Ride an Antique Steam Train!  

If you watched Robby Knievel's "Live Motorcycle Jump of Steam Train" special on TV last year, you've seen part of the Texas State Railroad in action. The state-owned railroad is over 100 years old. It used to be a working rail line, hauling iron ore and wood to smelting furnaces operated by the Texas State Prison System. The line was built by prison labor. In the 1970s, the 30 mile railway became a state park, and was eventually restored and supplied with vintage locomotive engines and passenger cars. Now, it is tourists and film crews who flock to Palestine and Rusk, Texas. The round-trip excursion costs $15.00 per person, and takes four hours.

This was my first vintage rail experience. I was impressed. The sound you hear on TV or in a movie theater does not do justice to the live sounds of a steam engine - the hissing of the steam, the clanking of the pistons, and especially the glorious noise of the whistle! We arrived good and early, and watched the crew move the engine out of its garage and prepare it for the run. Seeing the flames in the firebox, hearing the "chug CHUG chug chug, chug CHUG chug chug" of the engine, and seeing the steam ... I thought, "That is not a machine, that is a fire breathing beast!"

This was engine 400. It was built in 1917 by Baldwin, weighs 87 tons, and for any of you who study train design, it is a 2-8-2. It burns diesel fuel in the firebox, which heats water and produce the steam. (This is much cleaner than the earlier wood- or coal-fired trains!) Our train consisted of about 5 passenger cars (1920s vintage) behind the engine. The passenger cars have bench seats, with backs that move so the seat can face in either direction. This makes it much easier to assemble the train, as they don't have to turn the passenger cars around.

Our ride started at the Palestine depot. Built new for the state park, in the 1970s, it replicates a 1900's era train depot. We rode in the next to last car, and enjoyed the scenic pine forests we passed through. We passed through one small town, a handful of road crossings (mostly dirt roads), and the occasional farm or rural trailer home. There were train spotters along the way; some people watched us from the road crossings, one Jeep driver was parked in the middle of a field waving us on, a couple of vehicles raced ahead and saw our train from a couple of locations.

It struck me that I'm used to being on ordinary public roads, looking off at the scenery in the distance. Today, I was inside the scenery looking out at the everyday world. And that was a pretty cool feeling.

Halfway to Rusk, we passed the other train, heading to Palestine. Locations where two steam trains pass each other are rare these days, but it happens just about every day at the Mewshaw Siding, in the Piney Woods of Texas. The other train was pulled by engine 300 (1917, Baldwin, 83 ton, 2-8-0). The ride itself was fairly smooth, just a little bit of side-to-side lurching accompanied by some screeching of the wheels on the track. At Rusk, we had an hour break to eat lunch and look around before the return trip.

On the ride back, we rode in the first car directly behind the engine. The ride was a bit different; there was a slight front-to-back lurching, in time with the chugging of the engine. The sound of the engine (and the whistle) was much louder. We were still behind engine 400, but the opposing train was now pulled by one of the park's "newer" diesel engines (1940's vintage). We passed a vintage turntable along the way, on a siding in the town of Maydelle. Originally built in Paris, Texas, the turntable was relocated here for the park, and is still occasionally used.

Including the drive from home (over two hours each way), this adventure made for a full day. But it was great fun. All aboard!

(c) 2001, Scott D. Murdock

First published in Rosemarie Skaine's AuthorsDen Newsletter No. 9, April 30, 2001
Also published in The Murdock Muse, edition of May and June 2001