Excursion Train Ride Is Fun for All Ages

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Arkansas & Missouri Railroad
Arkansas & Missouri Railroad

From tunnels to trestles, waving onlookers to passengers, the train’s whistle to the wheels’s clickety-clack, the Arkansas and Missouri Railroad’s excursion ride is a temporary fountain of youth for the mind and spirit.

At least that’s the affect it’s having on me as I travel aboard it from Springdale to historic Van Buren, a 134-mile round trip.

High bluffs, valleys, forestlands, clear-running waters, and mountains pass by slowly as the train slips along ribbons of track on its way south. The slight, rhythmic sway of the train’s car is soothing, like a mother rocking her child to sleep. In fact, we’re just a few miles out of the station and it has already lulled a handful of my 90, fellow passengers into a mid-morning nap. But I’m wide awake, enjoying my coffee, and the soft, plush seats and African Mahogany interior complemented by green stained glass and small gold luggage racks.

Although the diesel locomotives are modern (the A & M’s primary function is freight hauling), the excursion cars are restored passenger cars. I’m riding in No. 106, constructed in 1926 for the Central Railroad of New Jersey. The other is No. 104, also known as the Biloxi Blues because it was used in the Neil Simon movie.

During restoration, it took 150 gallons of commercial paint remover to remove more than 12 layers of old paint. The only major modifications to the cars were the electrical system, heating and air conditioning, and EPA required holding tanks.

As the landscape slides by, I watch for wildlife. Our conductor, John Farrell, a volunteer drawn from the ranks of a local railway historical society, has seen foxes, coyotes, deer, turkeys, beavers, turtles and rabbits.  As earlier instructed by him, I call out “Deer on the right!” to notify other passengers of the limber Bambi running in a field. It is the first of many deer alerts to come.

Wildlife isn’t the only element to spot from the train. Along the way are towns and small communities where children still wave to passing trains. I imagine Engineer Tom LeClaire logs more waves than a beauty queen, because it’s not just children that like to wave at passing trains.

The Route

From the Springdale station, the train passes through Johnson, Fayetteville, Greenland, and West Fork to Winslow. The conductor regales us with train lore and information about the Boston Mountains section of the Ozarks. He points out that West Fork is named for the west fork of the White River and Winslow is the highest incorporated town in Arkansas. It is named for the 1881 president of the former Frisco railroad, Edward J. Winslow.

The highlight of the trip is passage through the venerable Winslow tunnel, the highest railroad pass between the Rockies and the Appalachians. At an elevation of 1,735 feet, the tunnel runs 1,702 feet through rock. As we approach it, the light in the car dims then fades to black. Passengers chatter loudly. Looking out the rear window of the train, I see a figure’s silhouette against the trailing daylight. My eyes still haven’t adjusted to the dark when slowly, light filters back in the windows as the cars of the train pass back into the bright sun.

The tunnel was built in 1882, but enlarged from 1966 to 1968 and sealed with a concrete lining to accommodate larger more modern equipment.

Just one mile past the tunnel, LeClaire stops the train on the first of three high railroad bridges called “trestles.” A slight sense of vertigo passes over me as I gaze down from our train’s125-foot-high perch above a valley. During the spring, eagles and red-tailed hawks can be seen nesting in the trees and soaring above. In the fall, leaves look like a sea reflecting the setting sun.

A distance of one mile also separates trestle two and three; the former is 421 feet long and about 110 feet high, the latter, a 451-foot-long bridge, also 110 feet above a valley. Trestle two also marks our descent of a three percent grade, one of the ten steepest grades on a standard gauge railroad in the U.S.

“If the brakes go out now we would be in Van Buren in about 10 minutes,” jokes the conductor.

The grade benefited early train robbers because the steepness required a reduction in speed, allowing robbers to drop off a cliff, known as Schraberg Pass, onto the top of the train cars. Robbers climbed into the cars, robbed the passengers, then jumped off the train to their horses, stashed just before trestle three.

The train continues through rugged mountain terrain, passing under Interstate 49 three times. For the most part, the track is flanked by I-49 and Scenic Byway 71.

The train moves through the heart of Chester, a town I only know via highway signage. Actor Rob Lowe and country singer Randy Travis know it. They fought a battle at the old hotel at Chester during the shooting of a movie about outlaws Frank and Jesse James.

At Mountainburg, we for the first of many times cross over Clear Creek, also known as Frog Bayou. As we pass small towns like Rudy and Copp, openings through the trees lining the track provide glimpses of pastures, farms, bales of hay, swimming holes, rope swings, and old homes with screened in porches.  Honeysuckle, Queen Anne’s Lace, and Brown-Eyed Susan punctuate the view.

We left the Springdale station at 8 a.m. and arrive in Van Buren at 10:30 a.m. for about a three-hour lay-over. About six blocks long, Van Buren’s Main Street looks much the way it did during the Victorian era, with street lamps and period building facades.

Inside the vintage buildings are specialty shops, art galleries, and cafes. Among the treasures to be found here are fine art, pottery, dolls, weavings, quilts, wood carvings, soaps, toys, antiques, and more antiques. Passengers are welcome to bring back any antiques or larger items, as long as they will fit through the train door.

After stretching our legs, filling our stomachs and shopping, passengers gather back at the train station, talking and chatting as if we are old friends getting reacquainted. I settle back in my seat to enjoy the peaceful ride home and find it’s a relaxing massage for my mind.

Suddenly my head is filled with the riddle I recited every time I saw a railroad track as a kid; after all, my grandfather is a retired railroad man. “Car! Car! C-A-R. Can you spell that without any R’s?” I smile at the reminder of my youth and wonder when I figured out how to spell that without any R’s.

A family on the excursion train
A family on the excursion train

The A&M

The A&M railroad extends 150 miles between Monett, Mo. and Fort Smith. The line was originally built by the St. Louis-San Francisco Railroad between 1880 and 1882 with the intention of reaching San Francisco. Better known as the “Frisco,” the line never progressed by 1886 past Paris, Texas.

In 1980, the Frisco was acquired and merged with other lines to form the Burlington Northern system. Burlington Northern then sold a portion of the track in 1986 to a group of investors who formed the A&M railroad.

A&M runs as many as five trains a day, six or seven days a week. The main commodities hauled are feed grain, sand, steel, lumber, auto parts, coal and poultry products.