The Texas State Railroad is owned and operated by the American Heritage Railways, and operates a variety of vintage steam and diesel locomotives over 24 miles of track between its depots at Palestine and Rusk in East Texas.
The railroad's history was patchy to say the least, and with hindsight it probably should not have been built. However it was, and miraculously it survived long enough into the 1960s to become a viable option for preservation. The line re-opened as a preserved/tourist line under State Park ownership in 1976. As the first steam tourist steam line in Texas, it was a great success. Although visitor numbers have dropped after other lines have opened, the Texas State Railroad continues to be a success. More recently, the poor financial condition of Texas State Parks & Wildlife threatened to close the Texas State Railroad. Luckily American Heritage Railways were able to purchase the operation and keep it open.
The Texas State Railroad started life in 1881 with the completion of a large new prison at Rusk in East Texas. As well meeting the needs of a growing prison population, the prison was intended to operate a local iron smelter using iron ore extracted from local hills. The prison service planned to be self sufficient by by selling the resulting pig iron and farming implements, but this would never happen without an operating railroad near the prison. Two railroads had already bypassed Rusk in 1872, and the Rusk Transportation Company had tried to build an ill-conceived wooden-rail railroad to Jacksonville. The 3ft gauge Kansas & Gulf Shortline Railroad Company (K&GSL) was persuaded to detour in the direction of Rusk in return for the use of prison labour during construction. The K&GSL chose to use as much of the Rusk Transportation route as possible, but would still only pass within about 1.5 miles of the prison due to the presence of a large hill. A spur was required and the prison service had to build it. The spur route required a lot of grading and bridge-building, and was operational by 1883.
Initially the K&GSL operated trains over the prison spur, but ceased this service in 1886. Hence the prison purchased a lightweight 2-6-0 Mogul and flatcar to operate its own services. Ironically the orders for this new development were issued by Governor Ireland, aka. "Oxcart John", who was notorious for his opposition of railroad land grants.
The prison railroad proved useful, and over the years a number of short spurs and logging camps were built out into prison-owned forest. These harvested all types of timber to make charcoal for the smelter. The logging and charcoal camps were noted for being uncomfortable. Being in secluded locations, escapes and killings were not uncommon.
By the 1890s, transshipment of the pig iron and products from the 3ft K&GSL to standard gauge railroads was proving problematic. Originally it had been hoped that the iron smelting operations would have attracted other railroads to the area, but they never came. During the 1880s, the concept of extending the State Railroad westwards to the International & Great Northern (I&GN) had been suggested on a number of occasions. This came to nothing until Jim Hogg became governor in 1891. Hogg had already made a name for himself fighting the railroad corporations as the Texas attorney general. Arguing that railroads were similar to public highways that should serve the public interest, he founded the Texas Railroad Commission later in 1891. Although he argued against government ownership of the railroads, he was not against a small railroad or two operated by the state penitentiary. In 1892, Hogg ordered the Huntsville state prison to build a short narrow gauge railroad to carry logs to its sawmill. He then directed the Rusk prison line to be extended westwards to join the I&GN at Palestine. The new line would be standard gauge and would tap the state forest through which it would pass. Construction started in November 1893. For a while during the 1890s, the original spur was laid with 3 rails allowing the standard gauge locomotive to haul cars of both gauges. By 1894, seven miles were graded and five miles had track.
Joseph D. Sayers became the new governor in January 1899. The Rusk iron operations had never been profitable, and Sayers' advisers recommended the complete abandonment of all iron operations. Instead, they were seriously curtailed. Although the railroad continued to be extended to reach available timber, the original plan of connecting with the I&GN was dropped. S.W.T. Lanham became governor in 1903, and he was determined to make Rusk profitable. He fitted a new, larger furnace to the smelting plant, and the railroad extension was restarted. In 1903 a new route was chosen and six miles of the old extension were abandoned. By 1904 the railroad extended a total of nine miles from the prison. By this time, the K&GSL had been converted to standard gauge and sold to the Cotton Belt Railroad. The new furnace needed coke instead of charcoal, and extension of the State Railroad stopped again.
Thomas M. Campbell became governor in January 1907. As a native of Rusk, he was very interested in a railroad link between Rusk and Palestine. One of his first priorities was the Texas State Railroad bill which was passed in April 1907. This gave the prison commission the powers to extend the railroad westwards to Palestine, and northwards to the Texas & New Orleans Railroad (T&NO). Eminent domain and common carrier status were both granted. Despite the new powers, construction continued to be slow due to the use of convict labour. By April 1909, the T&NO had built its own extension to Rusk. Dogged by cost over-runs, the State Railroad finally reached Palestine in July 1909. The final length was 32.5 miles long, including the prison spur at Rusk.
Public trains started in August 1909. Initial services consisted of one return mixed train per day. The first passenger-only train is thought to have been a Labor Day Special that year. On September 27th of that year, the state sawmill at Mewshaw burnt to the ground. With the loss of the mill and the scattered nature of the remaining timber, it was deemed uneconomic to renew operations. The state's logging Shay locomotive was sold, and the mill prisoners were returned to Rusk prison.
The iron smelter continued to lose money and was finally closed in 1910. Although originally intended as the primary commodity, the State Railroad only ever carried a small amount of iron. The blast furnace was sold in 1919, re-acquired by default in 1929, and finally demolished in 1931. The prison closed in 1917, and re-opened in 1919 as the Rusk State Hospital.
With the loss of the iron traffic and the sawmill, uncut lumber would become the railroad's primary traffic until 1921. This was carried to the prison where it was used by a prison-operated box factory. Several private sawmills were located along the route, and spurs were laid connecting them to the railroad.
During the state's operation of the railroad, it became the subject of repeated investigations and reports. Performance was described as "crippled" by at least one employee. Speed limits were officially 12mph with trestle speeds of 4-6mph. Despite this, safety concerns usually led to about one quarter of the track operating at a maximum speed of 9mph. Construction was shoddy and required constant maintenance. Crossties (sleepers) were made from local untreated pine. The track was unballasted and regularly slumped in the marshy ground. Under such conditions, the ties were lucky to survive beyond 3 years. As early as 1910, ties were being replaced at a terrific rate of 20,000 rotted ties per year (20%/yr). The trestle bridges did not fair much better. Bean's Creek trestle was completely replaced in 1912.
Faulty and broken locomotives and rolling stock led to further unreliability. Oil-burning locomotives and their crews often had to be leased from the I&GN.
Between 1910 and 1920, the Texas State Railroad never made a profit. In fact the expenses were almost double the income, with an average operating ratio over 175%. Calls for the State to sell the railroad started to appear as soon as it opened. Although most people were calling for it to be sold or abandoned, $100,000 were appropriated for improvements in 1915 and provisions were allowed for an extension to Dallas. The extension debate continued until 1917 when Governor William P. Hobby attempted to lease the 'white elephant' railroad.
By 1921 the management of the State Railroad was passed to a committee of "experienced, practical railroad men". Unfortunately they were only given $25,000, so they could only afford to partially rehabilitate the line with federal war-surplus rail. Old rail, locomotives, and rolling stock were sold to pay for other repairs. The line was then leased to the T&NO who promised to maintain the railroad in a "good and safe condition". The original lease was for five years, but was continually extended until 1962. The lease also demanded that the T&NO paid the State of Texas half of all net operating income. Net income continued to be low or non existent, so the net effect was for the Texas to avoid the expenses of operating the railroad.
The railroad tended to do better under T&NO operations and even included an overnight Pullman service to Dallas during the 1920s. Mixed freight and passenger operations appear to have continued operating until the early 1950s, when the railroad became freight only.
Original T&NO haulage was in the form of light 2-6-0 and 4-4-0 steam engines. During the 1950s, these were replaced with lightweight diesel-electric switchers (shunters).
The T&NO lease finished in 1962, and the Texas State Railroad was leased by the Texas South-Eastern Railroad (TS-E) until 1969. A profit was only made in two of the lease's seven years.
Shortly after the end of the TS-E lease, J.B. Langhorne created the Cherokee and Southwestern Tourist Railroad with Leon Edwards and Paul Cox of the Rusk Chamber of Commerce. Tourism was just beginning to develop in East Texas and the Rusk Chamber of Commerce was keen to be involved with this new venture. By early 1970, the State Railroad lease had been negotiated. A locomotive was purchased, and the rolling stock was purchased or leased. The Cherokee Southwestern Tourist Railroad was dedicated on 10th April 1970. With all the news media present, the opening was an embarrassment. The locomotive failed earlier in the day and never left the staging area. With a lack of sufficient financing and equipment, the Cherokee and Southwestern had little chance of success and closed before the end of the year.
Despite this failure, there was still a large public interest in the State Railroad opening as a steam-operated tourist line. In early 1971 the ex-Wells banker Jack R. Stone was appointed to the Texas Parks & Wildlife Commission. At about this time, Stone had been discussing the railroad with Rusk's mayor Emmett H. Whitehead. Both were keen on re-opening the railroad as a steam tourist venture, but both knew it would require millions of dollars to be a success. Feasibility studies were conducted in late 1971. By March 1972, the Texas State Railroad was transferred to the Parks & Wildlife Commission and was followed by a $3 million appropriation in August. The funding was to refurbish 26 miles of the original 33 mile route, with stations at the west end of Palestine, and the east end of Rusk. Rusk and Palestine were asked to provide supporting facilities such as campsites.
Prison labour was used again; this time to clear brush during 1973. Although light rail was originally used, traffic levels were low and only a few sections had to be replaced. Later rail replacements have used heavier modern rail. The initial restoration was without ballast (as originally laid), but ballast was added during the late 1970s.
Despite cost over-runs at both the state and city level, the Texas State Railroad met its Bicentennial deadline of 1976. The line reopened on 25th June with No. 200 painted in red, white, and blue.
Locomotives were acquired from a number of sources and in a variety of conditions. Swaps and deals have managed to replace partial engines for new boilers to return another locomotive to service. The pictures on this page are of No 300, a Baldwin 'General Pershing' 2-8-0 build for the US Army during World War 1. This mainly worked at Fort Polk in Louisiana. It was purchased by the Tremont & Gulf Railway in the 1940s, who sold it to Temple in 1955. Temple retired it from service in the 1960s and donated it to the Texas State Railroad in November 1972. Needing a new boiler, it did not enter service until 1996.
About half of the passenger cars are commuter coaches built in 1923 by the Standard Steel Car Company for the Chicago, Rock Island & Pacific Railroad. Other cars come from a variety of sources including the Santa Fe, and the Pennsylvania.
Operations typically involve two return trip workings per day. Trains leave Palestine and Rusk at the same time in the morning, and pass at Mewshaw. After lunch, both trains then return to their start points.
Operating limitations were experienced when the Neches River trestle had to be replaced. This led to the addition of a turntable at Maydelle, and a wye at Jarvis. These allow short excursions to be operated from both Palestine and Rusk. These excursions have proved popular for special events and school trips.
More recently, the poor financial condition of Texas State Parks & Wildlife threatened to close the Texas State Railroad. Luckily American Heritage Railways were able to purchase the operation in 2007 and keep it open.
Although the Texas State Railroad now sees competition from the two other steam railroads in Texas, it remains a popular Texas tourist destination. It can also be regularly seen on TV and in movies.
The following resources were used in the writing of this page, and are recommended for people looking for further information.