Great outdoor activities around South Penn Rail Road Philadelphia

The South Penn Railroad is often called the railroad that never was. The idea was to build a railway from Philadelphia on the east coast to the industrial city of Pittsburgh. The proposed route of the railway was to be through some of the most difficult mountain terrain on the east coast. The railway turned out to be a financial bust. However some of the proposed route has been retain and converted into tourist trails.

I travelled through the area on a holiday with my personal trainer wife. Being married to a personal trainer can be a bit tiresome at times, we can never go on a holiday without my wife wanting to do some form of exercise. So we went to the South Penn Railroad area, as the tourist guides said there was a good combination of outdoor activities, scenery and accommodation.

There are several mountain bike tour companies operating in the area. We hired the bikes, helmets and all the other gear for a day’s riding; all the equipment was newish and in excellent condition. The tour used a combined of downhill bike trails with a train ride to the top of the mountain. There are other rides that follow the original route of the railway, the tracks have been removed. The route was planned for a railway and so the gradient is quite mild for those who are not gung-ho bike riders. There was even some snow in the area, which made the scenery even more spectacular.

We also took the opportunity to hike along a section to the proposed route that proved too difficult to complete. There were many interesting construction sites with bridges half built and tunnels half dug. We camped out overnight and sleep in a partially completed tunnel, the tunnel only went back about four to five meters, but it was cosy especially with a couple of overnight snow showers. We went in winter and so there was no-one else around and we had the camp site to ourselves, however we were told that the campsite could get a little crowed in summer.

There are also other outdoor activities, such as horse riding and rock climbing. The accommodation in the area is a little upmarket, which suited us, however the budget traveller might need to look a little harder for economically priced accommodation.      


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  • Written by Claire Furthers

Railroads as Tentacles of Gambling

It is an undisputed truth that the railroads brought both good and bad to American cities and towns; just as there is good and bad in all forms of progress. The spread of wealth, industry and jobs was a good thing for many, but then the attraction to big cities by nefarious and criminal elements has produced vice in these places. The railroads also spread the tentacles of gambling across the land and especially into the Wild West. Relatively unpoliced, these frontier towns were dens of inequity with prostitution combined with the sale of alcohol and gambling creating an industry of adult entertainment firmly entrenched. It made some very rich and many more others mighty poor. Bookies would even offer odds on what time the trains would arrive.

More recently, casinos on American Indian reservations have seen billions of dollars generated by these gaming operations, owned and operated by American Indians. The industry grew out of a taxation victory by an Indian couple, in the US Supreme Court in the nineteen seventies, over property taxes imposed by the Minnesota State Government. The court found that the states had no right to impose taxation or regulate Indian activities on Indian reservations. This led to the construction of high stakes bingo halls by the Seminole Tribe of Florida and despite the efforts of County police and officials to close the operation down; the tribe was successful in federal court. In 2011 two hundred and forty Native American tribes were running four hundred and sixty gaming operations worth some twenty seven billion dollars annually.

There are conflicting reports on whether this mega gambling Native American industry (Indian casinos generate more income than Las Vegas and Atlantic City casinos combined) is providing tribal Indians on reservations with improved standards of living or not. There are still many Indians living in trailer homes and cramped apartments in many tribal areas. It may not be paying off big time for all Indians but the industry is a major employer of Native Americans. There are huge facilities with hundreds of slot machines and it is reported that Indians receive $4 out of every $10 waged by Americans at these gaming facilities.

Gambling is seen by many to be a wicked God forsaken industry, a scourge of the nation which needs to be controlled and, even, curtailed. Others have a more laissez faire attitude to its existence and see it as a part of every grown up culture. The trains bring in punters to the casinos and the slot machines ring out with their distinctive song. Money makes the world go around, so they say.


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  • Written by Claire Furthers

Fortune Tellers in the Wild West

Frontier towns in the Wild West were magnets for itinerant travellers seeking their fortune. Some were prostitutes, some were gold prospectors, some were fortune hunters, and there were, even, fortune tellers making their way to these portals of opportunity. People were on the make, taking risks with their investments and hoping that the very newness of these places would allow them to get a foot hold up the ladder to wealth and success. Some succeeded, but the majority failed, and either returned from whence they had come, or stayed, and made the best of a bad lot. You can imagine that with the wheel of fortune spinning so loudly in every one’s ears that the teller of fortunes would find a prominent niche in the market.

Superstition was alive and well in the old days and many would travel by rail from town to town earning quite a good itinerant living – they were there next to the snake-oil salesmen plying their trade and often finding a few ways to earn an extra dollar or two after dark. By dint of the cards, a crystal bowl, reading palms and all the other modes of prophesy, these men and women would curry favour with the locals and those passing through building relationships with promises of second sight and a sixth sense. Hope would be so entrenched in the minds and hearts of these folk, taking their chances in the Wild West, that a few choice words about bright prospects in the near future could earn the teller a shekel or two.

Casting a horoscope for a dreamer, psychic readings and seeing visions for important personages, all in a day when there were not the entertaining distractions of television or radio, would have been a popular past time. Drinking in the saloon and conversations might turn to the palmist promising a glimpse of your future. Wandering gypsies and Chinese fortune tellers were also traversing these towns. Desire for fortune was so strong that the gullible were thick on the ground. Optimistic messages from the beyond would be an ally to those risking life and limb in the pursuit of untold wealth. Fortune tellers in the Wild West had a captive market who ate up the lies and fanciful predictions.

The thing about the wheel of fortune, as it turns, some are raised up and others are cast down, but it just keeps turning just the same. Fate and destiny are determined by the spin of the wheel and whose hand is upon this spoked circle?


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  • Written by Claire Furthers

Future Train System Communications

The digital age is making future train system communications very exciting and promising of further cost savings within the industry as a whole. Rail experts from around the globe are anticipating significant technological progressions in the railroad communications system niche. Things like full automatic operations, which includes automatic coupling and uncoupling. Another is shape video recognition, train to train communications, and solving spectrum issues within radio based systems. One CBTC expert commented that, “greater communication between trains and control centres will reduce the need for maintenance.” Communication can prevent problems magnifying and solve potential problems before they arise; CBTC is the future in rail system communications.

These systems will see the demise of on-board train operators, which obviously will substantially reduce the costs of running trains per se. Automation is the future of the railroad industry, driving trains are now all about digital communication systems. For freight trains especially this new level of automation will save money and speed up the whole network. Faster trains wasting less time and getting to their destinations on time means rail becomes even more attractive to all industries looking for transport solutions.

Even in, passenger rail the outlook for rapid mass transit by train is very bright, and that is not dependent on the implementation of high-speed rail. Conventional lines can deliver far better outcomes through electronic journey planning and better train system communications. Rail is being seen, once again, in certain markets, as competition for air travel. It is an exciting time to be working in the industry, as technology is reinvigorating the opportunities for rail in the tourism market. Less people and more automation reduces fares and improves transit efficiency; the trains of the future are like elevators, quick and quiet, and very reliable.

Intranet technology advancements have made these communication systems a new realm of exciting possibilities. Trains communicating with trains and control centres, and all linked up to systems charting journey planning and the most efficient routing for the network. Digital operating systems remove human error from the equation and provide predictable outcomes; meaning safer and faster rail travel. The railroad business has undergone so much evolution since its inception in the US in the nineteenth century. There have been highs, lows and the highs may be coming back with this technologically driven innovation to the whole rail system. Trains will be sleek, new and ever more present in our twenty first century landscape.


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  • Written by Claire Furthers

Confessions of a 19th Century Train Driver

“She’ll be coming ‘round the mountain when she comes, she’ll be coming ‘round the mountain when she comes”, well, this song, the modern version of it anyway, is about a train. You can imagine the excitement building in small towns and hamlets, as trains full of new things and people made their way around the mountain to your home. The 19th century train driver was an important personage with a lot of responsibility and status to go with it. It was his train coming around that mountain, bearing goods and passengers, which, just might, positively impact that town.

Train drivers (engineers in American parlance) were responsible for checking the rail worthiness of all the carriages and the mechanical operation of the train. The train engineer had his brakeman and conductor to assist him on the journey, as they made their way ‘round that mountain. Occasionally, some drivers would stop their trains to pick up contraband and be paid by smugglers and black market operators. Much like this kind of stuff continues to this day, with transnational bus drivers and twenty first century train drivers. Although GPS tracking is now making unscheduled stops far more dangerous for nefarious drivers of all modes of transportation.

What about the land equivalent for the sailor with a girl in every port? The confessions of the 19th century train driver did include the odd interlude with a lady of the night. A vacant carriage and with the support of the assistant driver that rolling stock could really rock ‘n roll. Trains are particularly suited to rhythmic activities and the chug chug of those grinding wheels just keep on and on. Lots of girls love a uniform with shiny buttons and the attentions of an important man. “She’ll be coming ‘round the mountain when she comes”, you know the rest of the song.

Train engineers in the nineteenth century also faced the dangers of bandits and train robbers, as they often carried the wages and valuables of companies across the land. These trains were the life blood of commerce and industry all over America, distributing the wealth. Criminal gangs would target these gold laden trains, as they made their steady way from east to west and north to south. The engine driver and his underlings would need to be ever vigilant, armed and on the lookout for signs of impending danger. It was a time of life and death in the frontier towns.


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  • Written by Claire Furthers

The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas

The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas started out life as a Broadway Musical in the late nineteen seventies and was a smash hit with the American public. It was translated into a film starring Dolly Parton, as the Madame of the Chicken Ranch, the town’s local brothel. Burt Reynolds, another American big time movie star of the era played the town’s sheriff, who has an understanding and a part time relationship with Dolly’s character. Nineteen eighty two was the year that the film was released and it was the highest grossing musical film of the decade.

The story could be considered a light hearted look at American morals in the public realm in the modern era. The Chicken Ranch is a long running institution within the fictional Texan town and the sheriff turns a blind eye to its activities; and he and Dolly’s character are lovers on the side. A celebrity television personality decides to do an expose on the town and reveals to a large audience the existence of the Chicken Ranch. The brothel is the place where the winning Texas college football team is traditionally brought to celebrate its victory. The media attention creates a wave of public disapproval and negativity towards the town.

Burt Reynolds’s character, the sheriff, convinces Miss Mona (Dolly Parton) to close the brothel’s doors until the bad publicity blows over. She agrees but secretly allows the winning football team to have their traditional whoring celebration, but the TV star and cameras ambush them and film the goings on. Ed Earl (Burt Reynolds) assaults Melvin P. Thorpe (Dom DeLouise) the TV personality and quarrels with Miss Mona, calling her a whore. The Governor of Texas is called upon to make a decision regarding outback brothels, but he is portrayed as too weak to make a decision without the support of voter’s polling on the situation.

The movie ends with the director having it both ways, as the reconciled lovers come together and Ed proposes marriage, but Miss Mona turns him down because she knows he wants to run for state legislature; her prostitution background would hurt his chances. In a voice over at the conclusion of the film, the audience is told that Ed was successful in his political bid and that the couple married happily; a truly American fairy story.







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  • Written by Claire Furthers

Best Rail Trips on Planet Earth: Marketing the Railroad Adventure

Some people get excited when they hop aboard a blowing billy, a real choo choo train, and embark upon a journey by rail. Whether it be the grind and roll of those metallic wheels on a track, or the cultural association of train travel down through modern history, there is a frission in the air for these train buffs. Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie comes quickly to mind and I also think of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina departing tear stained by train in Russia. The heaving metallic beast, smoke emerging from its chimney, contrasting the white snow of a Moscow winter; somehow makes train travel romantic.

What are some of the best rail trips on planet earth: marketing the rail road adventure? The Orient Express sadly ceased to operate in two thousand and nine; best to get the bad news out of the way early I thought. Product development in this niche tourism market has expanded rapidly and some of the offerings are incredible. The Bergen Line in Norway is so breath taking, passing glaciers, fjords and peaks from Oslo to Bergen, that the train employs five different breaking systems. Alternatively, the Bernina Express is the slowest scary train ride you will ever take, crossing over one hundred and ninety six bridges over chasms and plunging down mountains, and boring through fifty five tunnels, and climbs two thousand two hundred and fifty three metres over the Albula Pass to St Moritz.

In Australia, the Ghan, named after the Afghan camel trains which used to transports goods and messages between Adelaide and Darwin, travels one thousand eight hundred and fifty two miles through the middle of this vast continent. In South America, in Peru, the Cuzco to Manchu Picchu train journeys fifty miles through spectacular scenery through the Andes Mountains. In the US the Coast Starlight, a double decker train, goes from Seattle to Los Angeles, and it is a grand rail experience with fine dining amid breath taking views of this dramatic scenery.

In India, the Siliguri to Darjeeling steam train chugs its way with antique charm up to the hill station and offers amazing views of the Himalayas and teak forests and gardens. One, generally, does not think of parts of Britain being wild, but Glasgow to Maillaig in Scotland by train will change your mind. The Rannoch moor is so inhospitable that no road crosses it, and there are castle ruins, and mountains and Loch Lomond; dramatic vistas abound.


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  • Written by Claire Furthers

The Railroad as a Lifeline to Rural Communities

When the railroad went through a township it put it on the map, literally, and it meant money and jobs. Lines of transports can offer trade, passengers and employment for locals. In the past, the railway was a lifeline to rural communities. Farmers could shift their produce by train and cattle ranchers could get their animals to market. The railroad was the first land based cost effective transportation system; it was reasonably fast and very reliable. The railways offered means of migration for Americans to economically move from one region to another, one town to another.

Freight trains in America are still a big part of the transport equation, competing with trucks for the haulage dollar. The railroad as a lifeline to rural communities is still a true statement, even today, in the twenty first century. There is talk about very fast trains for high speed travel but these are yet to win community approval through proper environmental channels. The transnational railroads remain the main routes across the country carrying goods and raw materials to their markets.

What are their lives like in Middle America, in these rural communities linked up by the networks of railroads? There are perceptions of some children in rural communities as having learning difficulties due to environmental factors. What are these environmental issues and are they connected to the rail lines criss crossing the country? Any talk of high speed trains has been constantly blocked by reports of high noise/vibration pollution damaging residents who live near or on these tracks. In European nations like Sweden their high speed trains are denied access to the lines during the hours of the night when nearby residents are sleeping.

People or progress? It has been an ongoing debate for decades now, as local communities and environmental groups stand up for their rights against the multinational corporations who want to invest in infrastructure and profit from it. Is the modern railroad going to be a lifeline or a scar in the lives and lands of rural America? Reports of rolling bombs carrying crude oil derailing and devastating towns in North America are reaching the world, as oil filled rail tankers crash and the ensuing explosions kill dozens of local residents. There are two sides to the rail debate and what was once a wholly positive story now has some dark aspects to it. There are no easy solutions to the dilemma these country folk now face; economics or safety, or can a combination of both be found?

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  • Written by Claire Furthers

Old Timers: Frontier Myth, Archetype or Cliché?

In nearly every American western movie we have a character who is an ‘old timer’, the grizzled, grey whiskered old man who embodies what this harsh environment can do to a human being. Our old timer may be a drunk, awash with whiskey, or he may be the wise old man, the survivor who has endured and can offer advice to the movie’s protagonist. How true is this representation of the elderly in the Wild West?

Old timers: frontier myth, archetype or cliché? Are the portrayals of old timers in American western movies dignified portrayals or are they ageist? In a land offering few creature comforts, very few women but whores, and men who lacked the teachers, role models and education when it came to diet and health, it is highly likely that these people aged comparatively quickly and in general did not live into great old age. These are generalisations of course and there are records of pioneers who did live to great old age, but the majority of men lived hard and short lives. Even today, unmarried men live statistically shorter lives than their married brothers do; the influence of a nurturing woman is there to be seen.

Movies are visual representations of stories and the archetypal narratives often contain an aged character. Ernest Hemmingway wrote many stories with old men at the centre of the plot. Shakespeare famously has King Lear as the central character in the eponymously titled play. Prospero is another old man, Falstaff is getting on, as is Sir Toby, John of Gaunt in Richard II is an old man, and many others. The Christian Bible, which is far more relevant to the American psyche is chock full of old men, especially the Old Testament. Old means wise in the Bible and living for nine hundred and sixty nine years, as Methuselah did, puts many of the old timers in westerns well into the shade.

There wasn’t any superannuation in the Wild West only gold panning, cattle rustling, cowboying, psychologists and the like; and none of these offered lengthy career prospects, let alone any pension of any sort. Life was lived hard and if a bullet didn’t kill you, disease and or an accident would. Our comfy homes and occupations today are at a far remove from the realities of the frontier towns of yesteryear; which is why we mythologise these characters who may have survived the vicissitudes of a life full of varmints and vermin with just their Colt 44 by their side.


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  • Written by Claire Furthers

The Impact of Rail on the American Environment

Most environmental agencies see rail as a preferred means of transportation when compared to road. The transportation of freight in America is primarily done by both trucks and trains, and environmentalists, generally, see rail as a lower air polluter and a positive contributor to reducing traffic from highways and cities. Passenger rail is likewise seen as a smart way to move large numbers of people around energy efficiently. Rail in America has a great history and was one of the key elements in the industrial expansion of the nation during the nineteenth century.

The railway moguls of the nineteenth century made huge amounts of money and contributed to high employment levels in the US, with rail being the largest employer outside of the agriculture industry. Names like Vanderbilt and JP Morgan became well known around the country as giants of American industry and wealth. The American rail business employed over two million people at one point early in the twentieth century. This number had fallen to two hundred thousand by the twenty first century due to the computerisation of rail throughout the country.

High speed rail as an idea has become popular in the US, but not as a reality, as in many other countries around the globe. There has been a strong backlash against these trains based on the noise and vibration pollution they produce. In America the EPA has developed noise/vibration measures to limit the unrestrained expansion of high speed rail into affected high density residential areas. In some European countries high speed trains can only run during daylight hours and not in the hours when most people would be sleeping.

Trains, which are carrying large amounts of crude oil as freight, and then crashing, have become hot topics with environmental groups recently in the US. Eco-groups on social media are calling these trains rolling bombs and are calling for them to be banned and/or much tighter controls placed on their movements. The amount of oil freight on rail has increased substantially in the last six years and so the dangers posed have also increased. A tanker freight train carries much more oil than a road tanker and when it derails it can damage huge areas; half a town in one case in Canada in 2013.

Rail has waned over the last century as a means of long distance passenger transportation, being replaced by aeroplanes. It is still seen as an energy efficient means of short distance transport in cities and it can reduce gridlock on the roads. The high speed train was seen as a new answer to long distance passenger travel but noise/vibration pollution concerns in residential areas have been vociferously raised to block expansion. The movement of freight on rail is seen as a preferred method by environmental agencies, but with potentially dangerous substances like crude oil being involved much greater safety precautions must be strenuously enforced on the industry.

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  • Written by Claire Furthers