Community Members Who Go Above & Beyond:
For Gisela Vazquez, it’s full steam ahead for her and other volunteers on the Wilmington & Western
Shoveling coal to help run a steam-powered locomotive that’s more than 100 years old is one of Gisela Vazquez’s favorite things to do.
“Without steam, an engine can’t do anything,” says the 47-year-old Smyrna resident. “The train is not going to run.”
Besides helping to power steam engines, Vazquez drives vintage diesel locomotives that take passengers through the open fields and woods of Red Clay Valley. She is currently the only female running trains at Wilmington & Western Railroad (WWR), a heritage railroad dating back to the 1870s.
“I find it amazing that locomotives that were built over 100 years ago are still in operating condition,” says Vazquez, who was born in Venezuela and moved to the U.S. in 1993.
She is one of 80 volunteers at WWR, which is the oldest tourist railroad operated entirely by volunteers, according to the website. Only 15 volunteers actually run trains. In addition to driving the trains, they repair the 10 miles of tracks, sell tickets, restore the locomotives, point out historical sights along the trip, and manage a number of other jobs, says Carol Wells, executive assistant at WWR. Volunteers contribute more than 15,000 hours to WWR each year.
“Our mission is to educate the public and to preserve the rich history of the railroad in the Delaware Valley for generations to come,” says Wells. “ We get over 36,000 visitors a year.” One third of them come in December, when the Holiday Lights Express is in operation.
Passengers climb aboard at Greenbank Station in Wilmington and take either a 1½-hour round-trip to Mt. Cuba Picnic Grove or a 2½-hour round-trip to downtown Hockessin to visit local stores and restaurants. The railroad’s many special events include a Civil War skirmish, Brews on Board, and the Halloween Express.
Vazquez, who has a mechanical engineering degree and worked for DuPont until 2015, became a WWR volunteer in 2002. In her first job there, she helped disassemble, inspect, and restore steam engine number 98, built in 1909 in New Jersey.
Currently, WWR’s engineer instructors are teaching Vazquez how to drive a steam locomotive. She devotes 25 to 50 hours over four days a week to WWR. Besides knowing the mechanics of vintage trains, Vazquez also is WWS’s trainmaster, which means she’s in charge of the train crew and train operations.
She discovered WWR on the internet while she and her husband, Jose, searched for things to do in Delaware. “The Wilmington & Western Railroad kept popping up,” she says, and vintage train restoration piqued her interest.
In 2007, after two years of training, she qualified to drive one of WWR’s diesel locomotives. Built in 1940, number 114 weighs 200,000 pounds. “I was thrilled,” she says. “My entire focus was on making absolutely sure to provide a smooth train ride. To me, happy passengers are the best reward I can get.”
Vazquez’s passengers ride along the Red Clay Creek and pass several historic sites, such as the Wooddale Covered Bridge, one of three covered bridges in the state, and the only surviving mill along the route—Greenbank Mills & Philips Farm.
Historic Red Clay Valley Inc. owns and operates WWR. A non-profit organization, it relies on donations, membership fees, grants and ticket sales.
For more information about train schedules and events, visit wwrr.com.