The steam locomotive era comes alive briefly beside a forlorn Bucks County depot.
As usual, my pal Mark Bogdon got there first and texted me from Rushland’s abandoned passenger depot built in 1883. “Looks like the Old West,” he declared. “Bullet holes in window!” He attached a photo to prove it. Obviously the Hole-In-the-Wall Gang’s doing.
For me, it was 11:34 a.m. as I drove Swamp Road snaking west from Newtown. Old No. 40, a Baldwin steam locomotive built in Philadelphia in 1925, was expected to chug through Rushland at 12:10 p.m. So I put pedal to the metal en route to the rock quarry district of Wrightstown where the depot exists. For most motorists, Rushland is defined by a right-angle turn in the highway as it crosses tracks of the New Hope & Ivyland Railroad in front of the Davis Feed Mill. You can’t miss the depot hugging the tracks at the turn. The building shows its age, much neglected, boarded up and deteriorating. Still, a sign announcing “Rushland” remains near the roofline, perhaps standing vigil for some long-ago ghost train.
Retired Southampton librarian Karena Green contacted me earlier in the week after learning No. 40 would come out of a maintenance furlough for a run from New Hope to North Wales in Montgomery County to be part of that town’s 150th anniversary celebration. For tiny Rushland, a once bustling railroad stop in the 1800s, a steam locomotive puffing down the tracks would be quite a curiosity. “I’m told the engine hasn’t passed through Rushland for years, so it is a pretty cool thing,” Karena told me. “I think you would find an interesting story in our little town.” She not only lives in Rushland but runs Inklings, a curiosity shop near the depot which features books, records, art, gifts and memorabilia. A friendly orange “shop cat” can be found asleep most days inside on a comfortable wingback chair.
The village outside once was known as Sackett, named for a man who in 1730 built an important grist mill, general store and blacksmith shop where farmers once forded Neshaminy Creek from Warwick. In 1883, the feds opened a post office in Sackett called “Rush Valley”, defining the wider area it would serve. That same year the Reading Railroad built a 13-mile spur line from the main line in Warminster through Rush Valley to New Hope. Reading leased the line to the Northeast Pennsylvania Railroad which built a depot in Sackett, naming it “Rushland”. From that point on, Sackett had a new name. In years to come a dozen beautiful Victorian homes graced the main street and a Ford dealership opened near the depot. Life was good. By the latter 20th century however, the dealership closed as did the railroad, supplanted by modern highways and heavy hauler trucks. In 1966, the railroad was reborn as the New Hope & Ivyland tourist railroad.
The news in Rushland these days concerns Josh Brems, mechanical maintenance supervisor for the railroad. He’s planning to rehab the old depot. “I grew up in Buckingham. So I have a good feeling for the area,” he told me. “The depot in Rushland is sound inside. All that is needed is a new roof and some paint to make it presentable. The railroad is aboard for what I want to do. Perhaps the building could serve some community interest after we fix it up. Maybe a museum.
Back on Swamp Road, I caught up to magnificently restored No. 40 idling in the woods a quarter-mile from the depot. Waiting for me? The real reason soon became apparent. A motorist had struck the automated crossing gate in Rushland, knocking it to a dangerous tilt. Work was underway to remove it so the locomotive could pass through. I relaxed, parked the car and rendezvoused with Mark, Karena, her daughter Meadow of Warwick and grandson Julian, 6. They were on the grass beside the depot staring down the line to the locomotive’s distant white light. Julian suddenly leaped into the air like a marionette on invisible strings. “It’s coming! It’s coming!” The locomotive made its move under a towering column of coal black smoke. It came on slowly, steam-powered driving gears turning massive steel wheels. The engineer leaned out the open air cab, steading his gaze at the now gate-less crossing while yanking a pull cord to unleash a blast from No. 40’s steam whistle. He also engaged the locomotive’s brass bell, sending out a steady clang to warn motorists to beware.
As a garden railroader, Mark was ear-to-ear smiles. So were the rest of us. Following behind the steam locomotive was a modern diesel version pulling six vintage passenger coaches destined for passengers during the North Wales celebration. For us in Rushland, it was an oh-so-brief flashback to forgotten times. A joy for grandparents who remember the steam railroad era and magic for kids like Julian.
Sources include “Place Names in Bucks County Pennsylvania” by George MacReynolds published in 1942, and the New Hope & Ivyland Railroad’s website: www.newhoperailroad.com