North Country
3:01 pm
Fri March 28, 2014

How An Abandoned Train Ended Up In A N.H. Forest

You've seen abandoned houses.  Windows broken or boarded up.  You've probably seen abandoned cars in the woods.  NHPR's Sean Hurley recently came upon an abandoned train in Bartlett.  To find out more about its history, he spoke with Conway Scenic Railroad Conductor Gordon Lang.

Conway Scenic Railroad Conductor Gordon Lang tells us the origins of the Scenic Railroad and the history of the abandoned train cars in Bartlett.

My first car was a 1936 Coupe De Ville.  At least that's what I told myself.  I was 11 years old and my Coupe de Ville was a crumpled wreck of an abandoned car locked in a thicket of trees with no road in sight. The seats were gone.  Tires gone.  Windows gone.  It's story was gone too.  I'd sit inside and spin the wheel and make those driving sounds that kids make and wonder where had my Coupe de Ville come from? And how had the whole forest grown up around it?  

I've been a fan of abandoned things ever since, so when, while skiing recently in Crawford Notch, I came upon an abandoned train - three coaches,  a swayback flat car, and a coal car - I had to climb aboard to take a look.

Abandoned things can look burned out even without any sign of fire. There's a smoke and cinder quality, as though time itself was a kind of incinerator.  I didn't make the train sounds as I once would have, but the three coaches still had a few surviving seats and I sat in each car and imagined the country flashing by and the knocking hustle of the wheels.

When I was 11, I couldn't find out the story of my Coupe de Ville, but I wondered if I could find out more about the abandoned train. And who better to ask than a local railway man.

Gordon Lang is a  train conductor on the Conway Scenic Railroad, and has passed the abandoned cars countless times on his way to Fabyan Station.  He says the Conway Scenic Railroad bought the cars in the late 90's.  

There was 5 of them and two of the cars are in use today. Some of them were Erie cars, some were Lackawanna cars. 

The abandoned cars, Lang says, were electric and mounted with a pantograph that glided below power lines through Pennsylvania, New York, and New Jersey. 

And though he's been a train conductor for nearly 40 years, Lang didn't start off as a railway man.  In 1971...

I pulled into the old North Conway Post Office, which is the brick building by the railroad station and there set a big old steam engine. The old 7470 was being pushed into the round house for the first time and everybody standing there looking at it.  So I walked over.  That was my downfall! 

1971 was also the year of the first glimmerings of what would become the Conway Scenic Railroad.

Dwight Smith had the equipment.  Carol Reed and Bill Levy had bought the land, the buildings and stuff. And didn't know what they were gonna do with them and so the three of them got together and August 4th of 74 we made our first trip to Conway.  It took 3 hours to make the round trip cause the cylinder caulks kept opening with a brush (laughs).  Then people saw us that Sunday and said "we want to go".  Dwight says "We may get you there, but you may not get back!" So the first public run was Sunday the 5th.

40 years later and the Scenic Railroad is busier than ever.

After talking to Conductor Lang, I ski back over the snow covered tracks  to the Erie and Lackawanna cars. 

To climb aboard an abandoned train is to shift out of time.  It isn't now, it isn't then, and this leaning together in time is part of the attraction.  But equally drawing is the mystery about what such abandoned things are.  What they become.

To re-purpose a line from the writer William Gass, this train has been abandoned, but it has been abandoned to beauty.  It is no longer a train. It is itself.