I’m in good hands.
Roger Graham is driving Engine No. 300, an 83-ton, 2-8-0 steam engine built by Baldwin Locomotive Works in 1917, and Wesley Dearman is the fireman. Dearman has been with the Texas State Railroad State Park since 1979, and Graham will celebrate his 30th anniversary in June.
If that’s not enough, two special passengers are on board this crisp, clear morning. Palestine native W.L. Braughton, 93, spent 35 years driving locomotives, including Engine No. 610, a 224-ton monster now on display at the park.
“There was nothing but steam engines when I come along,” says Braughton, who started railroading in 1932. “I reckon I was one of the first engineers to run a diesel engine in Palestine.”
Jay Morrison, 92, railroaded from 1942 until 1976 and helped train (no pun intended) workers when the Texas State Railroad was first getting started as a tourist train in the early 1970s. “Some of it stuck,” Morrison says, “and some of it didn’t.”
Yes, it’s a good day to be riding the Texas State Railroad.
Then again, when isn’t it a good day to be riding a historic piece of rail?
Deep in the Pineywoods of East Texas, the Texas State Railroad takes visitors on a 41⁄2-hour, 50-mile round-trip from Rusk to Palestine, or vice versa, across 24 modern bridges. Chances are you’ll be waylaid by the Texas Regulators (steely-eyed Braughton is their marshal) or another group of re-enactors (I wonder if cowboys hold up the Strasburg Rail Road in Pennsylvania’s Dutch Country).
“That’s a Texas persona we’re always trying to sell,” says Mark T. Price, the park’s operations superintendent.
The park has also become popular with filmmakers, with productions that include The Long Riders (1979), The Long Summer of George Adams (1981), Streets of Laredo (1995), Rough Riders (1996) and American Outlaws (2000). Mostly, it’s popular with train buffs, and that includes the staff of more than 60 full- and part-time employees. “Trains are their love,” Price says.
The railroad, located about 120 miles south of Dallas and 150 miles north of Houston, got its start in 1881 when the Texas Prison System opened a penitentiary in Rusk. Inmates built the railroad to transport iron ore and wood to the prison-operated smelting furnaces. By 1906, the railroad had extended to Maydelle, and three years later, to Palestine, where a regular passenger line ran the 32 miles.
By 1913, however, the iron plant had closed. Regular train service stopped in 1921, and the line was leased to the Texas & New Orleans (Southern Pacific Railroad Company) and Texas Southeastern Railroad until 1969.
In 1972, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department took over the railroad and began rebuilding the tracks. My engineer, Roger Graham, was there.
“Trees had grown up so bad you couldn’t see that there was a track,” he recalls. “We had to clear the right of way, and it was pretty rough.”
So things came full circle. Since the railroad had been built by inmates, Texas sent prison crews from the Ellis and Eastham units to renovate the line. On July 4, 1976, the Texas State Railroad State Park opened. Inmates would come back in 1996 to clear the right of way again, plus help restore 13 passenger coaches and rebuild Engine No. 500.
For the past few years, the train averaged about 40,000 riders a year, plus 200,000 visitors to the park (and the Victorian-style depots in Rusk and Palestine). Last year, however, the railroad saw an increase in passengers to 56,000, thanks to a summer program that let kids ride free. That program will continue again this year, June through September.
Regular trains are scheduled to run Saturdays and Sundays March 12 through May and August through November 20, and Thursdays through Sundays in June and July from Rusk or Palestine. Friday departures from Rusk are also scheduled March 18, March 25 and April 1.
My train leaves Rusk, passes Oakland Crossing and goes on to Maydelle, which was founded in 1910 but declined after the railroad ended passenger service. The depot, by the way, was built for the 1985 Roy Clark-Mel Tillis movie, Uphill All the Way.
At Mewshaw Siding (near the state sawmill that used prison labor from 1908-1912), the train pulls over to let the Rusk-bound train from Palestine pass.
We cross the Neches River over the line’s longest (1,100 feet) and highest (35 feet … this isn’t the Durango & Silverton, folks) bridge. Legend has it that the engineer who designed the railroad’s first bridge over the Neches didn’t trust his own work. When the first locomotive crossed, the bridge shook violently, so violently in fact that the designer thought it was about to collapse and jumped to his death. Graham and Dearman have confidence, however, and the train sways rhythmically as we cross without incident.
Three miles east of Palestine, the train pulls into the Victorian-style depot, where passengers disembark to shop, eat and relax.
I find time to chat with Graham.
The Texas State Railroad currently owns nine engines, the oldest being No. 201, a 4-6-0 built in 1901 by A.L. Cooke and operated by the Texas & Pacific. In addition to No. 300, other steam engines include No. 400—a 2-8-2, 1917 Baldwin; No. 500—a 4-6-2, 1911 Baldwin; and the classic No. 610, which Braughton drove in 1947 and ’48. The four diesel engines date from 1844 to 1956, weighing 45-120 tons.
Graham has driven both diesel and steam engines.
“Diesels are easy,” Graham says. “Steam engines are like a live human being. They have different personalities. Each has a different way of running, and you get used to each engine, plus there is always motion involved. Diesels are just there.”
You’ve probably already guessed that Graham prefers driving a steam engine rather than a diesel.
“I like the sound of the whistle, too,” he says.
Johnny D. Boggs once shot a man in Reno, just to watch him die.