streaming through the glass atrium that took the place of a traditional train roof. With panoramic views, it was easy to see practically every scenic angle this train route has to offer - including every local outside the train lining up to wave adieu. Fans of the classic trains gathered at the first few train crossings to set up tripods and photograph the epic, once-a-year voyage. Further down the line, the bold among them had few qualms about hiking from White Mountain Highway to reach a great vantage point from which to watch the train go by. In truth, it made all of us passengers aboard feel a little like the elite passenger classes who sat in those very same seats throughout the golden era of train travel.
Rail Fan's Photo Excursion: The Stops
Since this kick-off ride was in tribute to these incredible historic passenger trains, there were plenty of stops to make to allow everyone to get out and snap photos to their hearts' content. The main stops included:
- Crawford Depot (optional)
- Fabyan Station
Rail Fan's Photo Excursion: The Sights
Along the way, the Mountaineer not only stopped for historic stations - it stopped for historic sights, as well. While Crawford Notch was the main event, many others incited oohs and ahhs, including an appearance by Mount Washington's 6,288-foot summit. In total, we were privy to breathtaking views that few rarely have the chance to see outside a hike in the White Mountains.
Humphrey's Ledge, Cathedral Ledge, & White Horse Ledge: This trio of sheer, bare-faced rock walls is easily recognizable due to its distinction as a prime climbing spot for local adventure enthusiasts. From the train, they are dazzling and tower over the lower valley only to be dwarfed by the surrounding mountain range.
Frankenstein Trestle: Built in 1875, the original trestle bridge was named after Godfrey Frankenstein, a German artist who was known to spend time painting in Crawford Notch during the 1800s. Although the trestle that exists today was rebuilt in 1893, it's no less historic - or impressive, or thrilling - today.
Crawford Notch: The largest mountain pass between New Hampshire's White Mountains, featuring humbling views of Mount Webster, Mount Willard, Mount Eisenhower, and Mount Washington in the distance.
Rivers & Brooks: Along the way, passengers were able to observe several rivers and brooks through the forest that fill the White Mountains. The Swift River, Saco River, Sawyer River, Moat Brook, Bemis Brook, and Willey Brook could all be seen from this scenic mountain route.
Conway Scenic Railroad: Is It Worth Stepping Back In Time For?
Wholeheartedly, yes. Those who are comfortable with a longer journey and wish to have the bragging rights of being aboard a once-annual train ride should consider the Rail Fan's Photo Excursion. Its scenic stops alone - and access to historic stations along the way - are enough to fulfill a photographer's dreams. Additionally, those with an interest in the area will appreciate the hard work and dedication on the part of the train conductors, who also deliver a roughly eight-minute speech detailing the timeline and origins of the train and its route.
The Rail Fan's Photo Excursion does make many stops, and will also back up and pass through scenic routes multiple times in order for photographers and videographers to capture footage. Therefore, the ride can last anywhere from five to eight hours depending on how full the train is, how many people get off at each stop, how long it takes for everyone to get photographs, etc.
Additional Conway Scenic Railway Train Options
Those who'd prefer a train without lengthy stops have the option to take the regular Mountaineer ride, which is considered 'supremely scenic.' This runs through the fall, which is a popular time for the railroad since New England is one of the most popular autumn destinations in the country.
Other heritage rides, which place an emphasis on the history of the railway, include:
- Sawyer River Excursion (Daily, ~ 2hrs, 10 min)
- Conway Valley Train (Daily, ~ 55 minutes)
For the Mountaineer scenic train, prices are as follows:
|Adult (13+)||Child (4-12)||Infant (age 3 and under)|
Conway Scenic Railroad brings to life an experience that is unlike any other in New England, with the exception of the nearby Mount Washington Cog. Its history in North Conway can be felt the second that you walk through the station doors, and once abroad, the train's classic seating and period-accurate details paint a picture of what the height of train travel was really like. As the Conway Scenic Railroad train conductors say when the wheels lurch forward and the trees start to blur past:
"Enjoy, and just remember what a revolution it was... It was built by manpower!