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Rusk, Texas and Palestine, Texas - East Texas Pineywoods Region

Engine 300

Engine 300 at the Texas State Railroad

The early 1900s steam engine blows its whistle twice, the train bell clangs, and you pass by the water tower as you depart the station. As you hear the clickety-clack of the wheels on the tracks and feel the motion of the railcar, you are experiencing a little piece of life as it was a century ago. This is no movie, and this is certainly no miniature train. You are riding in an authentic, restored 1920s railcar along the Texas State Railroad!

The Texas State Railroad (TSRR) was built in 1881 by inmates of the Rusk Penitentiary (the 2nd federal prison in Texas). The rail line was built to support the prison-run iron smelter. It was the Rusk iron operation that supplied iron during the construction of the Texas State Capitol Building in Austin.

The line was extended to Maydelle in 1906, and to Palestine three years later. Connections at Palestine joined the line with other freight lines.

Rusk Penitentiary became Rusk State Hospital in 1913 and regular rail service along the line stopped in 1921. The railroad joined Texas Parks & Wildlife in 1972 and was opened to the public on July 4, 1976 to celebrate the US Bicentennial.

In 2007, Texas Parks and Wildlife ceased operation of the railroad as part of the State Parks System. Operations were contracted to American Heritage Railways until November 1, 2012 when the TSRR was purchased by Iowa Pacific Holdings. RV and tent camping are available onsite at the Rusk Depot campgrounds.

the Rusk Depot

Relaxing at the Rusk Depot

Rusk Depot ticket office

The Rusk Depot Ticket Office

Our excursion began from the Rusk Depot. Our locomotive: Engine 300, one of two surviving US Army "Pershing" engines. It was built in 1917 for service during World War I. The 300 found a home at the Texas State Railroad in 1976.

Maydelle turntable

The 1890s Maydelle Turntable

Along the route to Palestine, we passed Engine 316, the oldest locomotive active on the TSRR. This classic was built in 1901, and is the ONLY operating Texas & Pacific steam locomotive in existence. The 316 has been with the Texas State Railroad since 1974.

enclosed passenger car

Enclosed Passenger Car

open air passenger car

Open Air Passenger Car

Also in the TSRR collection are: Engine 7 built in 1947, Engine 8 built in 1953, Engine 400 built in 1917, Engine 500 built in 1911, and Engine 610 built in 1927.

Currently, the Texas State Railroad season is March 2 through November 10. During most of the summer, they are operating on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays. You can depart from the Rusk Depot or the Palestine Depot.

Full excursions depart one of the two depots and travel approximately one and a half hours through the Piney Woods of East Texas to the other depot where guests stop over for a picnic lunch before returning to their original depot. Both depots house displays of historical photos commemorating the building of the railroad as well as the history of the local area. The Rusk Depot also offers a free movie about the railroad. Prior to departure, everyone is given an opportunity to walk through the locomotive to get an up-close look of these beautiful, classic machines.

Engine 316

Here Comes the 316 from Palestine!

If a 4 1/2 hour excursion is too long for you, you have the option of riding halfway. On a half excursion, you depart from one of the depots and change trains at the halfway point where the 2 trains meet. You read that right. At the meeting point, the trains will stop and half trip passengers will get off of their original train and board the other, riding back on a different train to their original destination.

If you select the half trip option, it's best to leave from the Palestine Depot. The train blows out steam from its sides as it crosses a bridge near Palestine. It's one of the highlights of the trip. Call the reservation office for information on half trips.

Palestine Depot picnic area

Palestine Depot Picnic Area

Palestine Depot ticket office

Palestine Depot Ticket Office

We had a great experience riding the Texas State Railroad! We took a small cooler on board, but you could also choose to purchase drinks or snacks from the concession car. We ordered a box lunch when we made our reservations. The lunch was ready for us when we arrived in Palestine and was very good. A menu is available on the TSRR website.

You have several choices regarding where you ride in the train. We opted for the Standard Open Air seating. Our car was fully covered, but had no windows. Our seats were wooden benches with backs and were actually very comfortable. We were a bit worried about selecting this option during the Summer, but between the shade provided by the roof and the breeze blowing through the open windows, it was great! Even in the heat of the Summer, we were comfortable, never needed sunblock or extra deodorant, and would absolutely select Open Air seating again. The added bonus: no windows to get between the camera and the landscape! Other seating options: Standard Coach Seating which is in an enclosed car with windows you can choose to open and padded, upholstered seating (but no air conditioning) and Lone Star Class Premium Seating which offers table seating in a fully enclosed and climate controlled car along with beverage and snack service. For a truly unique experience, guests 18+ can select an Engine Cab Ride.

2 Classic Steam Trains Pass Each Other on the Texas State Railroad

The Texas State Railroad is a true gem of our State. The Rusk Depot is located on Park Road 76 in Rusk, Texas. The Palestine Depot is at 789 Park Road 70 in Palestine, Texas. Since parting ways with Texas Parks & Wildlife, it has struggled to continue. But during our visit, we met several hard-working folks dedicated to maintaining and continuing to develop this unique experience for folks to enjoy for generations to come. Please support them by taking a ride! It is an experience you will not forget.

Besides, in today's world, how often do you get to see 2 classic steam trains passing one another? Sounds bucket list worthy to me! All Aboard!!

We'd like to thank Linda & John Price of the Texas State Railroad Society and our host on the train, John, for making this a fun, educational and unforgettable experience for all of us. This is seriously one of the coolest things we have ever done. And they are working to enhance the experience in the future.

Oh, before we forget! For extra fun, be sure to check out one of the Railroad's themed rides: Easter Egg Express, Memorial Day Salute to the Armed Forces, Pumpkin Patch Express and their biggest annual event: The Polar Express!

UPDATE: A few things have changed since our ride. It looks like the Rusk Depot has become the primary depot for departures. Classic steam train excursions continue to leave Rusk on weekends March through early November. Departures from Palestine are now pulled by a vintage diesel engine and only available in March. Additionally, guests are now highly encouraged to bring their own picnic lunch. There is not currently an option to purchase a box lunch for pickup at the depot unless you are scheduling your visit during a holiday such as Mother's Day, Father's Day, or another one of the listed special events.

ALSO IN THE AREA: East Texas Pineywoods

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Safe Travels and Happy Camping!