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Traveling the Tracks of the Ozarks

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January 5, 2011 by wcobserver

By Alison Grisham

One hundred years ago, before the automobile changed our collective way of life, the steam engine was the fastest, most modern mode of transportation in the country. “Cannonballs,” as the express passenger trains were called, flew through the Boston Mountains at 60 mph, not stopping for anything or anyone.  There was an excitement in the air and high-style travelers sat in dining cars, while those on modest budgets rode on bench seats, just happy not to be stowing away on the boxcars.

In our little part of the country, passenger trains are a thing of the past. The bread and butter of today’s rail system, is in transporting freight.  Anything from seed to sand is sent over the 139 miles of Ozark Mountain track bringing in the funds necessary to keep the railroad going.  Luckily, bread and butter aren’t the only things of interest to the Arkansas & Missouri railroad.  Over the years, antique passenger cars have been meticulously restored to their former glory in the form of excursion trains, and are being served up to new passengers like a warm slice of apple pie.

One of the most popular day excursions offered by the Arkansas & Missouri Railroad, begins in Springdale and runs round trip to Van Buren, with a 2 -3 hour stop for shopping.   While it usually goes through the foothills of the Boston Mountains into the river basin town of Van Buren without stops, there is always some wiggle room.  For instance, it only took a couple of phone calls from my editor, and the train agreed to pick me up in downtown West Fork.  This is the kind of flexibility that can be expected with A & M.

The 1917-1920’s Pullman cars that have been painstakingly restored by the company, feature velvet green benches with lots of leg room.  The 1950’s vintage Parlor car has been fitted with leather chairs sitting around small round tables for full service dining.  Mahogany wall panels and tin coved ceilings add to the authenticity. But it’s the fun-loving conductors who bring the journeys to life.

Conductor Mike Castner, for example, shared his love of trains with me yesterday. “It’s just fun,” he said. “I get to meet and talk to people all day long.”  Mike, who formerly ran a construction business, loves public speaking and getting a chance to relive a part of history every day.  If I had ever imagined traveling back in time, Mike would have been the conductor pictured in my head.

Another Conductor, Larry Long, a regular with A& M for the past 5 – 6 years, stopped his planned speech to point out some passing deer through the window.  He then mentioned a recent lack of cows in the area.

“I seen some cows, Mike,” replied Conductor Janie Todd, while serving coffee and donuts, “but I haven’t seen any summer cows.”

“What’s a summer cow?” ventured a passenger.

“Summer white, summer brown, some are black…”  ba dum dum.  These are the jokes, folks.  They may be silly, but they’re also a charming part of the day.

Long thinks it’s also important to share a little bit of Arkansas history, even if it’s not so pleasant.  Outside of Shaberg, the train passed a couple of little white crosses decorated with worn ribbons and withered wreaths.  Each year, the railroad adorns the crosses in memory of the hundred or so African-American men who died of smallpox while building the railroad.  Put in a mass grave at the time of burial, the bones were discovered after a particularly heavy rain back in the 1930’s.  The workers were later buried underneath the railway, making them a permanent part of the history that they worked so hard to build.

Those are the kinds of stories that stick with you for the return trip.

Todd, who joined the railroad over the summer, loves the part-time work.  But she admits to a daily dose of Dramamine to cope with the motion sickness that comes with the job. Even with that,“it’s worth it,” she said.

Locomotives no longer run on the combustion steam engines like they once did.  Kevin Hallmark… the A & M train engineer for the past 6 years, and his son Chase Williams, 13, who helps out on weekends, keep the train moving with a last-of-it’s-kind Alco electric diesel engine.  The sturdy engine, purchased in 1965, had yesterday’s 3-car train gliding through Chester at a comfortable 34 miles per hour.

Among the passengers with me, were West Fork residents, Kevin Fronterhouse, and his 13 year-old daughter Julia.  They were accompanied by Kevin’s brother, David Fronterhouse, owner of Fronterhouse Concepts, and David’s 13 year-old daughter Peyton, an eighth grade student at Greenland Middle School.  The girls, who were both riding a train for the first time, enjoyed snacks and playing a game of cards in the dining car, but were a bit surprised that the train didn’t run a little faster.

It’s true that the train doesn’t go particularly fast.  Although riding through the Winslow Tunnel is certainly… dark. With no sunlight coming through the 1702 feet length of track, the cars are pitch black as they travel the distance which sits 1730 feet above sea level.  The railroad pass, largely carved through the Boston Mountains by workers who would later die of smallpox, is the highest point between the Appalachians and the Rockies.

Also of note, are the three railroad trestles which support the weight of the train while it passes over the ravines below.  The Winslow trestle spans the hollow 125 feet above a quiet stream on this scenic journey.  From a distance, it is quite awe-inspiring.

Gabriella Griffin, a 9 year-old contest winner from Siloam Springs, was also aboard after winning two tickets in the railroad’s Christmas Train Poster Contest.  When hearing about the train trestles, the young champion was afraid to climb aboard.  But after a few minutes, she was comfortable and excited to be part of the adventure.

Tickets for scheduled excursions, such as Casino nights and the very popular Christmas Express, are available for purchase throughout the year.  However, the train is also available for social events such as birthday parties, retirement gatherings and weddings.

But don’t plan to set your watch by this train.  That’s one thing that hasn’t been revived from the past.  Excursion trains are not prompt and the length of the journey can vary between 2 and 3 hours in total length.  But it’s worth it.  For me, yesterday’s excursion was more than a trip… it was a trip back in time.

For further information about scheduling and pricing, please contact the A & M railroad at 1.800.687.8600/751.8600 or visit their website at Amrailroad.com.

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