Riding the Halloween Rails

Harris Park in the hamlet of Cayuga - the train's destination - hosted food, a pumpkin bean bag toss and a corn maze.

Witches and goblins and ghosts, oh my,” I mumbled, as I gingerly eased my car into the parking lot. Like Judy Garland’s Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, I had landed in an enchanted location, a spot filled with odd characters and little people. But this wasn’t the Emerald City – it was Waterloo – and I was wearing tennis shoes, not ruby slippers.  I had come to take what I hoped would be a charming journey. I had come to ride the Halloween Pumpkin Express.

Though it can be gray and chilly in late October, this day, the temperature was mild, and the sun was set against a brilliant, denim blue sky. Eddie Maines, the man responsible for getting us safely to Cayuga and back, looked like every kid’s fantasy of a train engineer. Perched high above the ground, in the diesel locomotive’s cab, he leaned out a window and surveyed the line of eager passengers from behind his fashionable silver lenses. It was a colorful crowd.

All Aboard

Frankenstein was popular, and came in all sizes. Fairy princesses were also a favorite, mostly of the sparkly pink kind … with wands. I watched a grown Robin Hood, sporting green tights and a leather doublet, escort a Maid Marian dressed in the height of medieval fashion – a purple satin gown with a matching, pointed cap. Another gentleman held a dozing, toddler-sized, cuddly skunk on his shoulder. And of course, no respectable train bedecked for Halloween would be complete without a resident witch to greet all riders as they climbed aboard. Ellen Hughes filled the bill with panache thanks to her long and lovely purple locks.

Finger Lakes Railway Corporation has been operating special excursion trains along their rail lines since 2000. There are fall foliage tours and holiday Santa specials in addition to the Halloween jaunts. Community groups sponsor trips as a fundraising event. My outing, for example, was arranged by the Waterloo Rotary Club with assistance from Waterloo High School’s Interact Club. Volunteers from the two organizations ran a concession area on the train, and staffed the games, food tent and spooky maze at Harris Park, our afternoon’s destination. It’s a big undertaking, but everyone was smiling.

Mischief and Magic

I settled into a comfy, red leather seat next to a window for the 45-minute ride. Three boys ranging from about seven to ten years old were directly in front of me. Though their costumes were all different, the common thread was a character with weaponry – of the plastic kind. A faux scythe was wielded with particular zeal. They were armed, excited and ready for adventure.

As we got underway, the young comic book heroes shrieked and laughed and pointed out the window – when they weren’t trash-talking to each other about how they intended to annihilate their friends and enemies. Shouts of, “This is so cool,” and “Hey, we’re going backwards,” reverberated through the car. Soon, the chatter turned to identification of various landmarks. There was great interest in how known buildings and landscapes looked altered when viewed from a train car.
It’s true. Familiar scenery took on a changed appearance. Perhaps it’s the larger windows or slower pace or traveling behind structures and through wooded areas not normally traversed by car or on foot that makes rail journeys so enchanting. Or it could be riding in a conveyance that creaks and whistles and clangs and sways that gives train travel such distinctive appeal.

Whatever it is, the magic was with us as we chugged through the villages, passed the fields, meadows and rolling hills of the countryside, then skirted the marshes of Montezuma Preserve and finally traversed Cayuga Lake at the Seneca Mud Lock. When the engine lumbered on to the trestle crossing, a young voice gleefully screeched, “We’re going to die.”

Spooky Fun

Rolling over the water was the most thrilling and nerve-wracking segment of the trip. But within minutes of reaching the lake’s east shore, we stopped at Harris Park in the hamlet of Cayuga. On a grassy expanse next to the lakeshore, Rotary volunteers were happily selling hot dogs and hamburgers, handing out free cider and donuts, and encouraging youngsters to toss bean bags through a large pumpkin face.

Spying the haunted corn maze, I was reminded of the 19th century verse by Emily Dickinson:

One need not be a chamber to be haunted;
One need not be a house;
The brain has corridors surpassing
Material place.

If ever a celebration traded on our unique ability to scare ourselves silly through nothing more than folktales and imagination, it’s Halloween; and surely that’s what the maze creators counted on as they strung cotton cobwebs and rubber spiders. Despite the mad scientist pouring potions, the gruesome ghost and the skeleton in a coffin reaching out his bony hand to terrify small children, this maze of horrors elicited more laughter than fear.

Indeed, the “terror” of this scary maze on the park green was a far cry from the Celtic rite called Samhain, the distant origin of our modern Halloween. That ancient festival, which marked the beginning of a new year, included fearsome parades by torchlight to lure evil spirits out of the villages and blood sacrifices to appease the “Lord of the Dead.” Ugh.

Frankly, I think the members of the Auburn/Elbridge Serendipitous Ladies of Laughter Red Hat Society had the right idea about ritual. This was the second annual Halloween Pumpkin Express outing for the women. After a visit to the food tent for hot dogs and hamburgers, they claimed a picnic table, and with great dignity, opened a couple bottles of wine. Some ladies demurred and stuck with cider or soda, but every delicate hand raised a paper cup toast and sipped to the health of the Great Pumpkin spirit. Now that’s a classy trick-or-treat feast.

Return Ride

An hour later, the train, filled with a much quieter group, clattered once more across the lake, back to where we started. The sun had lowered, and hung just above the hills at the proper angle to cast a rosy, autumnal radiance in all directions. A soft, golden luminosity suffused the landscape, but the glow grew more muted and the scenery more ephemeral with each passing mile. By the time we pulled into Waterloo, a fair number of the smallest passengers had dozed off, lulled by the rocking motion and dimming light.

As I made my way to the exit, a small Count Dracula was ahead of me, his drowsy head rested on his father’s shoulder. I asked the Count’s mother where they were from. “Lansing,” she replied. “We’re from Lansing. We heard how much fun this was, so we decided to come this year and give it a try.” At that moment, the Count roused himself and looked at his mom. “That was great,” he mumbled. “Can we do it again next year?”

When I stepped off the train, a house directly across the narrow street caught my attention. Its porch dripped with gauzy netting, and the front yard was transformed into a creepy cemetery. Could there be a more perfect, eerie sight to greet passengers exiting the Halloween Pumpkin Express, I wondered. Then, I walked over and stood at the edge of the artificial burial ground to watch the red-hatted matrons, green-faced monsters, pajamaed ninjas and tutued ballerinas fade into the gathering dusk.


by Jan Bridgeford Smith