Many children dream of being a train conductor at some point in their lives. The gleaming steam engine and piercing train whistle beckon them to don their own blue-and-white-striped conductor’s cap and call “All aboard!”
My husband was no exception to this childhood dream, so, for his 26th birthday, I surprised him with a ride on one of Texas’ treasures: the Texas State Railroad.
The Texas State Railroad, which cuts across East Texas from Palestine to Rusk, was named the “Official Railroad of Texas” in 2003 and has a rich history to support that designation.
The railroad was established in 1881 by the Texas prison system. It was built by inmates and used to transport wood to fuel the furnaces at Rusk Penitentiary, which in turn supplied Texas with iron used for various projects such as the Capitol building dome in Austin. Prison crews extended the rail line over the years until reaching the final destination of Palestine in 1909.
The prison eventually ceased operation of the iron furnace, and the railroad was leased to various companies until the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department took over in 1972 and inmates were brought in to help create the surrounding state park.
The park and railroad were opened to the public in July 4, 1976, for the nation’s bicentennial celebration. American Heritage Railways privatized the railroad in 2007 before it was sold in 2012 to Iowa Pacific Holdings, which maintains the railroad today.
The railroad offers excursions and special events throughout the year, taking only January and February off to perform annual maintenance and conduct inspections. Round-trip excursions through the Piney Woods, which is the trip I treated my husband, run from March to November and offer a unique experience. These excursions this year will begin on March 2, Texas Independence Day.
Trains depart from the Palestine and Rusk depots at 11 a.m. for a 1½-hour trip, break for lunch at the opposite depot, and then return to their original depot for a total trip of 4½ hours. Our train ride was relaxing and gave us a chance to enjoy the countryside and get to visit with some of the other passengers as we traveled. Along the way, the conductor called our attention to points of interest, including a beaver dam, locations where the railroad was filmed for movies and television shows, and historic rain line bridges.
My husband and I departed from Palestine and packed a picnic lunch, complete with birthday cake, to enjoy by the 15-acre lake in Rusk, but passengers also can pre-order a boxed lunch or purchase drinks and snacks in the train’s concession car.
Both depots serve as museums with historical artifacts, and the surrounding areas provide camping facilities and outdoor recreation, including swimming and fishing. We toured the depot, meandered through the park, and took countless photos in front of the massive steam engine after it was turned around for the return trip.
The historic steam engines, one of which is 111 years old, are the only steam engines currently operating in the state of Texas. The most exciting moment in our trip was when our train and the Rusk train passed each other mid-journey, both blaring their whistles. Everyone, both young and old, rushed to one side to get a glimpse of the gigantic steam engine puffing down the rail line toward us, while passengers from both trains waved and greeted each other in passing.
Spring is a wonderful time to ride the train because it is the height of wildflower season. The route consists of mostly forested countryside, and March is when the dogwood trees, redbud trees and wild daffodils bloom in East Texas. During the two weeks of spring break, the railroad will offer special weekday excursions so families can take advantage of the weather and scenery.
March also brings the Easter Egg Express, a special event taking place March 29-30. The train will depart from the Rusk depot and travel to Maydelle. There, passengers will be able to enjoy games, hayrides, live entertainment, Easter egg hunts for children, and, of course, meet the Easter Bunny.
Other events are hosted throughout the year, including special photography excursions and the Pumpkin Patch Express in October. The most popular event for the railroad is the Polar Express in November and December, which accounts for more than 75 percent of annual passengers. Pajama-clad children sip hot chocolate and read along with the famous story while they travel to meet Santa Claus.
Janet Gregg, marketing manager for the Texas State Railroad, helps organize group events and charter rides. She is working on a special ride for the Space City Model T Club later this year. The Houston-based car club members will bring more than 100 vintage Model T’s with them, and the car owners will pose for photos in front of a vintage steam engine before riding the train to Maydelle to see the turntable, a piece of equipment built in the 1890s that is used to turn the engines around.
The railroad has made a cameo in numerous films, including “O Brother, Where Art Thou?,” “Rough Riders” and “Streets of Laredo.” It also has been featured in television shows like “Walker, Texas Ranger,” and played a large role in a 1994 award-winning commercial for Levi Strauss. There has not been a film opportunity since Gregg started working for the railroad in 2012, but she is eagerly awaiting her chance to work on such a project.
Gregg said the railroad is special to her for many reasons.
“I grew up 20 minutes away from it and it has always been a fixture in my life in some form or fashion,” she said. “I love the history of it, the educational value, and the fact that it brings tourists to East Texas and helps showcase our lovely part of the state to the rest of the world.”
Six years later, my husband still proudly wears the T-shirt he purchased in the gift shop and asks when we can ride the trip again. The history, the relaxation, the beautiful countryside, and the childhood nostalgia all add up to a unique and unforgettable adventure. The Texas State Railroad truly is a Texas treasure.
Texas State Railroad
Where: 789 Park Road 70, Palestine
Directions: Take U.S. Highway 84 East to Palestine. Turn right onto Texas 254 Loop E. Turn right onto Highway 84-East/East Park Avenue. Turn right onto Park Road 70.
Hours: Round-trip excursions March 2-Nov. 10 on Saturdays and Sundays; March 12-15 and 19-22, Tuesday through Friday; May 31-Aug. 2 on Fridays. All round-trip excursions depart at 11 a.m.
Ticket prices: Standard seating for ages 13 and older costs $32; ages 65 and older, $28; children ages 2-12, $20; free for active duty military with ID. See website for premium seating, special event and private event prices.
Travel time: Approximately 2 hours
Phone: 903-683-2561 or 877-726-7245