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Dinner, mystery help keep train history alive in Walkersville

Sunday - 5/27/2012, 2:00am  ET

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Thirty-eight diners packed a dining car of the Walkersville Southern Railroad on Saturday evening for a two-hour Mystery Dinner Train ride. Trying to surreptitiously check out passengers and look for space aliens with her makeup compact mirror is reporter Carmen Carmichael. The actors are from the Way Off Broadway Dinner Theatre, and the food was catered by the Carriage House Inn of Emmitsburg. (Travis Pratt/Frederick News-Post)

It is no mystery how the Walkersville Southern Railroad keeps history alive, but train riders Saturday did get their catered meal with a mysterious twist.

The Walkersville Southern Railroad preserves train history by maintaining train cars and a museum, and taking people on short rides. Some trips, such as Saturday's, come with dinner and a theatrical mystery, performed by Frederick's Way Off Broadway Dinner Theatre.

The dining car has been converted from a lounge car, said Deanna Baird, director of special events. When work is finished on another dining car, the lounge car will be restored to offer a luxury dining experience, she said.

Right now, the train can seat 38 diners, who have a choice of meals catered by Carriage House Inn of Emmitsburg. Sheila Pittinger served the four-course meal to enthusiastic and keen-eyed guests.

As in old train days, diners shared tables with strangers, who quickly struck up conversations. It was date night for husband and wife Brandon and Kathy Whitcomb, who sat with Dot Caswell and Bob Alex, also on a date.

For Kathy Whitcomb, the dinner out was a Mother's Day gift from Brandon. Caswell and Alex had spent a day exploring Frederick's shopping district.

The two couples got acquainted over their salad and enjoyed the theatrical experience that unfolded: Manheim Nightingale was introducing himself to all the diners and making a sales pitch.

Nightingale, a casino magnate and industrialist, was searching for investors to build a linear casino along U.S. 15. He needed about $500 million, according to his assistant, Kitty Colgate.

Something contentious was afoot, as unwelcome protesters had come aboard to talk passengers out of investing in Nightingale's scheme. Chief protester was Eunace, who said she has just one name, like Cher.

In her all-natural burlap skirt, Eunace urged diners to save farmland and told stories about Nightingale, who she claimed uses child laborers in his bottled water and silk tie factories.

Eunace had an ally in a woman who identified herself as Baroness Natasha. The baroness made her way to all the diners' tables to spread negative information about Nightingale, to whom she said she had once been unhappily married -- before she and the late unnamed baron got together and started chains of organic restaurants in France.

With a reporter's notebook and a pen of invisible ink, Carmen Carmichael skulked among the tables. She held a small mirror over her shoulder to spy on Nightingale.

Carmichael said she writes a blog for the Washington PostIt and had stumbled on to the Nightingale story after coming to Frederick in search of aliens ... from outer space ... along U.S. 15. She explained that, like Area 51 in Roswell, N.M., U.S. 15 has the same numbers, just reversed.

Despite the bad publicity being spread about Nightingale, in the first hour of the two-hour train trip he managed to coax promises of about $100 million out of diners ready to invest in his casino venture, Colgate said.

At one dining table, couples Cassey and Rusty Riner and Caitlin and Steve Walker split their support: The wives supported Eunace, and the two husbands were inclined to invest several hundred thousand each with Nightingale, they said.

Diners like Dione Mahoney and Maxine Boyd were soaking up the cultural experience.

"I feel like we're getting on the Orient Express," Mahoney said as the train started.

Boyd and her adult daughter, Lynette Taylor, came from Baltimore for the ride.

"My mom is always finding new things to do," Taylor said.

Excursion and dinner train rides take passengers along the Pennsylvania Railroad line that was built in 1872. Trips run on weekends from May through October and for other special occasions.

The fate of Nightingale's casino, his friends and enemies was not available by deadline.