RUSK, Texas (AP) — In the late 1800s, prisoners from Rusk Penitentiary started building a railroad to help transport raw materials to support the institution's iron smelting operations.
The Tyler Morning Telegraph reports the line reached Palestine in the early 1900s and services along the 50-mile round trip route were expanded along the way to include freight and passengers.
When profits began to lag, services ceased and eventually the rail system in the 1970s was turned over to the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department, which oversaw operations until 2007 when it was leased to private operators.
There have been myriad changes over the years, but new original collections of early artifacts and memorabilia on display detail the early days of the iconic East Texas rail line.
"We are extremely proud to present all aspects of this historic train line to our guests," said Teresa A. Propeck, vice president of passenger services. "The history and memorabilia associated with Texas State Railroad and its powerful iron horses span well over a century."
The historic rail line is in the hands of a new operator, the Utah-based Western Group, which took over operations in March from Iowa Pacific Holdings.
The line was the subject of a rumored closure earlier this year, but reopened in the spring with a new owner and focus.
Western Group has funneled money into operations in hopes of creating an improved visitor experience, creating at both the Rusk and Palestine Depots a full-meal café, a gift shop and new attractions, including displays of historical artifacts highlighting the marvels of rail travel.
Efforts are also underway to create by next year a train museum, giving guests an all-encompassing view of what some call the official railroad of Texas.
"It has to tell a story," said Sabrina Whetsell, guest services manager. "There are fewer and fewer people who are experiencing this (train travel) in their lives. We're telling the history of the railroad — that's the goal of the depot, to tell the story."
To help illustrate the colorful history of the old railroad, caretakers went searching for artifacts.
"There were things stashed in every crack and crevice," General Manager Greg Udolph said. "We were very fortunate — we had a lot to choose from."
The Rusk depot features a variety of receipts and pieces of correspondence dating back to the early 1900s.
The documents capture details of a by-gone era, including a 1911 telegraph signed by R. C. Goodfellow that reads, "Received H.P. McMillan, two dollars and 50 cents, payment for services bringing steer from Butlers Mill to North Rusk."
There are old books about vintage railroad cars and maps detailing specific designs for the line.
Palestine's depot has a similar trove of treasures with storyboards highlighting everything from train movement warrants to securities bonds, design outlines and century-old letters.
"It gives everyone a look back into the investment of not only money, but time and ideas, of the people who started this line," Propeck said.
Plans are underway to expand the history exhibit next year, creating a rolling stock museum in the Palestine depot complex.
The museum is expected to feature some of the iconic machines of the steam era, including the Texas & Pacific Engine 610, which is the sole surviving example of a super-power steam locomotive built in 1927.
Another example set for display is the 1901 Texas & Pacific 'Ten Wheeler" 316, an older engine in the collection representing a turn-of-the-century pinnacle in land transportation technology, Propeck said by email.
If all goes according to plan, guests will be able to explore a 1920s wooden caboose from the Chicago Rock Island & Pacific Railroad to see where the railroad conductor — the "skipper" — and his brakemen lived and worked.
An 1899 office car, used by railroad workers as a rolling office to manage and inspect the lines, is also tapped to serve as a display piece,
"The sheer size of these behemoths is breathtaking and makes one marvel at the complexity, and simplicity, of these powerful Goliaths of the rails," she said.
There are very few opportunities these days to get up close and personal with vintage steam and diesel locomotives.
The Texas State Railroad maintains a mixed fleet of five steam locomotives and four diesels of various ages.
During a recent visit to the Rusk depot, one of its rare wheeled residents — a massive 1953 locomotive freight engine — was hard at work moving freight.
Diesel No. 8, as it is known around the rail line, is a no-frills example of a vintage rail workhorse, sporting a 1660-horse-power engine created by American Locomotive, according to railroad officials.
It was last in service in 1981 at the McAlester, Oklahoma, United States Army munitions plant. The Texas State Railroad acquired it in 1982 as surplus and put it into service, primarily as a work locomotive.
"I don't think there are four in operation," Udolph said of its rarity.
Engineer Larry Pitbladdo is at home on the hulking piece of history. He's been working with trains for 37 years.
He grew up playing with toy trains and there's apparently nothing else he would rather be doing as a career.
"I love it," Pitbladdo said. "It's a different thing every day, different situations."
Dan Volker, 23, a train buff since boyhood, is part of a new generation of conductors.
His mechanical skills seem to generate high marks around the rail yard.Comment on this story
"Every day will teach you something new, if you pay attention," Volker said.
Passengers embarking on one of the railroad's many excursions can enjoy the fruits of their labor and the best these old engines have to offer: open cabs, unique refreshments and scenic landscapes.
It's about the only place in Texas that offers this type of experience, and one of only a handful in the United States, the general manager said.
"People riding trains are telling us what they want to see," Udolph said. "That's what we're trying to give them."