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Trails of Rails: Tracking History Along the Texas State Railroad

Brandy and Justin Solomon of Natchitoches, Louisiana, take in the Piney Woods panorama from an open-air car. Photo by Erich Schlegel.The hands of the depot clock tick toward train time. Restless, ready-to-roll passengers lean into the black wrought-iron fence that separates them from the tracks. At the first “Whoo-Whoo” of the steam whistle, all heads turn down-track to where the rails disappear into the woods. Shouts of “There’s the train!” echo across the crowd. The Texas State Railroad’s century-old steam engine No. 201 chugs into view. Its shiny black boiler and six driving wheels glisten in the sun. As the engine glides slowly into the station, a white cloud of steam swirls across parents and saucer-eyed kids eager for their first train ride. Old-timers smile knowingly as if to say, “Yes, I remember the thrill of my first train ride!”

A ride on the Texas State Railroad has been a nostalgic staple for East Texas travelers since the first “All Aboard!” some 30 years ago. Recently, that 25-mile ramble between Rusk and Palestine almost ran out of steam.

Texas’ only state railroad began in the late 1800s as a short-haul line serving state prison foundries in Rusk. In 1909 the line extended to Palestine to profit from freight and passenger service. The prison closed in 1917, and profits proved elusive. Twice, the state considered abandoning its little railroad. Instead, the Legislature fixed up the tracks in the mid-1970s, acquired vintage rolling stock, and inaugurated a tourist train operated by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.

Two years ago, Parks and Wildlife announced that, without new funding, the official railroad of Texas would come to a screeching halt. A save-the-train campaign highballed into action, stoked by tourism promoters in Rusk and Palestine. The Legislature created the Texas State Railroad Authority, which picked a new operator, American Heritage Railways, to keep the train on track. The company (which runs historic trains in Colorado and North Carolina) took the throttle on September 1, 2007, and, if successful, will own the railroad (excluding tracks and right-of-way) by 2015.

See full article in May 2009 issue. 

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