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Sam Houston EC News

Railroad Fantasy

The century-old Texas State Railroad rides ribbons of steel to rekindle the magic of trains

Tricia Carver of Mineola may just be the Texas State Railroad’s biggest fan. She’s such a fan of the so-called “Official Railroad of Texas” that each of the past eight years, she and her husband, Eric, have booked an entire passenger car for the vintage railroad’s biggest event of the year—the annual Polar Express train ride.

The popular holiday event celebrates The Polar Express book and movie, a heartwarming tale of children on a magical train headed to the North Pole on Christmas Eve. For the Carver family outing, Tricia and Eric’s nine children and 17 grandchildren load up on a vintage rail car, along with other family and friends—more than 60 altogether—for a fanciful ride through the classic children’s story.

Once the conductor calls “All aboard!” passengers board Texas State Railroad’s decorated Polar Express.

Courtesy Texas State Railroad

On the night of the big ride, they join clusters of other fans at the Texas State Railroad’s Palestine station as the hands of the depot clock tick toward train time. Restless, passengers look all around the decorated train, ready for saucer-eyed kids to take their first ride. As the conductor calls “All aboard!” some old-timers smile knowingly, as if to say, “Yes, I remember the thrill of my first train ride.”

All year long, riders of all ages board the restored passenger cars from the 1940s to experience the nostalgia of railroading. On the regular run, riders settle into seats beside picture windows for a scenic four-hour round trip between depots in Rusk and Palestine, 25 miles apart.

The clickety-clack journey back in time passes brambly bottomlands, piney uplands and verdant pastures. In spring, nature’s colors awaken across the landscape, especially the white blossoms of dogwoods and purple-pink flowers of redbuds. In summer, shades of green hug the line, sometimes in a canopy of pines rising above several dozen species of deciduous trees. In autumn, a Technicolor world unfolds before riders’ eyes, as rich purple-reds of sweetgums and maples compete with blazing yellow-golds of oaks and elms. In winter, the sleeping scenery transforms again, resembling an old, sepia-toned photograph with bare-branched trees silhouetted against a clear blue sky.

Operating across Canada during the 1950s, the 1,750-horsepower Texas State Railroad diesel engine #125 is fully restored and repainted to honor an early Texas railroad.

Courtesy Texas State Railroad

Restored locomotives recall the golden age of steam-powered railroading.

Courtesy Texas State Railroad

The railroad also pulls cars with steam locomotive #30, built in 1917 by Baldwin Locomotive Works. On static display is Big Boy, the rare Texas & Pacific Engine #610, built in 1927 and refurbished in 1976 to pull the American Freedom Train on tour during the U.S. bicentennial.

Passengers ramble the rails seated in one of several classes of vintage rail cars dating from the World War II era. Top of the line is the presidential-class car #1511, offering tableside porter service and a private outdoor viewing platform. The glass-top dome car features unobstructed bird’s-eye views from plush leather seats.

The sleek dome car offers grand views of East Texas scenery between Rusk and Palestine.

Courtesy Texas State Railroad

The art deco-inspired first-class rail car #42 has comfortable couches and chairs, plus porter service. Restaurant-style booth seating enhances socializing in the deluxe coach car, with a similar ride in the coach-class car but without the tables. The lowest-priced car is the open-air coach, featuring wooden bench seating and no-glass windows for a full outdoor experience. All car classes have access to the train’s concession car, stocked with snacks, plus child and adult beverages.

Passengers in all classes also hear narration and Texas-style music from the sound system, timed to highlight historical facts and key sights along the way.

One such sight is the 1,042-foot-long crossing of the Neches River bridge, one of 24 bridges along the line. The 35-foot-high concrete bridge passes near the former site of an early 1800s ferry and later a toll bridge. The regular round trip passes through Maydelle, the only community on the route. Named for the daughter of Texas Gov. Thomas Mitchell, Maydelle boasts a working train turntable where locomotives on the line sometimes turn around on short excursions.

Maydelle is also home to a small rail station built for the 1982 TV movie The Long Summer of George Adams, one of many Hollywood films, documentaries and commercials filmed that used the train. Portions of the movies The Great Debaters, Rough Riders and O Brother, Where Art Thou? were filmed along the line. Depots at both ends of the line are picture-perfect examples of late 19th-century architecture.

Nonstop Railroading

The Texas State Railroad offers special rides throughout the year. Spring brings the Easter Egg Express in April, including an Easter egg hunt and activities at the Palestine depot, plus a round-trip excursion to the Maydelle turntable. Schoolkids come in May for a group ride from Rusk to Maydelle, where they observe and learn about the turntable.

On its regular runs, the Texas State Railroad crosses 24 bridges, including one over the Neches River. Here the train is pulled by engine #125.

Courtesy Texas State Railroad

The summertime Romance on the Rails event series features adults-only, round-trip excursions departing Palestine, each with barbecue dinners and beverage samplings. Pints in the Pines showcases Texas-brewed beers. Wine in the Pines offers Texas-made Miranda Lambert Red 55 wines and chocolates. In October, the Pumpkin Patch Express features open-air coach rides between Rusk and Maydelle, where children pick out pumpkins and enjoy games and hayrides, with Halloween costumes encouraged.

The railroad sponsors several round-trip brunch runs, highlighted by a three-course meal on the train or at a depot, depending on weather. March starts with the Dogwood Days Brunch Train to complement Palestine’s annual Dogwood Days celebration. May brings the Memorial Day Brunch Train, along with static displays of notable steam and diesel engines in Palestine, part of the railroad’s Celebration of Steam event. June offers the Throw Papa on the Brunch Train to celebrate Father’s Day.

Foremost among the Texas State Railroad’s events, of course, is the Polar Express train, which runs this year November 15–December 28. The train departs from Palestine’s Victorian-style depot pulled by the bright red diesel engine #125. En route, chefs dressed in pouffed white hats serve hot chocolate and cookies as the voice of Tom Hanks, the star of The Polar Express movie, comes through speakers in each car, narrating the story as kids read along in their books. The hour-long round trip reaches the “North Pole” (a wye in the rail line), where Santa hops on and a steam locomotive pulls the train back home.

“We want each child to experience the Polar Express just as if they were in the movie themselves and rode the train to the North Pole,” says Daniel Adair, railroad general manager. “That means that each ‘true believer’ receives a silver bell, just as in the movie.”

Santa and elves board the Polar Express to hand out “believer bells,” just as in the book and movie.

Courtesy Texas State Railroad

Tricia Carver, a true believer in the Texas State Railroad, thinks the Polar Express trip helps rekindle the spirit of riding the rails for herself and her large family. She grew up in New Orleans not far from a train depot and remembers taking the train with her parents on visits to the city’s French Quarter. She spent afternoons building trains in her grandfather’s backyard. “I’m still just a big kid,” she says.

Her enthusiasm proves contagious. When she started booking a full rail car for the holiday ride, only the kids and some mothers wore pajamas, like passengers in the movie did. Today, some of the dads join in and wear the family’s matching pajamas, too.

After eight years of Polar Express, the magic is starting to wear off for some of the older kids, Tricia says. But, she adds, there’s always a younger group of true believers ready to let the fantastic ride captivate their imaginations—just as the Texas State Railroad has done for generations.