Along the Texas State Railroad Route
One can’t ride the rails of Texas State Railroad without becoming immersed in the romance of train travel and the significant historic accomplishments along the route. And, the environs through which this iron road passes are every bit as intriguing. It is the Official State Railroad of Texas for a reason!
Plan to leave your mobile and gaming devices behind. Sit next to someone you love and someone who loves you. Enjoy the comradery, the friendship, the closeness that can only happen on a train … and encounter a little time travel along the way.
In 1881, inmates, incarcerated at the newly-opened East Texas Penitentiary north of Rusk, began laying the original narrow-gauge rails to transport hardwoods and charcoal used as fuel for the prison-operated smelter. The furnace supplied iron products that were shipped throughout the region, including columns and dome structuring for the capitol building in Austin. In 1909, thanks to Rusk native Governor Thomas Mitchell Campbell, prison crews completed the railroad to Palestine and commerce in the Piney Woods region flourished. The rural rails of the route between Rusk and Palestine were forged.
Little did the men laboring to construct the railroad through the temperate woodland known as State Forest #3 know that one day the line would run through Texas’ first and largest state forest. Transferred from the Texas State Prison System in 1925, the Fairchild State Forest, named for Senator I.D. Fairchild, would become synonymous with stunning seasonal changes, unusual railroad achievements and impressive wildlife and bird watching, all visible from a well-appointed railcar.
The train passes a vintage turntable which is still operable at Maydelle. Built in the late 1890s in Paris, Texas, this rare example of railroad technology was used to turn engines around in a six-stall roundhouse owned by the St. Louis & San Francisco Railroad, also known as the “Frisco.” In 1981, it was installed on the Texas State Railroad route. Several trains each year take passengers to view the actual turning of a locomotive on the turntable.
Just west of Maydelle is the site of where the only sawmill operated by the State of Texas once stood. Staffed by convict labor, the Mewshaw Mill had a daily production of 35,000 board feet of lumber from 1907 to 1912 when it burned down and was never rebuilt.
As the train moves through the undulating country of the Piney Woods it crosses over 24 bridges that span the creeks flowing through the forestland. At one point, it passes close to where the Ben Cannon Ferry crossed the Neches River from 1848 to 1851 and a toll bridge was operable from 1854 to 1924. Prior to crossing on the ferry, Native Americans and early Anglo settlers forded the river at this same site called Duty Crossing, named for early settler Richard Duty. Today, the train crosses the river on the largest bridge on the route which is 1,042 feet long and 35 feet high.
The Texas State Railroad has always been a prime setting for movie making and passengers might recognize scenery, buildings or railcars that were showcased in over two dozen films, television productions or documentaries shot on location during the past 40 years, including NBC’s Revolution.
The real stars of the Piney Woods Route are the creatures that reside in the lush wildlife refuge along the tracks. The Fairchild State Forest is home to over 100 species of birds that nest in the Catalpa and sycamore trees or the many species of hardwoods and evergreens including the fast-growing loblolly pine which can rise to over 100 feet tall. The woodlands along the route also are a sanctuary to the endangered Red-cockaded Woodpecker, one of eight species of woodpeckers that inhabits East Texas, and the bald eagle, our nation’s proud and stately symbol. It is not uncommon to see squirrels, rabbits, deer and other forest creatures scurrying through the brush as the train passes. Other sightings include fox, otters, wild hogs and even bear. Seeing domestic animals is commonplace as the train traverses expansive Texas ranchland.