Outside the hustle and bustle of today’s commerce centers is a town redefining itself through art, history and tourism. Historic Nelsonville, once the brick and coal center of Ohio, offers families and couples great opportunities to get away from it all without being all that far away. This quaint, quiet town is located about an hour southeast of Columbus (and less than a half hour above Ohio University’s home town of Athens). And the famous Hocking Hills are just a short drive away as well. So what to do in Nelsonville?
Among the many shops along the Public Square, which includes the busy, entertaining and original Stuart’s Opera House, and the famous Rocky brand boot outlet store, Nelsonville also has been the home to one of Ohio’s top tourist railroads for over forty years. The Hocking Valley Scenic Railway has been operated as a non-profit 501c3, all-volunteer organization since 1972, and has been a family-favorite along the way. In fact, it has become a destination in itself. “It has gone from being just a place for train enthusiasts to something much more,” says Chris Burchett, himself among the volunteers for over fifteen years, ten of those as a locomotive engineer. “Families have come to love the railroad as a great place to reconnect and enjoy the history of the area from a unique perspective. The railroad itself operates on a line dating back to the 1860s, the original railroad having a major in building Nelsonville and indeed the nation.”
So, what about this train and the area? Why should one make the trip to Nelsonville and the Hocking Valley Scenic Railway? Quite simply, it’s something far different than the norm you’re likely accustomed. During the summer months, the railroad operates regular round trip weekend train rides, along with one of its most popular events, Ohio’s Friendliest Train Robbery. Now an annual event, the railroad typically operates two of these per year. But as the temperatures begin to cool and the leaves turn from a lush green to a brilliant display of reds, oranges and yellows, the Hocking Valley Scenic offers Fall Foliage tours via an expanded schedule throughout October. “Hands down our most popular trains overall, October is a beautiful time to see the hills and experience the history of the area,” Burchett said.
October brings one of the busiest times of the year to Nelsonville and Southeast Ohio. And the railroad steps up by offering trains not just on the weekends at Noon and 2:30 p.m. in October, but also on Thursdays and Fridays at 1:00 p.m. between October 2nd and October 24th. These trips feature full narration on-board, describing the area history, sites along the way, and the history of the train itself. You also have many options available to you as far as seating, but be warned! Since this is a popular time of the year, you’ll want to get there early, no matter what train you choose, as seating is on a first-come, first-served basis. Seating options include one air-conditioned coach, two open-air cars, and enclosed (but not air conditioned) coaches. Toward the end of the train ride, there is a stop at a quaint recreated town called Robbins Crossing. This village is a recreation of a typical 1840s-era Ohio pioneer village, which showcases candle-making, a working blacksmith shop, a general store, a one-room school, and a lot more in original log cabins. And the great part is how affordable the entire trip is for about an average two-hour train ride! Tickets—available by phone, online, or at the train depot—range between $10 and $17. Not a bad deal for authentic equipment and real history. Try that at any theme park!
But not to be outdone, the volunteers take most of November off to get the train and depot ready for the arrival of Santa Claus. These are just about as equal in popularity to the October trains, so be prepared for a crowd if you plan to make the trip to “North Pole Nelsonville.” While Santa’s reindeer are stabled elsewhere, Santa gets aboard the train and walks through from end to end, visiting with each and every child along the way! Depending on if one of the elves made the trip from the North Pole with St. Nick or Mrs. Claus herself (sometimes she too makes the trip), one or the other will be passing out a special candy cane treat after Santa’s visit. Of course, the coaches are heated throughout–one of them with an old coal stove–and the festive mood of Christmas is evident enough, as the coaches are decorated for the season. And old musical favorites of the holiday season, from Bing Crosby to the Chipmunks, are playing during the whole ride over the train’s PA system. There’s no historical narration with these trains and no stop at Robbins Crossing. It’s just a great ride with Santa Claus and the kids or grandkids that takes about two hours to complete. And if you’re wondering, it is indeed round trip. They won’t leave you behind in the cold, middle of nowhere. They recommend buying tickets in advance since these trains can sell out easily. And it’s no wonder! These rides with Santa have been around almost as long as the scenic railroad itself. “We have had the kids that grew up in the 1970s return later with their own kids, some only to return later already with the grandkids! It has truly become a regular tradition for many families,” remarked Burchett. These Santa Trains operate weekends in December at 11:00 a.m. and 2:00 p.m., plus some evening versions.
If that isn’t enough, there is also a special train that operates on New Year’s Eve, departing the Nelsonville depot at 10:30 p.m. for an approximately two-hour train ride. At midnight, fireworks are set off to help ring in the new year, and during the ride–depending on your seating selection–you are served with pizza and soda pop or wine and cheese. Adults 21 and older are only permitted in the Wine & Cheese section, so bear that in mind if you want to make this a family event. Alcohol is not served in the Pizza & Pop section and the kids must be with the parents, so plan accordingly! Tickets for this event are more than most of the trains, but still considerably affordable for such a unique event. This one is a reservation-only train and you must make your reservation.
This is a destination you do not want to miss this year! And who doesn’t remember watching the trains and wishing you could take a ride? Now’s your chance and it’s such a great way to spend the day together. Plus the area features not only Nelsonville and its rich history, but the Hocking Hills parks are just up the road, outside of nearby Logan.
To get your tickets or look up more information, which we highly recommend you do before making the trip, the Hocking Valley Scenic Railway maintains an informative Web site at www.hockingvalleytrain.org. And the friendly staff for their toll-free number is very helpful as well. Also bear in mind that the coaches are not handicap accessible, as it is vintage equipment, but there is a wheelchair lift available at the Nelsonville depot. If you’re taking one of the trains that include a Robbins Crossing visit, there is no lift available there at this time. The only restrooms available are located inside the depot. There are no facilities on the train and if Robbins Crossing is part of the ride, there are porta-potties located there. Food and drinks are not offered by the railroad, but they encourage you to bring your own food and non-alcoholic drinks aboard. If you’re traveling with pets, they advise that pets are not permitted on the train unless it is a certified assistance animal. Parking is free in any of the three lots around the depot, which is located next to the famous Rocky Boots Outdoor Gear Store along Business Route 33 (Canal Street).
Check out the Hocking Valley Scenic Railway at www.hockingvalleytrain.org , on Facebook at www.facebook.com/ hvsry, Twitter at @hvscenicrailway, or give them a call toll-free at 800-967-7834.
33 W. Canal Street, Nelsonville, Ohio 45764 (Business U.S. Route 33)–about one hour southeast of Columbus!
Weekends through October. Santa Trains operate weekends from Thanksgiving through December 21.