100 things to do in Cleveland before you die: Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad

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Ideastream's Amy Eddings is exploring her native city with the help of Nikki Delamotte's book, "100 Things to Do in Cleveland Before You Die."  The Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad is on the list.  For schedule information for the train, click here.  For Scenic Railroad tickets, click here.  For a list of special events on the train, click here.

And now, the story.  Here's Amy:

I'm walking down the boardwalk, toward an official-looking gentleman in a crisp blue jacket and blue cap.  Behind him hums the silver rail cars of the Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad.

Eddings: Hello.

Man: Well, hi!

Eddings: How are you?

Man: I’m good!  How are you?

Eddings: I’m Amy Eddings and I’m from WCPN and I’m doing a series on 100 things to do in Cleveland before you  die?

Man: And we’re number one, right?

Eddings:  I forget what number you are, but you’re in there.

I’m in Independence at the Rockside Station of the Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad.  It’s No. 88 in Nikki Delamotte’s book.  I’ve been using her “100 Things” list as a guide to getting reacquainted with my native city.  Once conductor Vern Davis lets me board, I’ll be taking a three-hour trip from Independence to Akron and back.

Davis, to another volunteer:  Would you take, would you take her, this lady here…

Eddings: Hi!

Davis: ….to the café car?

The pace is a leisurely 20 miles per hour alongside the Cuyahoga River and through the woods and fields of the Cuyahoga Valley National Park.

Eddings: We’re moving!

Eddings, to Delamotte:  Nikki, why did you pick the railroad?

Nikki Delamotte: Well the railroad’s absolutely one of those kind of iconic Cleveland places where you can take your whole family, but it’s also a great -- It can be a date night out, it can be a friends night out as well.  A little outdoors, a little friends and family, it’s a perfect combination.

Date night?  Friends night out?  On a 1960s era commuter train?  The Scenic Railroad encourages such outings, with wine and beer-themed “Tastings on the Train,” murder mystery trips, and other special events.  On my trip, a group of landscape architects had chartered the lounge car, the Saint Lucie Sound, for an afternoon of snacks, drinks and “team building.” 

Eddings, to the group: So how much fun are you having?

Group:  WHOOOOOO!

Woman, laughing: Sorry, we’ve been team building for a while now.

The Scenic Railroad saw a record high of 214,000 passengers last year.  Its new president and CEO, Joe Mazur, wants to build on that success.  Mazur most recently led the International Soap Box Derby for six years, and helped boost participation rates there.  He says the key is to create special programs to attract a wider audience.

Mazur: Part of the capital campaign that we will eventually launch eventually will include an executive dining experience.  So the challenge would be to continue to increase the revenue so we can continue to increase the experience.  

The Scenic Railroad may run through the Cuyahoga Valley National Park, but it’s separate from it.  It’s a nonprofit 501(c)3 with a $5 million budget, built primarily through ticket sales for the weekend round trip sightseeing journey and through the Polar Express, a Christmas-themed holiday ride that is so popular, tickets go on sale in August.  Dan Cunningham plays Santa Claus.. 

Dan Cunningham: There are over 2,000 volunteers that are  involved in this operation. And probably at least 1,200 of those get involved very heavily  in Polar Express.   It’s a wonderful opportunity for kids to be able to experience that manage, and there’s guys like me who just love creating that magic.  

Cunningham liked riding the rails so much, he now volunteers during the summer season.  Crew members like to tell passengers about the history of the area, and the Ohio & Erie Canal nearby. Shelya Latham of Alabama, and her friend Donna Scissom of Indiana, soaked it all in. 

Shelya Latham: Well I’ve just learned that here was a lot of industry here and everybody  was making a living and they weren’t concerned about the environment.  And then in 1969, when there was a spark that hit the river and then the river caught on fire, that got people’s attention. 

Donna Scissom: I had no idea that the canal ran through here, that the park was based on that, and we were talking how nice it would be to ride the bicycles, on the tow path?  But that won’t be this trip.

 This trip, one of thirty that Shelya Latham and Donna Scissom and their husbands have made to national parks, is about seeing the Cuyahoga Valley from the vantage point of a slow train through the forest.

Eddings, to Donna Scissom: What’s your favorite so far, your favorite national park?

Scissom: The one we’re in.  (There’s laughter.)  So whichever one we’re in, that’s our favorite at the time. 

Shelya Latham:  Because they are all so different.  The history is so different with every piece of the country that we’re in.  And  we’re amazed at people who live close that never go visit, that don’t take the time to visit and don’t know the history of their area.

The Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad, on the list of 100 Things to Do In Cleveland Before You Die.  For schedule information, click here.  For tickets, click here. 

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