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All aboard the M&H: Railroad tries to balance events such as pumpkin run with freight work

By Laura Hayes

laurahayes@pressandjournal.com

717-944-4628
Posted 10/10/18

Tucked behind the train tracks on Brown Street is a treasure trove of train history –– streetcars from the 1980s advertising fare rates of 75 cents, cabooses with cupolas on top where the …

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All aboard the M&H: Railroad tries to balance events such as pumpkin run with freight work

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Tucked behind the train tracks on Brown Street is a treasure trove of train history –– streetcars from the 1980s advertising fare rates of 75 cents, cabooses with cupolas on top where the crew would watch for fires, powerful steam engines from the early 1900s, railway express cars that carried refrigerated goods, and much more.

During a recent tour of the rail station with the Press & Journal, Middletown & Hummelstown Railroad CEO Wendell Dillinger frequently stopped, sometimes to tell the story of how they acquired a railroad car or to show how trains have advanced over the years.

For example, Dillinger paused next to a railway express car. Parts of the car are red, and even though the other sides are flaking with rust, the logo is still visible.

The car, Dillinger explained, transported refrigerated goods, and people could get their items in several days. The ice was stored in the roof to keep the car cool, and as the ice melted, the water ran down shoots.

“This is just the tip of the iceberg. Do you know what fascinates me, why I’m here? It’s because [Dillinger] teaches me,” “Doc” George Sloan, M&H chairman of special projects, said after the tour.

Throughout the year, M&H offers a number of rides, including the upcoming Pumpkin Patch Train which runs at 3:30 p.m. Oct. 13, 14, 20 and 21. Tickets cost $17 for adults, $14 for children, and $4 for children younger than 2, and can be purchased by calling 717-944-4435 or online at www.mhrailroad.com.

The railroad was incorporated in 1888, and when it was completed it was sold to the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad. Dillinger said they ran it as a branch line. Originally, the M&H ran six passenger trains every day, but the passenger trains slowly decreased until by 1939 all passenger services were discontinued.

Dillinger has been working on railroads since 1948. He’s had a number of hats over the years –– janitor in a passenger station, ticket clerk, crossing watchman and station agent, among others.

When asked what got him interested in trains, Dillinger replied, “What gets kids interested in trains?”

His mother found a picture that he drew of a train when he was 4 or 5 years old.

“I never outgrew it,” he said.

Dillinger was working as president of a railroad in Iowa when he and a friend began talking about taking over a short line. He had heard good things about the Reading company, and in 1976, Dillinger took over the line and reverted its name back to the original Middletown & Hummelstown Railroad.

They started out with one locomotive before growing and purchasing passenger cars and steam engines. Dillinger said they have 7 miles of track.

“Our freight business is what keeps us alive. Without the freight business, we would not survive,” Dillinger said.

He said their freight business has dropped off over the years and estimated that it operated about four days a week. M&H, he said, hauls tank cars of chemicals, and in the past they hauled powdered plastic, powdered milk, plywood and truck and tractor tires.

The line holds regular hourlong train rides from May to October, which run past historic locations such as the Union Canal Lock 33. Before Tropical Storm Lee, M&H ran rides to Indian Echo Caverns.

Besides those trips, M&H runs several themed train trips. The rides run all year and include trips with the Easter Bunny, Santa Claus, and teddy bears. On other trips, a train robbery or murder mystery takes place.

Dillinger said one of the other staff members came up with idea for the Pumpkin Patch Train after seeing it on another line.

Passengers board the train station at 136 Brown St. and travel to Swatara Park. There, M&H creates a maze out of bales of straw and places straw and pumpkins on the ground for children to pick.

“Every kid gets a pumpkin,” Dillinger said.

The rides have taken place for about six years, and over the years, M&H has set up the patch in different places.

Last Christmas, Dillinger said several people rode the train because they once brought their children and now wanted to bring their grandchildren. M&H is working to cater to the families.

“We have to attract more passengers for our passenger trains in order to survive, and we would also like to attract more freight business because it’s becoming very difficult to do all this stuff with the resources that we have now,” Dillinger said.

As chairman of special projects and from his connections gained during his time as vice president of Westinghouse Broadcasting, Sloan is working on a number of projects including creating a “Reading Rainbow” train and allowing the station to sell Mr. Rogers stamps and create a Mr. Rogers-themed train.

Growing up, Dillinger said there were railroad stations in every town. Kids would hang out at the station, and men would sit on the benches in front of the station and watch the trains go by.

“This is why people used to like trains because the railroad station in town was a meeting place,” Dillinger said.

Trains are revered in other countries to this day, Sloan said.

“There are thousands of people who’ve never ridden a train,” Sloan said. “You asked him, ‘Why would you come up and run M&H’s train 7 miles down and 7 miles back?’ Because it gives you the experience of your life.”