The first few miles of the track that the Texas State Railroad runs on today was laid in 1881 by prisoners from the East Texas Penitentiary near Rusk to deliver fuel and ore for the prison’s iron industry. The line was extended five miles to Maydelle in 1903 and another 22 1/2 miles to Palestine in 1909, according to The Handbook of Texas.
After the prison foundry closed in 1913, the line operated under various private interests, including a failed attempt to start an excursion tour train, until 1972 when the Legislature deeded the railroad to the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. The state parks department had planned to turn the line into a hiking trail, but a group of train enthusiasts advocated for starting a passenger line.
The first public rides on the TPWD-run Texas State Railroad were offered on July 4, 1976, and it was designated the “Official Railroad of Texas” by the Legislature in 2003.
The state operated the line until 2007, when American Heritage Railways took over. In 2012, Iowa Pacific Holdings assumed operation of the line. Under the agreement with Iowa Pacific, the state still owns the buildings, land and “rolling stock,” or the locomotives and rail cars. Iowa Pacific can gain ownership of the buildings and rolling stock if it operates the line for eight continuous years, explained Janet Gregg, Texas State Railroad marketing and public relations manager. The state will retain ownership of the land.
The railroad, trains and buildings have been featured in television and film productions over the years, including “O Brother, Where Art Thou,” starring George Clooney, and a Robbie Knievel motorcycle stunt in 2000 in which he jumped the train head-on.