When he was three years old, my nephew Nick had a favorite book. He carried it with him everywhere. He knew every word and picture on every page, the paper soft as a tissue from Nick’s little fingers turning the pages to show his favorites. The book? The Thomas the Tank Engine catalog.
I have since met more of these boys, the mini trainspotters whose love of the railroad borders on obsession. Some grow out of it (usually just after their parents have broken down and bought the deluxe train table they are sure will bring years of delight); some grow up to be Rail Enthusiasts, some just get a faraway look in their eye whenever they hear a train whistle.
If you have one of these children in your life, a trip to Richmond offers several train-centric activities.
- Begin with a train from Washington’s Union Station on Amtrak’s Northeast Regional. Be sure to book your ticket to Richmond’s Main Street Station downtown because the other one is just plain depressing (unless you like dirty old carpet and dropped ceilings along with your surly cab drivers and parking lot traffic jams). Main Street Station was built in 1901 and is a U.S. National Historic Landmark. It was closed in the ’50s, and reopened in 2003 to passenger rail traffic.
- The surrounding Shockoe Bottom neighborhood, once a deserted warehouse district, is now a lively residential and commercial area, with a weekend farmer’s market (the oldest farmer’s market in continuous use in the US, in fact) and loads of restaurants and bars. For the trainspotters, the best choice is probably Bottom’s Up Pizza, where you can sit on the deck and watch trains go by as you dine on some of the city’s favorite thick crust pizza. Their S’mores Pizza dessert is a favorite finish. BONUS: Take a canal boat tour to see the canal locks in action.
- A short walk further brings you to the Triple Crossing, the only place in the US where three train tracks cross the same spot on different levels. For some reason, this is important to rail enthusiasts.
- If your little ones like ghost stories, you may want to take them to see the perhaps the creepiest train destination in town: the Church Hill Tunnel. Completed in 1875, the “Ghost Tunnel” was built by the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad under Richmond’s historic Church Hill. The tunnel was notoriously unstable, and was abandoned after several accidents. An attempt to repair the tunnel in 1925 met with tragedy when workers were trapped in a tunnel collapse. Two escaped, and two bodies were later recovered, but the recovery was deemed to be too dangerous, and the tunnel entrance was sealed. The bodies of two workers remain trapped inside with an entire train and locomotive. Nearby workers have reported hearing scratching noises from inside the tunnel over the years.
- When Main Street Station closed in the 1950’s passenger rail traffic moved to the majestic Broad Street Station, a neoclassical station designed by John Russel Pope in 1917. That building is now home to the Science Museum of Virginia. Though the Science Museum is worth a visit on its own merits, for our train enthusiasts, the attraction will be the steam locomotive and business car housed in the former train loading area. BONUS: Aluminaut, the world’s first aluminum submarine, is also on display here.
- Across the river on Richmond’s South Side, the Richmond Railroad Museum is housed in the former Southern Railway Passenger Station. The Old Dominion Chapter of the National Railway Historical Society also hosts popular excursions on a vintage diesel-powered train. Check their website for details and reservations.
- About 8 miles southwest of downtown Richmond, the Metro Richmond Zoo is a train destination of a different sort. The “train” in question is not on rails, but it will take you on a 15-minute ride through the “savannah” to get up VERY close and personal with a variety of animals. BONUS: The giraffe enclosure is designed so that visitors can pet and feed the giraffes from an elevated walkway.