Tradition on the Rails

Next stop, Blue Ridge and Bryson City for railway adventures to maximize the magic of the season

Story by Judy Garrison | Photography by Seeing Southern

Above my desk hangs a black and white, 60 x 60 image of a steam locomotive crossing the landscape of West Virginia, one of famed photographer O. Winston Link’s. In the 1950s, he captured images of steam engines, at that time a dying breed, and although he was most noted for his commercial photography during his prolific career, his legacy lived in his documentation of the vanishing American locomotive. I see this image every time I sit down to work: the Norfolk and Western Railway Hotshot traveling eastbound in August of 1956. Its majestic tail of steam from the engine dances backwards over its cars as the steel beast swishes along the rails past a drive-in theatre where lovers cuddle in their Chevy’s watching an airplane take flight on the outdoor movie screen. Americana at its best.

I first saw this print when I visited the O. Winston Link Museum in Roanoke, Virginia. I purchased a copy when I returned home. Wanting to know more, I purchased a book of his work, O. Winston Link: Life Along the Line. Never before had trains fascinated me. Now, they consume me, and every chance I get, I hop onboard.

What exactly is the train’s mystique?

Maybe it’s the regal conductor picking up his stride as he shuffles beside the cars, glancing at his watch intent on keeping his train on schedule. Per chance it’s the dining car with white linen tablecloths on tables moving upwards of 100 miles per hour and never a glass or plate out of place? Or the excitement of two little words “All Aboard” and the notion that you are about to start rolling to a place you’ve never been? Or the whistle that announces to everyone, “We’re here!” Could it be the scenes from “The Music Man” romanticizing businessmen crossing the country in three-piece suits or the intrigue of “The Orient Express” when snow and murder derails affluent passengers from Paris to Istanbul?

Trains are that and so much more.

Truly, there are speedier ways to travel from place to place, but none more inspirational. Landscapes come to life and the journey becomes as exciting as the destination. Plus, when you add Christmas to the scenario, it’s a recipe for joy.

All Aboard the Great Smoky Mountain Railroad (GSMR)

In the sleepy hollow of Bryson City, North Carolina, people board the train. Parents hold children’s hands tightly as little legs wiggle with excitement, and couples arm-in-arm walk the line in search of their assigned car. Some are locals, but most come from far away because this experience can’t be found everywhere. People are in search of trains, and the Great Smoky Mountain Railroad is about as good as it gets.

The best got better when in 2016, the historic 1702 steam engine commissioned during WWII was restored and took the lead ushering cars of travelers along the Tuckasegee River and the Nantahala Gorge. The diesel engine remains for many excursions, but it’s the steam locomotive, like those that intrigued Link, whose schedule is in demand.

The two routes, the Tuckasegee River which moves riders to Dillsboro and back, and the Nantahala Gorge which winds through the mountains and across Fontana Lake, offer many special events during the year including the ever-popular Polar Express™ excursion. From first class cars to open air gondolas, rail adventure intensifies the magic of the season.

Running November 8 through December 31, the Polar Express™ excursion departs the Bryson City depot for a 75-minute ride to the North Pole. Wear your special Christmas pajamas as you board the cars trimmed in twinkle lights. As the train departs, wave at the many onlookers who are as excited as those on board. Music becomes the soundtrack to mugs of hot cocoa and treats as riders settle back and listen to this endearing story read by Santa’s helpers. At the end of the route, of course, Santa boards the train to gift everyone his very own silver sleigh bell. And if you’re lucky, snow flakes falling might be the cherry on top of this enchanting experience.

“People should be reserving tickets now,” states Sarah Pressley of GSMR. “Polar Express™ is our most popular event because it is a timeless story of belief and hope. Whether you are eight or 80, you can find something magical. The most exciting part for the rider is when they reach the North Pole and see Santa with the elves and hero boy. It’s the crescendo that’s been building since leaving the depot.”

One passenger, an 80-year-old veteran, accompanied his two adult daughters on this excursion during the holiday season. Obsessed by Lionel toy trains as a child, he had always wanted to ride the real polar express. Just as excited as the little ones, he devoured extra hot chocolate and belted out the holiday classics. When Santa arrived in his train car, Santa handed the gentlemen his silver sleigh bell. The man raised his bell high and exclaimed, “I’ve always believed. I’ve always believed.”

If the train ride doesn’t seal the deal, a visit to the downtown and surrounding areas of Bryson City will most assuredly allow you to fall in love with this beautiful Appalachian area. Spring and summer draw visitors to ride the rapids on the Nantahala River, but it’s the fall and winter seasons that speak to the region’s coziness and rejuvenation. From BBQ to brews, there’s food to delight every taste. Make a stop at locally owned Nantahala Brewing Company, Everett Hotel Bistro, and Pasqualino’s Italian Restaurant.

For shopping, visit Humanité Boutique and owner Erin Smith whose generational women’s clothing goes far beyond stylish fashion sense. Ten percent of all sales are donated to various global and local charities. “Walking into Humanité Boutique is like stepping into a modern mountain farm house,” says Smith. And during the holidays, she caters to the Polar Express™ visitors.

“Bryson City is one of the friendliest places you’ll ever visit,” brags Pressley.

On your way to Bryson City, make a slight detour in Dillsboro, North Carolina. Known for its endless artisan activity, dining options are now putting the quaint city on the map. Have lunch at Foragers Canteen located at the old train depot, next to the Innovation Station, Dillsboro’s satellite of Sylva’s famed Innovation Brewery. Haywood Smokehouse cures BBQ and steak cravings.

Don’t leave without snagging a memento of your Christmas visit to the Smoky Mountains. The Christmas Shop, located in downtown Dillsboro in a 120-year-old white house, offers more ornaments that even the Rockefeller tree could ever hold. Open daily during the holiday season, Lisa and Mike Potts will have you in the Christmas spirit as soon as you open the front door. “From alligators to astronauts to zebras to ziplining, we have it all,” says Lisa. If the Harry Potter or Grinch ornaments don’t do the trick, the SEC ornaments (yes, UGA) will surely put a smile on your face.

All Aboard the Blue Ridge Scenic Railway (BRSR)

In the foothills of North Georgia, history rides the rails.

At the turn of the 20th century, small mountain towns like Blue Ridge, Georgia, served mainly as a hub for receiving mail and supplies. By the 1950s, the last passenger train rolled through town, but it would not be the last time people hopped aboard this workhorse thanks to a group of locals who restored the railroad, the line and the area’s tourism.

In 1998, excursions began from Blue Ridge to McCaysville, Georgia, and sister city Copperhill, Tennessee, with a few thousand people. Today, more than 70,000 flock into this hamlet annually to experience a 26-mile round trip that skirts the Toccoa River and the beauty of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

Riding the train is a year-round adventure. Board in downtown Blue Ridge and travel a bold 10-to-15 miles per hour toward the city of McCaysville. A two-hour layover allows time to experience the charm of twin cities McCaysville and Copperhill, Tennessee. Don’t miss the photo opportunity of standing in two states at one time where the state lines split the downtown. You can’t miss it; simply follow the crowd to this iconic spot.

Its newest attraction, The Riverwalk, located along the Toccoa (Georgia)/Ocoee (Tennessee) River and next to the steel truss bridge that connects the two states, is a restored brick structure filled with specialty shops and restaurants. Unique options include Afrika Corner, Blue Ridge Mountain Outfitters, the Pasta Market, and our favorite, Christmas is Here! The Christmas spirit lives here year-round (as does Santa) and features American-made artisan novelties.

For a bite to eat with a view, drop by Burra Burra on the River for classic American food, located in the front of The Riverwalk. Its space, once Jabaley Store, provided goods for miners in Copperhill, and its name pays homage to a copper ore mine that ceased operation in 1987.

BRSR offers many themed excursions during the year with its most popular being the fall foliage trip running from September through the first of November. Beginning November 15, the winter season kicks into high gear with a modified schedule running weekends and select weekdays. Enjoy the traditional trip including the two-hour layover in McCaysville.

On November 29, Santa boards the train for the Santa Express. This one-hour ride (30 minutes out and back with no layover) gets the young at heart up-close-and-personal with Santa and Mrs. Claus as they stroll through each passenger car. In the comfort of a heated car, you’ll hear Christmas stories, sing Christmas carols, and meet many Christmas characters. Storytellers and car hosts roam the cars, gifting silver bells and coloring books with crayons and candy canes to the little ones. The railway invites visitors to bring snacks on board or visit the concession car fully stocked for the ride. The Santa Express departs four times daily on scheduled days. And as always, keep eyes toward the heavens for the snow flurry magic.

“People have come from all over including other countries,” states General Manager Rachel Gray. “We suggest people purchase tickets when they know the date they want to ride.” Tickets sales for all rides begin in March.

What brings the season to life is “the families that have been returning for fifteen-plus years as a family tradition to ride our train,” recalls Gray. “They once brought their children and are now bringing their grandchildren to ride the train and keep the tradition alive.”

BRSC is one of the main attractions that delivers visitors to Blue Ridge. “They [Trains] are full of history,” states Gray. “Trains used to be, and still are, such a huge part of our country. A train ride is nostalgic for older generations and fun and playful for the younger ones.”

Take in every moment that the mountains have to offer. Steps away from the train depot, the downtown area is thriving with unique shops, hearty restaurants and must-see galleries. Take the kids to Huck’s General Store to pack their bags with old-fashioned candies. Be amazed at the craftmanship of handmade fly-fishing rods in Oyster Fine Bamboo Fly Rods. Taste European flavors at Blue Ridge Olive Oil and opt for freshly brewed tea at Tupelo Tea. Lay your head in one of the four charming rooms at the Cast & Blast Inn.

Stay downtown for great eats at Hansen’s Grill or Harvest on Main. Venture outside of town for authentic Italian at upscale Cucina Rustica. No matter what, don’t miss Mercier Orchard. From its candy kitchen to the scrumptious bakery treats to fresh vegetables and fruits, the Mercier family’s enterprise will be a year-round destination.

All Aboard This Holiday Season

Oddly enough, trains and Christmas have been synonymous for as long as memory serves. For many, tradition dictates that a train reside beneath a tree among the presents and glitter. It’s an endless loop around the tree that, for young and old alike, ushers in the season year after year. Some believe that this tradition began more than 100 years ago when Lionel Manufacturing began to produce the electric toy trains, and they became every child’s request.

For others, it’s the sentimental feeling of travel during the holiday season, of going the distance no matter how far to see friends and family. For decades, long distance travel meant trains and you were going to see grandma. Ideally, trains have always symbolized a connection to what is most important.

I cherish my print of the Hotshot rolling through the hills of West Virginia, as well as my Christmas jaunts on the Great Smoky Mountain Railroad and the Blue Ridge Scenic Railway. They remind me of the simplicity of travel, whether a long journey or a short one, and that tradition is still possible.

And as the Conductor on the Polar Express™ promises, “One thing about trains: it doesn’t matter where they’re goin’. What matters is deciding to get on.”

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