A Grand Time For All

On August 7, 1908, a special excursion to Rehoboth by rail, for Governor’s Day, was wall-to-wall “with all sizes, classes, conditions and color indigenous to a Delaware community,” as David A. Conner reported. The railroad sold 320 tickets from Milton station alone, for a total of $128.00.

Undated photograph, Milton M. P. Church Sunday School excursion group at Milton R.R. station, ca. 1905; most likely destination would have been Rehoboth Beach (Milton Historical Society Collection)
Passenger coach, ca. 1901, built by Jackson & Sharp of Wilmington for the Queen Anne’s Railroad Company (Delaware Public Archive)

Milton people were always fond of excursions by horse-drawn wagons to Broadkill Beach and picnic grounds near town, but after the arrival of the Queen Anne Railroad in Milton in 1897, Miltonians had a new option for recreation: excursions to the beach, at a reduced ticket price. The Q. A. R. R. went eastward as far as Rehoboth Beach, and excursions to that point were close by and very popular with the people of Milton and other Sussex County towns. David A. Conner writes in his Milton letter, published in the Milford Chronicle of June 13, 1902, that “eight coaches passed through Milton on the excursion to Rehoboth.” Seats on eastbound excursion trains arriving at Milton were often filled, making the coaches standing room only.

Front elevation for Q. A. R. R. passenger car, Jackson & Sharp, Wilmington, DE, 1900 (Delaware Public Archive)

What would that experience have been like? From the design document shown above, there were at least 75 seats on each coach (assuming three seats on each of 25 benches) and room for an additional 35 to 40 standees. These are conservative estimates; in reality, as any rider of a D. C. metro or N. Y. C. subway train knows, far more people could have been packed into a coach. Now imagine summer heat with no air conditioning, people wearing considerably more clothing in summer than they do today, and widespread use of deodorants and antiperspirants still decades away. Windows on these coaches as well as the doors at each end could be kept opened for ventilation, but it was probably still a miasma inside, especially when the train would stand still at station stops.

The most popular of all the beach excursions were the Sunday trips to Rehoboth, offered from the end of April to the end of September. In addition, the Q. A. R. R. and its successor, the M. D. & V. R. R., offered excursions to the eastern Chesapeake beaches in Tolchester and Queenstown, both in Maryland.

For the railroad, excursions in general and summer excursions in particular were a good revenue stream, most probably because the coaches for popular trips were packed “almost to suffocation.” One of the complaints that frequently appeared in the Milton news letter was that the railroad’s management was focused on excursions at the expense of regular passenger service, to the detriment of Milton’s passenger and freight customers. In my opinion, the ability to fill an entire coach or coaches was as valuable to the railroad company as having a fully booked (or overbooked) plane is to today’s airlines. Service and comfort decline in both cases, but money is made.

Conner also indulged in a bit of moralizing, complaining that people owed money to Milton merchants would still borrow money for excursion trips rather than settling their accounts. This grew into disdain for the unwashed masses packed into the coaches, expressed in the line “It is certainly refreshing to the onlookers mind, and a credit to the morality of Milton, to know that so few of its intelligent citizens patronize the Sunday excursion trains.” Some of this disdain surely had to do with the ongoing controversy of running trains on Sunday through towns like Milton, with a substantial church-going population.

Excursions would continue into the 1920’s, but passenger service on the M. D. & V. R. R. ended in 1938 after a long decline, supplanted by automobiles and bus lines on an improved road system in lower Delaware and the adjoining counties in Maryland.

 

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