Nathaniel C. Guest is an attorney and preservation advocate. Guest is the founding director of the Keystone Marker Trust, a statewide nonprofit dedicated to enhancing community gateways through Pennsylvania’s iconic roadside markers. In 2008, he founded the Pennhurst Memorial & Preservation Alliance to facilitate reuse of the former Pennhurst State School, an International Site of Conscience.
A steam locomotive engineer, Guest founded the Colebrookdale Railroad Preservation Trust to restore a Civil War-era rail line in southeastern Pennsylvania. He has served as an intern with the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s legal department; director of the Cornell Tradition, a multimillion dollar fellowship recognizing volunteer service; Tompkins County, New York, Human Rights Commissioner; and an elected representative on the Cornell Employee Assembly. He is a director for Preservation Pennsylvania and the Schuylkill River National and State Heritage Area, and served as the Preservation Programs director and National Heritage Grants chairman for the National Railway Historical Society, the nation’s largest railway preservation organization.
A visiting lecturer at Cornell University, Guest teaches topics pertinent to preservation, including law, economics, advocacy, fundraising, and ethics. He received his B.A. from Cornell University in 1994 (magna cum laude), his J.D. from Temple University in 2010 (cum laude), and his M.A. in historic preservation planning from Cornell University in 2012.
How does the experience of riding the Colebrookdale Railroad give guests a unique perspective on the history and culture of Southeastern Pennsylvania?
Discovering the magic of the Secret Valley is really a means of discovering the lost treasures of Pennsylvania. A brilliant historic, cultural, and natural heritage unique to Pennsylvania and core to its identity roll past the coach windows like old rolls of film on a living screen.
The Colebrookdale Railroad connects the sites of the earliest ironmaking industries in the New World, sites from which Pennsylvania’s rise to industrial power sprang, sites that were familiar to both William Penn and George Washington. Civil War soldiers just returned home at the conflict’s close struggled for nearly half a decade to build this improbable railroad through very difficult mountain terrain. The lands through which we pass were once held sacred by the Lenni Lenape Indians whose tribes lived along the two creeks our train follows. They named one of the creeks “Manatawny”, meaning place we gather to drink alcohol. (Note: We toast their good judgment in our bar car each time we cross the creek!) Of special interest to the Native Americans were the magical rock formations along the line—rock formations that bore magnetic iron ores. Thomas Edison was equally enchanted, riding the train weekly for six years and regularly stopping it in the rock cuts to sample ore. Today, geologists trek to the Colebrookdale to see one of only two places in the world (the other is in North Africa) where the entire geologic record of the ancient supercontinent Pangea can be seen. The deep woods are home to eagles, heron, fox, turtles, and deer, frequently spotted from the train.
How has the experience of traveling on the Secret Valley Line changed over the years?
The deep forests, towering rock formations, and rushing creeks of the Secret Valley reveal themselves to the surprise and delight of passengers today much as they did for the railroad’s first passengers just after the Civil War. The hawks, heron, and eagles who live along our line delight our passengers as they must have done for the Lenni Lenape tribes who once trekked along the railroad’s route and held the Secret Valley to be sacred. Rock cuts jutting perilously close to the train bear the marks of Thomas Edison, who rode the train each week for six years in search of a magic ore. A century later, Temple University regularly sends its geology department to the Colebrookdale to study the cuts, not for their ores, but for their fossil record unique across the world.
While the sublime beauty of the Secret Valley may be timeless, today’s passengers ride in a luxury and comfort about which the Civil War soldiers who built the railroad could only have dreamed. The Colebrookdale’s coaches are relics from the Edwardian era of Downton Abbey and The Great Gatsby. Our restored cars offer one of the few opportunities to experience travel as it would have been aboard the grand limited trains of the golden era of railroad travel. Polished woods, deep velvet seats, and stained glass lights highlight the coaches while the open observation car provides 360-degree views of the Valley. Passengers can also ride in the caboose or—for a truly unique experience—in the locomotive cab. On board, white-gloved attendants offer seasonal refreshments and a historical narrative of the line.
What is one detail of the train ride that may go unnoticed by guests, but which you feel is important?
Because the service we provide is superior to that offered most anywhere else, most passengers do not realize our train is staffed ENTIRELY BY VOLUNTEERS. Our crews pride themselves in special attention to detail that, though labor-intensive, offers a touch of class from the finest trains of the grander era, something you cannot experience anywhere else. We clean the train between each run, meaning it looks as fresh and clean for the last passenger of the weekend as it did for the first. We try to always include something extra—free of charge—to enliven the experience, be it fresh flowers in the coaches or complimentary cucumber, mint, or lemon water in the café. Our conductors wear white gloves in a nod to a lost tradition of elegance from a century ago.
What do you wish every guest knew as they consider buying a ticket for the Colebrookdale Railroad?
While there are other, less expensive options for a train ride, a Colebrookdale expedition is really one worth much more than the cost of a ticket. The emotive elegance of the train, the powerfully beautiful scenery, the remarkable geology unique in all the world, the flora and fauna unfolding before your windows, the bridges—among the oldest and tallest wooden trestles in the US–and the attentiveness of the crew offers an experience that is engineered to make memories that will last a lifetime.
What is one travel trend that really excites you?
Actually, two trends. First, surrounded by a world that is increasingly virtual, tourists are increasingly looking for opportunities that are unique but authentic, meaningful, and, in a world “real.” A two-hour journey into a land accessible largely only by the train, the Colebrookdale’s journey is an extraordinary trek into a forgotten world of real nature, real history, and real adventure. Second, tourists are increasingly looking for a diversity of experiences around a theme. The Colebrookdale offers a host of compatibly-themes activities nearby, including Valley Forge and Hopewell Furnace National historic sites, Longwood Gardens and Hawk Mountain Bird Sanctuary, the Boyertown Museum of Historic Vehicles, the Valley Forge Premium Outlet Center, and King of Prussia Mall. In time, as the Railroad’s Secret Valley Natural, Recreation, and Heritage Corridor is developed, the railroad experience will include hiking, biking, camping, kayaking, and fishing.
What sets a ride on the Colebrookdale Railroad apart from other historic railroad experiences?
Nowhere else can offer the combination of natural beauty, recreational activity, and living history to be found on the Colebrookdale. A largely unknown Civil War gem, the Colebrookdale is among the best kept secrets among Eastern US attractions. Recently saved from years of disuse and abandonment, the restoration of our historic fleet continues and we work to rebuild our stations along the line, the Colebrookdale is already a world-class attraction with respect to the beauty of the railroad line and the elegance of our equipment. The attention to detail our staff provides ensues the experience is simply magical.
What is one insiders tip to getting the most out of an experiential travel excursion such as yours?
First, choose a variety of locations on board. The Colebrookdale is one of few railroads in the US that lets you move car-to-car. Plan to sit on the east side of the train headed south, then move to the west for the return trip. The open car is often on the south end of the train on the journey home, offering completely unobstructed views. The caboose cupola is the highest vantage point on the train and should not be missed. Also, come seeking refreshment: Be sure to try the homemade sodas (hand-bottled) or a root beer float in the summer. All fall trains offer locally-produced sweet or hard cider and many feature the railroad’s own beer, the Secret Valley Rail Ale. Summer trains are less crowded than fall foliage “Hayride on Rails” and Santa runs (with free hot cocoa and cookies, culminating in an arrival at a Secret Santa Village where passengers can pick out their Christmas trees to be loaded onto the train), which, as among the best in the nation, sell out quickly.
What is one strategy that has helped your organization to grow?
We started with a bold dream to do what no one else was willing to do: to revive the exceedingly beautiful but very maintenance intensive Colebrookdale Railroad. (10 bridges, 2 of the oldest and tallest wooden trestles in the US, miles of deep forests and rock cuts = $200,000 in maintenance costs!) The bold dream has inspired thousands of donors and volunteers. Over the past 12 months, our volunteers have contributed 25,000 service hours. First Lady Michele Obama recognized this achievement by naming the Colebrookdale one of only three Preserve America Stewards in Pennsylvania.
What is one personal habit that has helped you to be successful?
I honestly think our success is due to a lot of help from above. All I do is never say no when called to a task.
Please share one instance where a guest had a moving or emotional reaction to the experience you provided to them.
About a month after we completed the restoration of our first passenger car, it was sitting in our gravel railroad yard in a light February snow as I puttered around inside with the heater. I heard footsteps climbing the stairs and the familiar squeak of the end door. In walked a woman in her 60s, with a smile that warmed the cold air that had accompanied her. She explained she had heard there were exciting things happening down on the railroad but hadn’t made it out to see. She was passing by and saw my car. She wondered if I might turn on the lights so she could see the car the folks in our community had recently finished. I happily obliged. As the Edison bulbs came to life, illuminating the mahogany and the statue of Morning near the north end of the car, a tear came to her eye. She explained her recently-passed husband had always loved trains and that the sight of this railroad car reborn would have made him very happy. Today, thanks to her generosity, a seat in the car bears his name.
Colebrookdale website: http://colebrookdalerailroad.com/
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Colebrookdale Railroad on Twitter: @ColebrookdaleRR
Colebrookdale Railroad on YouTube: www.youtube.com/channel/UCyhmY9c1mqJ34_5PqPZMq5A