Ah, The Romance of the Rails:
Take A Trip On A Train

by Eleanor S. Morris

The Texas State Railroad, one of the nation's largest and most unique steam train systems, has been steaming through the Piney Woods of East Texas since 1893. Today you can take an excursion through the beautiful pine woods and hardwood creek bottoms from Rusk to Palestine (pronounced Palesteen), boarding a historic passenger car pulled by an antique locomotive.

Pretend it's more than a hundred years ago as you ride the rails on a nostalgic, relaxing trip through the flora and foliage of East Texas. "All aboard!" the conductor cries and the historic steam train chugs ahead for the 50-mile round-trip between the two East Texas towns. Crossing 24 bridges, the train follows the route built by state prisoners long ago, and perhaps you'll be reminded of a simpler time, the Golden Age of Steam.

You can board the historic train at either Rusk or Palestine. Both ends of the line have a Victorian-style train station. The station offers historical exhibits as well as a Railroad Store with all sorts of unique gifts, nostalgic keepsakes and educational toys: youngsters' favorite Thomas the Tank Engine is there in many guises.

The old cars have reversible seats, and the windows are open, letting in the sound of birds and bullfrogs, the clickety-clack of the train wheels, the sudden haunting whoo-whoooo of the train whistle. In spring you'll see dogwood in bloom, and all summer the train chugs through lush green foliage, tall pine trees. In fall warm shades of red and gold blanket the autumn woods.

The rhythm of the train is relaxing as you sway back and forth around curves, watching bright light slanting in between the trees. Whether you board the train at Rusk or Palestine, the trip takes an hour and a half to reach the opposite station. Once you've arrived, you have an hour to enjoy lunch, browse through the depot's store or take a short nature walk until you re-board for the trip home.

Still a fully self-contained railroad system, train crews maintain and operate four steam engines, four antique diesel locomotives, and a complete steam-engine restoration shop. The track crew maintains more than 25 miles of track and 24 bridges. The Texas State Railroad is one of the only steam railroads in the country that runs two steam trains simultaneously. The eastbound and the westbound trains meet daily at the mid-point of the run. This gives you rail enthusiasts a rare chance to see two historic steam engines switch and pass. And, you can tour the steam-engine cab and visit the engineer as well.

You can camp and picnic on the spot, too. Rusk State Park offers shaded picnic tables, a scenic 15-acre lake, and full-hookup camping. Palestine State Park also has shaded picnic tables, and water-only camping sites. Both parks are adjacent to the depots.

Reservations are recommended: in Texas call 1-800-442-8952; outside Texas call 1-903-683-2561.

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