Call me prejudiced, but for sheer relaxation, absolute pleasure and a refreshing appreciation of the beauty of the United States, nothing beats a train ride!
Traveling Amtrak from Metro Park to Lacrosse, Wisconsin, involves transfers in two different cities, but riding the Capitol Limited to Washington, rather than the Lake Shore Limited from New York to Chicago makes the trip to Chicago primarily overnight, and with a cozy roomette for a comfortable night’s sleep ensures you’re wide awake and ready to enjoy all that beauty out west from Chicago to Wisconsin. Even traveling by coach means a good night’s sleep…the seats are roomy, comfortable, and offer both headrests that go way back and footrests that come up for stretching out without even bothering the passengers in front or behind you!
The Northeast Corridor of Amtrak offers comfortable accommodations from Metro Park, where there’s also plenty of parking at half the price of airports, to the nation’s Capitol in less than four hours. There’s always a lounge car available and both quiet cars for those who want to be on their computers or simply snooze in quiet, and cars that permit cell phones and more than subdued conversation. If there’s layover time in Union Station in Washington, the station has been renovated, updated, modernized and filled with enough shops and eateries to make it a fascinating experience.
The Capitol Limited leaves Washington daily just after 4 in the afternoon and within minutes you’re into the beauty of western Maryland and West Virginia, with mountains, rivers, and charming towns racing past the window. The train stops in Rockville, Maryland, the state’s second largest city, and if you look really close, you can see the little white church where F. Scott Fitzgerald is buried. It’s also a town filled with magnificent Victorian homes, reminiscent of the 19th century when it was the resort town where all those wealthy railroad executives spent their summers.
Harpers Ferry, West Virginia is next, a popular spot for historians, and one Thomas Jefferson referred to as one of the most stupendous scenes in nature, where the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers meet. But it’s also the former federal arsenal and trading post that was the scene of the hanging of abolitionist John Brown just before the start of the Civil War. For railroad buffs, Robert E. Lee’s rushing federal troops there marked the first time the railroad was used for military purposes.
The rail line in this area, which traverses both West Virginia and Maryland as it winds its way through the mountains, travels alongside the C&O Canal, so it’s easy to see bikers, walkers, and overnights traveling what is now a 186 mile long recreational path maintained by the National Park Service.
The railroad station in Martinsburg, WVa is the oldest working railroad station in the country, and the only building in that city to survive the devastation of the Civil War. The area and locals are filled with stories from when the Confederates stole not only supplies but also locomotives and rail cars, to the first railroad strike ever in the country, in the late 1870s.
By 10 p.m. you’re in Connellsville, Pa, once a coal mining town, crossing the Mason/Dixon Line at the state line with Maryland, passing through the Cumberland Gap, a natural space between mountains, the 1600 foot long tunnel which goes from Maryland and back into West Virginia again, and into Pittsburgh before midnight. During the rest of the night you pass through a 150 miles or so of Ohio, a few towns in Indiana, and by 7:30 in the morning you’re in South Bend, the home of Notre Dame, an hour and a half before a 9 a.m. arrival in Chicago’s Union Station. It’s about five hours between arriving in Chicago, the railroad’s largest and busiest station, to boarding the Empire Building and a spectacularly scenic five hour ride to Lacrosse, Wisconsin.
Here’s an interesting fact. Chicago’s Union Station is the only station in the country that has trains coming and going from north, east, south and west every day. It’s a busy hub for sure!