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  • The Texas State Railroad, built by inmates from the Rusk Penitentiary, now operates as a scenic tourist line.

In this fast-paced world, it’s only natural for us to occasionally seek some respite. If you want to truly relax and enjoy a slow-paced getaway, leave your stressful life behind and hitch a ride on the Texas State Railroad (TSR).

Located in Cherokee and Anderson counties, the antique steam and diesel trains operate between the Rusk and Palestine depots. The Rusk depot is located on U.S. Highway 84 three miles west of Rusk, and the Palestine depot is located on Highway 84 six miles east of Palestine. The trains cover 25 scenic miles of rails between the depots, with a round trip taking about four hours. Adjacent to both depot areas are facilities for hiking, camping, and fishing. The park in Rusk comprises 100 acres and has a fifteen-acre lake, while the park in Palestine is considerably smaller. Immersion in the romance of train travel is unescapable, as well as the rich history surrounding the Texas State Railroad.

No wonder the TSR was designated the Official Railroad of Texas by the 78th Texas Legislature in 2003. It’s an important piece of Texas heritage, truly a Texas treasure.

RAIL WORK: Inmate crews (above) built many spur lines that trans ported iron ore, livestock and timber. For a firsthand experience, you can join the crew and ride along in the cab (right photo).

At the slow pace of the nostalgic steam engine, you can sit back and enjoy the scenery in a special way only possible aboard a train. The TSR is surrounded by the Piney Woods, creating a beautiful tunnel of tall pines and hardwoods. Perhaps you’ll think back to a time when your grandparents and great-grandparents rode the train. “It’s always amazing to have grandparents bring their grandkids and talk about how they used to ride it,” says TSR general manager Daniel Adair.

One of the highlights of the journey is crossing the Neches River. The bridge, standing more than 35 feet above the forest floor and stretching nearly a quarter of a mile, gives passengers a unique bird’s-eye view of the wetlands and river below. Once a wooden trestle built in the 1880s, the Neches Bridge is a modern concrete bridge spanning 1,042 feet.

In 1881, Texas built a new prison in Rusk. The Rusk area was rich in iron ore, but the prison needed to get the iron ore to their furnace, then get the pig iron and finished products out. Rusk needed a railroad, and the manpower existed in the prison. Two railroads bypassed Rusk in 1872, but one agreed to detour toward Rusk in return for prison labor. “The construction began with the first mile and one third from the prison yard to the Kansas & Gulf Short Line Railroad connection,” explains historian John Garbutt, “bringing birth to the railroad.”

Between 1885 and 1887, Rusk prisoners manufactured virtually all of the interior cast-iron features in the Austin Capitol building, from ornamental iron to balusters. All the finished products rode the TSR from Rusk. The TSR delivered the iron for fabricating the iron dome atop the Capitol as well.

Elected in 1907, Gov. Thomas Campbell, a native of Rusk, used prison labor to extend the prison line westward to Palestine. The Texas State Railroad reached Palestine in July 1909. In addition to hauling raw materials to the penitentiary, the railroad offered regular passenger and freight service from 1907 to 1921. Prison inmates, who’d constructed the entire line, made up the train crew — except for the engineer — during much of this period.

Through the sixties, the railroad’s popularity began to dwindle, leading management to plan the last run for Jan. 4, 1970. “State Railroad boys determined the time had come to put the old girl to bed,” Garrett says, “with plans to pull the track and sell the rolling stock, turning the rail property into biking and hiking trails.” However, local people organized to save the railroad. Tourism was booming as the third largest industry in the state, and many believed an operating passenger train would appeal to tourists.

In 1972, the TSR was transferred to Texas Parks and Wildlife. More than 60 years after the rail’s initial construction, prisoners were again used to rebuild the aging railroad. Just in time for the American Bicentennial, passengers climbed back on-board June 25, 1976. Eventually, budget and operational concerns led to the establishment in 2007 of the Texas State Railroad Authority, which has the power to lease the enterprise to a private operator. The TSR is no longer part of Texas Parks and Wildlife, but despite the different leases over the years, most agree the Texas State Railroad should never close.

Steam Engine Ride Along
HOLIDAY MAGIC: The Polar Express runs in November and December, bringing the story to life.

Today, the railroad has other uses. “We store rail cars for companies that can’t afford to have empty cars sitting around,” explains freight manager Scott Rohal. The TSR still carries freight, too. “We haul chemicals for a chemical plant called Baze Chemicals,” Rohal explains. Over the years, the railroad has been prominent in documentaries and full-length films. The Texas State Railroad is featured in big-screen movies such as American Outlaws. “No. 316 is kind of our movie star engine,” operations manager Greg Udolf notes.

The Texas State Railroad maintains 10 locomotives, including two of the only remaining “Texas type” steam engines. Five diesel locomotives are classic streamliners, or “F” units. Sometimes referred to as “honorary” steam engines, “they have the classic look that everyone recognizes as a train,” Udolf says.

Steam Engine No. 28 is one of the main steam locomotives in use, built in 1917. No. 28 is a Baldwin “General Pershing” built for the U.S. Army during World War I and used primarily at Fort Polk in Louisiana. Texas Steam Engine No. 201 is considered one of the favorites of the TSR crews. The 201 is the only remaining Texas and Pacific steamer in operation today, donated by the City of Abilene. Steam Engine No. 500 was owned by the City of San Angelo. “Everyone loves the 500,” Udolf says, “an old Sante Fe engine, because that thing is so big!”

The Texas State Railroad owns two of the only remaining T&P Texas-type steam engines. The huge locomotives were built for the T&P main line in West Texas, and thus became known as Texas types. No. 316 was built in 1901.

No. 610 is the second Texas steam engine. Texas locomotives could haul 40 percent more tonnage, while using less fuel, than the engines they replaced. The 610 is one of the last Texans built and delivered. Weighing 260 tons, the 610 engine dwarfs the regular 85-ton locomotives riding the railroad. “The 610 is just too large and heavy for our railroad,” Rohal explains. The Amon Carter Foundation donated the 610 as well as the operations shop to store the iconic train. “Everyone loves to see this engine,” Rohal says. “It’s one of the last of what they call the super-power engines.” Over Memorial Day weekend, you can board the steam engines, climb into the cabs and learn how they operate.

The smaller steam engine, No. 30, burns about 700 gallons of used motor oil, and uses about 6,000 gallons of water for the trip from Palestine to Rusk. A supplier in Fort Worth recycles the motor oil saved from oil-changing businesses for use in the engines. “Originally the engines were coal burners, but converted to oil,” Rohal says. “The majority of your Southern engines were oil-powered.”

Besides the engines and locomotives, TSR maintains a variety of rail cars from open cars to the presidential car, with priority placed on authenticity. The different cars provide accommodations from open air benches to leather seating. At times, the rail cars have complimentary champagne; all have access to concession cars filled with popcorn and other goodies, as well as adult beverages. Since 1961, every sitting Texas governor has ridden aboard the presidential car, No. 1511. Since July 4, 1976, every governor has visited the railroad during their first term of office.

A few times a year, in nearby Maydelle, Texas, passengers watch hundred-year-old railroad technology in action. A massive century-old turntable, driven by an air motor powered off the locomotive, rotates trains 360 degrees. In 1902, the turntable began operation serving a six-stall roundhouse in Paris, Texas. Visitors enjoy an amazing rotating display of the locomotive. The Texas State Railroad brings encounters with living history; you can only grasp so much through what you read in a book or see on television.

HEADS OF STATE: Since 1961, every sitting Texas governor has ridden aboard the Presidential car — #1511.

With over 3,000 moving parts, the steam engine is labor intensive and expensive to operate. Steam engines can spend 50 percent of their time in the shop for maintenance and mandated reassembly. The diesel locomotive is ready to ride the rails in less than 10 minutes; the steam locomotive takes several hours to lubricate, check connections, build steam and prepare for departure.

Steam engine mechanics and engineers are taught on the job. People start at the bottom as a hostler, then on to fireman and engineer. The fireman balances enough water versus too much water at any given time. “If you have water instead of steam,” Rohal explains, “water won’t compress, and you’ll blow the heads right off the engine. Or you could have a runaway engine.”

After five to 10 years, firemen can become steam engineers. “Nowadays, you can hire a person off the street, and with six months of classes he’s a diesel engineer,” Rohal says. “You can’t train someone to run a steam engine in that short of period of time.” Despite the grueling work and intensity, you can see the passion people have for the massive equipment.

Besides excursions, the railroad holds special events throughout the year. When events like the “Little Engine That Could” or “Thomas the Train” don’t resonate as much anymore events change to augment mainstay events like Easter, the Pumpkin Patch and the Polar Express. Other events cater to chocolate lovers, include a wine tasting ride, and another mainstay, “Pints in the Pines” for beer tasters. During the summer, passengers enjoy the ultimate date night every other Friday.

The Polar Express is a steam train decorated to resemble the Polar Express depicted in the popular book written by Chris Van Allsburg and popularized by the movie. The entire story and soundtrack, from start to finish is reenacted and heard on the train. Santa climbs aboard at the North Pole and gives each child a silver bell. “We have about 100,000 passengers annually,” Rohal says, “but over half board the train during the six-week period of the Polar Express.”

People invest years to learn the art of running the steam engines. “It’s the most amazing job in the world,” Udolf says. “You know it’s rare to have a job where you look forward to coming to work every day.”

Because of the genuine Texas spirit burning within everyone connected with the railroad, the future of the Official State Railroad seems sound for another 100 years. “It’s changed hands a few times,” Rohal says, “but no one wants to see this train stop running.”

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