Coal, water and steam combine to power the steam engines on the Wilmington and Western Railroad, but it is a devoted corps of volunteers who keep the historic trains running.

It’s a sight few people get to see; a few feet above my head, thick, white smoke sails downwind as it pours into and envelopes the red, yellow and orange autumn leaves on the trees. At the same time, 20 feet below, I can see fallen leaves floating atop the clear water of the Red Clay Creek. Behind me – a ton of black coal. In front, a bulging, belching mass of black metal ornamented with gauges and metal levers. Two blue metallic oilcans sit perched on a shelf. Underneath, two thick metal doors swivel open revealing a red-hot cauldron of burning coal.

I am riding as a passenger inside steam locomotive engine 98 of the Wilmington & Western Railroad. This train ride is an Autumn Leaf Special and we are crossing over a bridge and approaching a road.

“Lights,” calls out fireman Gisela Vasquez as she leans out the left side. Engineer Don Young reaches up with his left hand and pulls a cord.

A loud train whistle blows. Bells ring. Steam hisses. Red lights flash on and off. The heavy metal train wheels click, click, click. The engine constantly bobs back and forth, almost like a ship on the water. The cars on the road stop and wait. As we cross in front of them, the engineer waves. Some of the car drivers smile and wave back. The train crosses and we head onward through the Red Clay Valley.

This journey began at Greenbank station, near Price’s Corner on Route 41 (Newport Gap Pike). An historic rail line that was revived, the Wilmington & Western Railroad has survived budget shortfalls and natural disasters, but it still keeps running. It has historic steam and diesel locomotives, vintage passenger cars and cabooses, and is a “museum in motion.”

However, what really makes it special is the people. They share two common traits: all are volunteers and they all love trains. People like Harry Koons and Bill Simpson, who work inside Greenbank station.

“I grew up right next to the rail yard in Marshalton,” says Simpson, a 42-year insurance man. “As a boy, I was close to trains, in fact the tracks ran right through our backyard.”

His co-worker, Harry Koons, who worked in computer systems installation and support, nods his head in agreement. Last December, he invited his cousins from Arizona to come out on a nostalgic Delaware train ride.

Conductor Jim Badgley is a retired transportation manager. He has over 20 years railroading experience and about four-and-a-half years with the Wilmington & Western Railroad.

“The train doesn’t move unless the conductor authorizes it,” says Badgley. “The conductor has to make sure the crew is ready, the train cars are assembled correctly, authorize brake and air-pressure tests and make sure the passengers are loaded.” He counts as some of his most memorable railroad experiences, several onboard wedding trips. “For them, it was the railroad experience of a lifetime.”

Steve Jensen works as a passenger attendant and helped with the restoration of locomotive 98. A student at Delcastle, his love of trains began by watching “Thomas the Tank Engine” on television.

Aboard the locomotive, the metal doors of the firebox swivel open and fireman Gisela Vazquez throws another shovelful of coal into the fire. Originally from Venezuela and now working for DuPont, she keeps a close eye on a large steam pressure gauge. Her job – keep the fire, boil the water, make the steam. She also constantly leans out to her left and gazes ahead.

The engineer and the fireman must work as a well-trained team. The fireman stands on the left, the engineer on the right. Each must look ahead for the other because both are blind to the other side of the engine.

“All clear,” shouts Vazquez, as she waves her hand.

Engineer Don Young controls and moves the throttles and levers. A metallurgical engineer, he has worked on over seven different tourist trains and has over 30 years of railroading experience. “A steam locomotive is like a woman,” said Young. “Very expensive and takes a lot of loving care, but once you get her hot, there’s nothing better.”

A half-hour stop at Mt. Cuba. The passengers disembark and many eat lunch on the picnic tables set by the stream. There are many families. Mothers and fathers bring their young children up to the engine, take pictures and talk to engineer Don Young as he oils and lubricates the wheels. The sunlight is angled and sharp. The air is cool and crisp. It is a perfect Autumn day.

The ride back is a little easier; a diesel locomotive hitched to the rear pulls the train. The two-man steam engine crew can relax a little bit, but not completely. Temperatures, water levels and pressures still have to be maintained.

“Remember,” says Young, “on a steam locomotive, water is a power source, and a coolant. You can run out of coal, you can run out of track and you can run out of time. But, don’t ever run out of water.”

Asked why he loves trains, Young replies: “I got infected. It just gets into your blood.”