All Aboard Texas State Railroad
What started as a nostalgic way to relive the Old West glory of Texas took an ugly turn when bandits boarded the Texas State Railroad train and robbed it. Fortunately, though, the railroad prefers its nostalgic Old West with happy endings.
Enter the Lone Ranger. The masked hero of myriad movies, TV shows, comic books and more rode to the rescue, and he was gracious enough to accompany railroad passengers to their final destination.
Just another day aboard the Texas State Railroad, which runs regular round-trip departures from its Victorian-style depot in Rusk. That is because each of TSRR’s steam-engine trips promises the presence of the Lone Ranger, who enters the picture during the journey’s turnaround point at the railroad’s other Victorian-style depot in Palestine. (The Palestine stop includes a layover for lunch, too.)
Passengers looking for more famous characters on the railroad will not be disappointed, as the Lone Ranger is not the only one spotted along these tracks. Several special events held annually at TSRR will bring out storybook friends on trips such as The Polar Express Train Ride, the railroad’s largest event, bringing about 50,000 people to the Palestine depot every November and December. Other character-driven events are Day Out With Thomas, Peanuts—The Easter Beagle Express, Peanuts—The Valentine Express and Peanuts—The Great Pumpkin Patch Express.
TSRR also holds RailFest every year; the event celebrates railroading with a steam excursion, night photo session, shop tour and doubleheader photo excursion. Other special occasions are TSRR’s Memorial Day Armed Forces event, as well as several dinner trains, including The Valentine’s Dinner Train and a New Year’s Eve Dinner Train.
From Prison to Preservation
The Texas State Railroad was established by the state prison system in 1881 to feed fuel wood to the state-run iron smelter at the Rusk Penitentiary. (Iron smelted there was used in the Texas Statehouse’s dome.) In time, the railroad was extended to Palestine, and into the area’s mainline railways, bringing prosperity to the region. Traffic was discontinued in the 1920s, and the tracks were leased to other railroads.
In the 1970s, as part of an effort to conserve the historical aspects of the railroad and to make it available to rail aficionados and citizenry alike, TSRR was developed as a state park by the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department. In 1976, it opened to passenger traffic to celebrate the nation’s bicentennial. Recognizing TSRR’s unique contribution to Texas heritage, the state legislature designated it as the Official Railroad of Texas in 2003.
In 2007, operation of the railroad was turned over to American Heritage Railways, which also owns and operates two other train excursion providers—the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad in Colorado and the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad in North Carolina. In addition, the company owns Rail Events Inc., which coordinates licensed special rail-related events around the country, such as the ones TSRR hosts.
As part of its management, American Heritage cites the importance of a heightened cultural and historical experience, and it delivers the goods with TSRR. For instance, the railroad takes its passengers on steam-powered, history-laden forays into East Texas’ piney woods, an increasingly rare ecosystem, and along creeks lined with timber. Trips are held in all seasons, with the steam-powered ones scheduled March through November, ensuring differing sights on every journey.
Along the way, riders can see crossings such as Neches River, Gibson Road and Robertson Ranch, the sites of several movie shoots. Among the movies filmed on location at TSRR are American Outlaws, starring Colin Farrell; The Long Riders, telling a story involving the James-Younger Gang; and The Great Debaters, starring Denzel Washington.
From start to finish, the excursions last about four-and-a-half hours, covering 25 miles of track between Rusk and Palestine. Each leg lasts a leisurely one-and-a-half hours, letting rides soak up the Americana found in the click-clack of the wheels. The lunch stop, where the Lone Ranger arrives, also lasts about one-and-a-half hours.
There is more than one way to get the TSRR experience, thanks to multiple classes of service aboard passenger cars built in the 1920s. Riders can choose the new Premium Lone Star Class Adult Only Car or Family Car—each features table service aboard a climate-controlled car with beverages, snacks and a souvenir refillable tumbler for everyone. Other possibilities include TSRR’s standard seating in the railroad’s coach or open-air cars, or even a ride in the steam locomotive cab with the engine crew.
The railroad’s cars are pulled by an engine from a team of seven. Five of the engines are steam-powered, the other two are diesel-powered. (Two of the steam engines are currently operating—Engine 201, built in 1901, and Engine 300, built in 1917. The company is in the process of restoring Engine 400, with Engine 500 slated to be the next in line for restoration.)
Adding to the TSRR experience are its camping parks. Its piney woods setting provides a memorable stay for campers, both those looking to hook up their RVs or those wanting to set up a tent. Regardless of their method of overnighting, campers will thrill to the sound of a train pulling into station near the campgrounds in Rusk and Palestine. It will be as if they have awakened to another era—something TSRR works hard to bring to life.
|May/Jun 2011 Issue
This Enhanced Editorial was paid for by a promotional fee from an advertiser.
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