Iowa Alumni Magazine | June 2006 | People

All Aboard!: Don Elbert

By Angie Toomsen

As a young boy growing up in pastoral Osage in the late 1940s, Don Elbert savored life's simple joys. He fished in trout streams, listened to baseball games on the radio, and peered northward for the smoke signal of an approaching steam train. When one of the massive machines barreled into his quiet townwith its complex gears, searing fireboxes, and deafening steam whistlesElbert, 66BA, was as excited as if he were meeting a celebrity.

"The steam engines seemed alive with all their hissing and leaks," he recalls. "They fascinated me because they went places I'd only heard about on the radio."

Elbert's childhood fascination shaped his life in an unexpected way. In the 1970s, the attorney and his wife moved to Newport, Rhode Island, where they stumbled upon an abandoned train line from the 1860s. The couple sought help from fellow citizens to bring the historic relic back to life, and in the summer of 1979, the nonprofit Old Colony & Newport Railway blew its inaugural whistle.

Over a quarter century later, Old Colony & Newport remains the only year-round volunteer scenic railroad in the country, running 13 miles along the eastern coast of Narragansett Bay in Newport County. Every Sunday, visitors enjoy a leisurely 80-minute, 4.5-mile round-trip aboard vintage cars with green upholstered seats, a coal-burning pot-bellied stove, and a foot-pedal-operated toilet.

For Elbert, the best part of the journey is the view outside the train windows, which he and other volunteers narrate while clad in traditional conductor's coat and cap. "It's so beautiful along the bay with the birds, sunsets, and flowers," he says. "It reinvigorates me." 

Operating an historic railroad isn't just about taking tickets and keeping the train on schedule. Elbert has to arrange insurance and take care of track repairs. In addition, he advocates to protect the railways from being torn up by highway builders.

"I greatly admire our country's extensive railroad heritage and want to preserve the experience for future generations," says Elbert. "Trains symbolize a beautiful transportation tradition that opened up America."