This Christmas, hundreds of children rode the Texas State Railroad's annual Polar Express. What most people do not know, however, is that this East Texas icon is the result of over a century's evolution.
The railroad's Special Projects Administrator, John R. Garbutt, said there have been many twists and turns in the line since its early days.
"The Texas State Railroad came about for a need and a goal for the state of Texas in the 1870s," he said. "There was a lot of crime after the Civil War, and Huntsville was the only state penitentiary."
To decide where to build Texas' second state prison, the Legislature held a contest between cities, according to Garbutt, based on which areas had the natural resources — the goal was for the prison to be financially self-sufficient with prison labor.
They decided to build in Rusk, due to its rich iron ore and sulfur deposits, as well as its abundant timber. Work began in 1877, when state prisoners were used to clear the land and construct the prison under the watchful eyes of well-armed guards.
By 1881, they had finished building the foundries that would allow them to refine the area's iron ore and cast it for industrial use. The only problem was distribution — Rusk had no railroads wide enough and strong enough to support trains carrying tons of iron and lumber.
To solve this, the prisoners were again used to build a mile-and-a-half long track to connect the penitentiary with the Kansas-Gulf rail line, finished that November.
This improvement created a corridor between the prison's lumber operation and a local furniture factory. The sales kept the line profitable for the state until 1908, when they pushed the line into Palestine for the first time to connect with the International and Great Northern Railroad.
"The thought was that this would double their sales market," Garbutt said. "And it worked."
In 1913, new developments in smelting left the prison foundries obsolete. Rather than pay for upgrades, the state decided to close down the operation, a move Garbutt compares to "cutting the lifeline."
The prison could no longer fund itself, so in 1917 it was closed, and re-opened a year later as the Rusk State Hospital, which it remains to this day.
The state maintained the line as a general carrier for three more years, until in 1921, when it was leased to the Texas-New Orleans Railroad. This arrangement was kept up until 1953.
The line lay unused until 1962, when it was leased to the Texas Southeast Railroad, which used it to transport grain. In 1969, though, that company abandoned it, and Garbutt says they decided to "put the old railroad to bed."
Democratic state Rep. Emmett Whitehead, of Rusk, however, would have none of that. He fought for three years to pass legislation declaring the line a state park. In 1972, he got his way, when the state again used prisoners to rebuild the railroad.
"History kind of repeated itself," Garbutt said. "It's funny, that here nearly a century later, the same line was being built by prisoners again."
The repairs and upgrades needed to make the line fit for modern trains were not completed for another four years. On July 4, 1976, America's bicentennial anniversary, the first rail excursion of the modern Texas State Railroad set out.
The state maintained and ran the line until 2007, when the American Heritage Railways took over the daily operations under the eyes of the newly-formed Texas State Railroad Authority.
"It kind of acts as an intermediate with the Legislature," Garbutt said. "We're back in a leasing situation again."
In August 2012, Iowa-Pacific Holdings took over the lease. On June 16, freight transport resumed from the depot in Palestine along with passenger runs for the first time in decades. The line has been plagued with financial woes since 2007, and Rusk and Palestine officials have hoped that the addition of freight will stimulate economic development.
The Texas State Railroad runs regular excursions between its two depots, at 789 Park Road 70, Palestine TX, 75801, and Park Road 76, Rusk TX, 75785, respectively, as well as seasonal events.
To reserve tickets, call 903-683-3451. For more information, call the business office at 903-683-2561, or go to www.texasstaterr.com.