HOLLIDAYSBURG, Pennsylvania—If you were the president of a railroad 100 years ago, you were kind of a big deal. Yet when Alan Maples became president of the Everett Railroad Company in 1983, a purchase that made him the youngest person in the history of the industry to hold that title, the Alabama native knew full well he would not wield the prominence, power, and influence the title once held.
Maples shrugs, smiles, and admits that a few people, including his parents, thought he was a bit daft when he said his career goal was to run a railroad—at the very time the industry was on its knees.
In fairness, lots of children want to run railroads when they first catch sight of a train chugging along the highway and hear the long-long-short-long rhythm of the whistle in the distance.
“I grew up in Bethesda, Maryland,” Maples said. “There was a railroad track a few blocks from our house, and I had a model train as a kid. Now, my brother grew up in the same house, and he could care less about trains, so I don’t know what the magic is, but it’s something I’ve loved all my life.”
At 21, with some help from his parents and the college fund they had saved for him that he never used, he bought the Everett Railroad, which is not something that someone who isn’t a robber baron traditionally does.
“Well, it was during a recession,” he explained. “The owners of the railroad wanted to get rid of it; it wasn’t worth a lot at the time. I did not go to college, and my parents had set some money aside for my college education.
“They also said, ‘If you go broke, don’t come back; there is no more money,’” explained Maples, who splits his time between here and Scottsboro, Alabama.
To everyone’s surprise, from the town to his parents to the manufacturing industries he serves in the area to the families and rail fans who discovered his steam-engine-powered excursion railroad line, Maples has been more than relatively successful.
“We are a working railroad serving industries around the area; we also run these excursion trains during the summer and then in the fall and the Christmas time as well,” he said, pointing to the meticulously and carefully restored passenger trains in the rail yard behind his office.
The company was originally incorporated in 1954 in its namesake town of Everett, 33 miles south of here. By 1982, it had been essentially abandoned and then sold and moved here to Blair County.
Yet by 1984, Maples was able to make the first run under his ownership, delivering a load of bauxite ore. Since then, it has been a carrier-freight railroad in the Interstate 99 corridor of Blair County, which includes the communities of Altoona, Roaring Spring, Martinsburg, Claysburg, and Hollidaysburg.
“We have our ups and downs,” he said. “We really miss the days when newspaper was printed on newsprint, because that was a good business for the railroad, hauling newsprint.” Newsprint isn’t made much anymore, which means it’s not there to haul anymore.
Maples said he just lost a big customer this winter when the Appvion Paper Mill, which had been at its nearby Roaring Spring operation since 1866, closed, costing 300 people their jobs.
The closure hit Maples hard: “That was our biggest freight customer. So, that’s put a world of hurt on us right now.”
But there’s good news: “We didn’t run the passenger train last year because of the pandemic, and now, we’re able to restart the passenger train. So, that’s helping pick up some of the slack from the loss of the paper mill.”
Maples says that type of freight delivery is the kind of business he relies on. It also demonstrates why railroads were the lifeblood of small towns for generations.
The fates of towns, he said, were pretty much determined by whether a railroad placed a station nearby. “Pass a town by, and it’s just another dot on a map; place a station there, and the opportunities were boundless.”
His restorations of those passenger lines are a perfect immersion into a glamorous way to travel that’s long gone, one that once upon a time could take a person from one small town to another, to the big city or even across the entire country.
Railroads originally began as a way of transporting commodities such as farm goods, coal, and timber to market; almost immediately, they facilitated the region’s agriculture- and manufacturing-based economy. They were reliable; they could function in any type of climate. And because of them, industries of all types, and towns and cities of all sizes, grew up around them. When the railroad industry began in Pennsylvania in 1860, there were initially 2,000 miles of track, but by 1920, there were more than 11,500 miles.
Railroads were also America’s first big business. At the industry’s peak in the 1920s, railroad companies owned large amounts of real estate and equipment and employed more than 1.7 million people nationwide.
Then, along came the new cars and trucks and airplanes, as well as barges and pipelines, all of which took away a lot of the transportation of goods from the railroad companies.
And all of those small towns or industries that had benefited from the new markets and availability of new resources had to scramble to figure out how to access the people and products the trains had opened to them.
Maples’ facility is one of the oldest railroad properties in Pennsylvania.
“When they were opening up the routes to the West, before railroad technology was fully developed, they had canals,” he explained. “And the canal was built from the Susquehanna River to Hollidaysburg, and then from Johnstown over to Pittsburgh.”
In between, you had the mountains.
“So, they had a horse-drawn, very primitive railroad that came right through here to take cargo from the two sides of the canal and go up over the inclines on the mountains,” he said.
That was 1834, meaning for nearly 200 years, this spot has been in continuous use for transportation purposes.
The magic of the visit, though, is in the restored rail cars and engines that Maples uses for the excursion rides. For anyone who has wondered what it feels like to ride a train the way your grandparents or great-grandparents did, this is a shrine to that era.
Take the 27-mile round trip between Hollidaysburg and Martinsburg on No. 11. Traveling through the breathtaking Morrison’s Cove, including a stop for ice cream at the Roaring Spring depot, will leave you with a sense that all is right with the world, at least for a few hours.
There are several other excursions available as well, all the way up to Christmas.
“There is really nothing like seeing a child or a grandparent’s face light up when they see the steam of the engine as it pulls up to the train station; whether it is the child’s first time or the grandparent remembers a time from their own childhood, they know magic will happen when they stop on that train,” Maples explained.
“You can’t capture the joy and wonder of anticipation in a bottle, but we sure come close to it here at the railroad.”
Salena Zito has held a long, successful career as a national political reporter. Since 1992, she has interviewed every U.S. president and vice president, as well as top leaders in Washington, D.C., including secretaries of state, speakers of the House and U.S. Central Command generals. Her passion, though, is interviewing thousands of people across the country. She reaches the Everyman and Everywoman through the lost art of shoe-leather journalism, having traveled along the back roads of 49 states.
Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.