Saturday, July 27, 2013

Texas State Railroad

"Lone Star Historian" is a blog about the travels and activities of the State Historian of Texas. Bill O'Neal was appointed to a two-year term by Gov. Rick Perry on August 22, 2012, at an impressive ceremony in the State Capitol. Bill is headquartered at Panola College ( in Carthage, where he has taught since 1970. For more than 20 years Bill conducted the state's first Traveling Texas History class, a three-hour credit course which featured a 2,100-mile itinerary. In 2000 he was awarded a Piper Professorship, and in 2012 he received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Wild West Historical Association. Bill has published over 40 books, almost half about Texas history subjects, and in 2007 he was named Best Living Non-Fiction Writer by True West Magazine. 

"All aboard!" 

Within moments our vintage steam train pulled out of the Texas State Railroad depot in Rusk, bound for Palestine. Engine No. 316, built in 1917, belched white smoke and hauled us into East Texas pine forests. Steaming along at 20 miles per hour, we enjoyed gorgeous scenery on both sides of our refurbuished coach. Our gracious attendant Joyce kept us supplied with snacks and beverages in the air-conditioned comfort of "Lone Star Seating." And so we commenced a delightful travel experience from the past of the Lone Star State.
Rusk Depot
In the 1850s a few short line railroads transported cotton toward the port of Galveston. The only railroad that extended outside the state connected Marshall with Shreveport, 30 miles to the east on the Red River. By 1860 there were barely 400 miles of track in Texas - a state that eventually would lead the nation in railroad mileage. But after the Civil War railroad construction exploded across the nation, and railroads became America's greatest industry, dominating the economy and politics of that era.

Texas, with its vast size, along with almost limitless agricultural and commercial potential, was the site of feverish railroad construction. Entry of the Texas Republic into the Union as a state was unique, and unlike any other state, Texas retained its public lands, rather than turning them over to the federal government. Therefore Texas was able to emulate the U.S. government in offering vacant lands as an inducement to promising railroad companies. Texas gave a staggering 32,150,000 acres to the railroads. By 1890 there were 8,486 miles of track in Texas, an important factor in a population that soared from 818,579 in 1870 to 2,235,527 in 1890.

Bill with TSR Marketing Manager Janet Gregg
During the 1880s a railroad was built from Rusk to Palestine, with the purpose of bringing raw materials to an iron foundry at the Rusk Penitentiary, and to ship out the finished product. Freight and passenger service proved unprofitable, and after 1921 the line was leased by the state to various railroad companies. In 1972, the Texas Legislature turned the railroad over to the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. For many years I offered my students at Panola College bonus credit if they would travel the Texas State Railroad. But by 2006, with the railroad losing more than $1 million annually, the operation was leased to American Heritage Railway, which also operates the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railway in Colorado and the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad in North Carolina.

With Brakeman C.B. Gunter
Janet Gregg, Marketing Manager for the Texas State Railroad, generously arranged a trip for me and my wife Karon. On Friday, July 26, we drove to Rusk in time to board the 11 o'clock train. We were early enough to visit the gift ship and examine the displays around the picturesque stone depot. I had the pleasure of renewing the acquaintance of C.B. Gunter, a former student of mine from Panola College. He long has had a passion for stream railroading, and he is enjoying a dream job as a uniformed brakeman for the TSR. I had a couple of opportunities during the journey to interview C.B. about operational details of the TSR.
Palestine Depot
The 25-mile trip to Palestine was scenic and relaxing. At the historic depot we picked up box lunches, catered from a varied and tasteful menu. While we ate, the locomotive took on 3,000 gallons of water. The engine starts with 6,500 gallons and uses almost half of capacity going each way. There were displays to peruse around the depot, which is headquarters for the Texas State Railroad Society, a support group of "friends" of the TSR. John B. Price, President of the Texas State Railroad Society, rode our train, and he explained the role of the Society to me. Our return trip to Rusk was delightful, and we pulled into the Rusk depot at 3:30 in the afternoon.

Our friendly and informative attendant, Joyce
Throughout the summer the train runs on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays. After the first weekend in August, regular runs will be on Saturdays and Sundays. On Easter weekend the "Easter Egg Express" takes children to meet the Easter Bunny and to enjoy games. On Memorial Day weekend a special journey salutes the armed forces, and at one stop along the way Nazi soldiers emerge from the woods and advance on the train! The "Pumpkin Patch Express" runs every weekend in October, traveling to the Texas State's Railroad's Pumpkin Patch, where kids - often in costume -  pick out their own pumpkin, visit Trick or Treat Street, take a hayride, and sing and dance with a children's entertainer. Scout troops, school and church groups, family and class reunions, all enjoy special occasions aboard the Texas State Railroad.
Lunch in the shade
Rare 1890s Turntable
Most popular of all is the "Polar Express Train Ride," which runs as many as four times per day (and evening) from late November through the end of December. The Polar Express is a perennially favorite animated movie first released during the 2004 Christmas season. The Polar Express stars Tom Hanks (as Santa Claus, the conductor, and four other characters), who escorts pajama-clad children aboard a magical train to the North Pole. The TSR's Polar Express begins a 50-minute round trip from Palestine to an East Texas "North Pole." Last December more than 40,000 children - many clad in pajamas - met Santa and his elves, received a special gift, and enjoyed hot cocoa and caroling. Many children are sponsored by generous individuals and groups, and some kids enjoy their only real Christmas aboard the TSR's Polar Express. At Christmas or any other time of the year, the Texas State Railroad offers an experience not to be missed.

For more information:

At midpoint the trains pass each other on a
siding. I'm photographing the other train -
and my lovely wife, Karon
We were welcomed back to Rusk by TSR staff members.

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