Day Trips

Steam trains played a leading role in the development of Texas

Day Trips
Photo by Gerald E. McLeod

The age of steam trains ushered in a period of remarkable development in Texas. For more than 60 years, beginning in 1853, the locomotive was the engine that drove the economy and brought Texans closer together.

According to the Handbook of Texas, a Houston writer claimed that a 35-mile trip by stagecoach took a day and a half. A trip of the same distance three years later aboard the Houston and Texas Central Railroad took an hour and 40 minutes.

Texas still holds the title of the state with the most miles of rails that it first earned in 1911. Currently, almost 11,000 miles of track lace the state together, a drop from a peak of 17,000 miles in 1932.

Evidence of the once proud steam engines can be found around the state. The Texas State Railroad pulls vintage passenger cars with steam and diesel locomotives through the East Texas forest between Palestine and Rusk. Built in 1881, the railroad became a state park in 1972. The Parks Department ran the excursion trips until 2007, when the park was contracted to the same company that does the Durango & Silverton and Great Smoky Mountains railroads.

For a more urban train ride pulled by an 1896 steam engine, the Grapevine Vintage Railroad travels between Grapevine and the Fort Worth Stockyards. The steam locomotive that once pulled the Hill Country Flyer was destroyed in a tornado, but vintage railroad cars are still used for the trip between Cedar Park and Burnet.

Texas has several museums dedicated to railroading history. Many towns have preserved, if not restored, their old railroad depots as a monument to the past. Depots in Brownwood, Smithville, Temple, and San Angelo have been restored and opened to the public. The Museum of the American Railroad in Dallas' Fair Park has one of the largest collections of rolling stock in the Southwest. The Galveston Railroad Museum was severely damaged by Hurricane Ike and won't open again until late 2009 or early 2010.

Legend incorrectly accuses New York financier and railroad owner Jay Gould of deliberately bypassing Jefferson with his tracks in the 1880s. Ironically, his luxury railroad car is now open to tourists in the northeastern Texas town.

If you want to spend the night in a real caboose, head to the Antlers Hotel in Kingsland. Built as a railroad resort in 1901 with steam trains delivering vacationers and traveling salesmen, the hotel's current owners have remodeled several railroad cars as additional suites.

There were only a few railroad tunnels built in Texas, and two of them are open to the public. In Caprock Canyons State Park outside of Quitaque, 64 miles of former railroad right-of-way, including a tunnel, were converted into trail. South of Fredericksburg, the abandoned railroad tunnel at Old Tunnel Wildlife Management Area is a home to 3 million bats.

944th in a series. Day Trips, Vol. 2, a book of "Day Trips" 101-200, is available for $8.95, plus $3.05 for shipping, handling, and tax. Mail to: Day Trips, PO Box 33284, South Austin, TX 78704.

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steam trains, Texas State Railroad, Durango & Silverton Railroad, Great Smoky Mountains Railroad, Grapevine Vintage Railroad, Museum of the American Railroad

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