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Hit the Road

Steam Train

Texas State Railroad revisits the early days of rail travel and is about to chug into its most popular season—when the Polar Express ventures to the ‘North Pole’

One hundred years ago, there were no commercial airlines and the automobile was in its infancy. The state of the art in long-distance travel was the steam-powered locomotive. The iron horses no longer roam freely across the country, but in a few select places, they still ply their trade.

One of those is in East Texas’ Piney Woods. For 37 years, visitors have gotten a taste of taking the train at the turn of the 20th century with a jaunt on the Texas State Railroad.

I arrived at the railroad’s depot outside Palestine one August morning. There, five train cars waited on the tracks for the 50-mile round trip to Rusk, the home of Cherokee County Electric Cooperative Association, and back.

Historical exhibits at the depot held my interest until Engine No. 316, bell clanging, emerged from the nearby storage and maintenance facility in a cloud of smoke and steam, chuffing and puffing into position before the cars. With practiced precision, the day’s engineer, railroad General Manager Earl Knoob, backed the 79-ton locomotive built in 1901 smoothly into place.

Then, the nostalgic call went out: “All aboard!” I settled into my seat in the Lone Star Class car, which features table service and air conditioning, and soon we were underway.

Picking up speed, cars gently swaying, the train moved into the mixed forest of pine and oak. The scenery glided by, peppered with sights such as a beaver-created lake; the Jarvis Wye, a locomotive turnaround; and a trestle crossing 35 feet above the Neches River.

In the hamlet of Maydelle, which houses the railroad’s track maintenance operations, an 1890s-era turntable still rotates locomotives during special events.

Not much farther, the train pulled into the station at Rusk for a 1 1/2-hour layover, allowing passengers to eat lunch—the railroad offers catered salads and sandwiches—and explore the depot and surrounding campground.

Then, it was “all aboard” again for the return trip to Palestine, which I took in the open-air car at the back of the train, where I could hear the chugging of the engine and feel the warm wind carrying the blended scents of pine, creosote and engine smoke.

The full-length East Texas Steam Train Excursion takes about 4 1/2 hours, including the layover, and departs every weekend through early November. Special trips include dinner train rides, one catering to photographers, and, in October, the Pumpkin Patch Express, which makes a stop for seasonal fun near Maydelle. But the most popular time to travel the line is now, in December, on the Polar Express Train Ride.

Running through December 29 this year, the Polar Express attracted more than 43,000 of the railroad’s 56,000-plus passengers in 2012, said Janet Gregg, marketing and communications manager for the Texas State Railroad.

During the trip, which covers the 8 miles or so between Palestine and the “North Pole” set up at the Jarvis Wye, families listen to a recording of actor Liam Neeson reading the book about a child’s steam train journey to meet Santa Claus. Many passengers wear pajamas, just like the children do in the story, Gregg said, and cookies and cocoa are served.

The narration is timed so that it ends just before the train, decked out in holiday finery, emerges from the dark woods at a lighted village where Santa and his elves board, Gregg said. Then, on the trip back to Palestine, the elves and crew lead passengers in singing Christmas carols.

At a top speed of about 20 mph, the train might not fit the modern definition of efficiency. But for the passengers who travel on it, it’s a trip in time.

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Kevin Hargis is a staff copy editor.