Welcome aboard! Can’t you hear the whistle blowing?
This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, May 4, 2008: That’s National Train Day chugging down the tracks and scheduled to arrive May 10.
Amtrak, the national passenger railroad, has picked that day for its celebration because it marks the completion of the first transcontinental railroad in 1869. On May 10, 139 years ago, dignitaries drove a golden spike linking the Central Pacific and Union Pacific Railroads in Promontory Summit, Utah, officially uniting the United States by rail.
Amtrak will help “Get Your Choo-Choo On” with special events at its four busiest terminals: New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and Washington, D.C. Train buffs and rail riders will pitch in with activities elsewhere, including St. Louis.
Have a craving for some clickity-clack? Here are suggestions for celebrating National Train Day in and around St. Louis:
- Ride the rails with the American Association of Railroaders, a St. Louis group that has four train excursions planned that day.
- Check out the impressive collection of engines, rail cars and cabooses and enjoy a trolley ride at the Museum of Transportation in St. Louis County. (Bonus attraction on May 10: a re-enactment of the golden spike telegraph transmission ceremony.)
- Head for Jackson, Mo., for a ride on the St. Louis Iron Mountain and Southern Railroad, a tourist excursion train.
- Hop aboard one of the area's miniature trains.
- Visit St. Louis Union Station and recall the glory days of railroad passenger travel.
“Train travel is America at see-level,” says Rich Eichhorst of the AAR, a local group that has been organizing railroad excursions since 1968, years before Amtrak was created. Unlike airplane travel, he says, “You’re not strapped in, you don’t have to take your shoes off to get on the train, but you can take them off at your seat if you want to relax.”
Whether you stretch out and enjoy the scenery or stroll to the café car for a beverage or snack, Eichhorst says, train travel is the fun way to go. His group schedules outings open to the public almost every weekend, including mystery destinations, sleeper-car trips and theme adventures.
When the Monkees had its big hit “Last Train to Clarksville” in the 1960s, Eichhorst says, the AAR used it as a theme for a trip to mark the end of passenger service to Clarksville, Mo., on the Burlington Route. Other outings have included trips to Kansas City for barbecue and to Milwaukee for Cardinals’ road games.
On May 11, the AAR will sponsor a “Throw Momma On the Train” trip to Washington, Mo., for Mother’s Day.
For National Train Day, the AAR is offering both long and short opportunities to get on board. All four feature travel on Amtrak and one combines a short Amtrak trip with a ride on MetroLink, St. Louis’ light-rail system:
- An Amtrak outing from St. Louis to Springfield, Ill., for sightseeing and lunch in the Land of Lincoln. It departs St. Louis at 6:30 a.m., with return planned for 3:15 p.m. Fares are $65 for adults and $55 for children under 11.
- An Amtrak-MetroLink trip from St. Louis to Kirkwood and back. This trip begins at 8:15 a.m. and is scheduled to return by 11:30 a.m. A bus will ferry passengers to a MetroLink station from the Kirkwood Depot. Fares are $25 and $19.
- Two Amtrak departures from Kirkwood to Washington, Mo., for brunch or dinner. The morning train leaves at 8:45 a.m. and is scheduled to return by 1:15 p.m. Tickets are $55 and $45. The afternoon excursion departs at 4:15 p.m. with a planned return by 9:30 p.m. Cost: $62 and $52.
For reservations or additional information, contact AAR at 314-752-3184 or go to www.aar-therailroaders.org .
Trains Old and New
At the Museum of Transportation, 3015 Barrett Station Road, visitors can inspect more than 70 train pieces, says public relations director Bob Eastin. The collection includes a 600,000-ton “Big Boy,” the largest successful steam engine ever built; a Zephyr and an aerotrain, the railroads’ unsuccessful attempts to lure back passengers from automobile and airplane travel; and the 1858 “Daniel Nason,” the museum’s oldest engine.
“This engine was 11 years old when they laid the Golden Spike,” Eastin proudly points out. Several of the exhibits, including the “Big Boy,” are open for future engineers to climb aboard, grip the throttle and imagine they’re in command of a smoke-belching behemoth roaring through the countryside.
Nostalgia buffs will also appreciate the museum’s array of “fallen flags,” emblems of railroads that no longer exist. Those include the Missouri Pacific, the Katy (Missouri, Kansas and Texas) the Cotton Belt, the Rock Island and the Wabash. Another popular feature is the museum’s working streetcar, which carries visitors for a short ride around the grounds.
At 11 a.m. on National Train Day, Eastin has arranged for the Morse Telegraph Club to present a tableau of the telegraph ceremony that accompanied the driving of the Golden Spike. Eastin says the telegraph component of the transcontinental railroad is often overlooked.
“They’ll demonstrate how (the workers at Promontory Summit) tied telegraph wire to the spike and another to the mallet so people could ‘hear’ the driving of the golden spike,” Eastin says. “The message was sent to the White House and picked up all around the country.”
The Museum of Transportation (314-965-6885) is open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday-Saturday and 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Sunday. Admission is $6 for adults and $4 for children 5-12.
The St. Louis Iron Mountain and Southern Railroad in Jackson, Mo., is an excursion train that operates April through December. Its signature steam engine, the 62-year-old “Shelby Brown,” is being overhauled. Until it’s back in service, a 1950 diesel engine will do the pulling.
On May 10, Iron Mountain will mark National Train Day with one-half price tickets for mothers. The 10-mile excursion costs $16 (plus tax) for adults, $9 for children ages 3-12 and is free for kids 2 and under. The railroad also offers dinner trains, mystery-murder trains and other special events later in the year. For dates and pricing, call 1-800-455-7245 or visit www.slimrr.com. The Iron Mountain line is located at the intersection of Highways 61 and 25.
Miniature trains hold a certain charm for kids (and many adults), and the St. Louis area will have at least three up and running this spring. The St. Louis Zoo features the Zooline Railroad, a 20-minute narrated tour through the exhibits ($5 adults, kids 2 and under free); the Wabash, Frisco and Pacific in Glencoe, Mo., operates its mini steamers on Sundays between 1 p.m. and 5 p.m. ($3 for adults, 3 and under free) and the St. Louis Live Steamers in Eureka, Mo., will begin a limited warm-weather schedule on May 24. For info on the Wabash, call 636-587-3538 or visit www.wfprr.com. The Live Steamers website is www.stlouislivesteamers.org.
That's a Grand Hall
Union Station, at Market and 18th streets in downtown St. Louis, no longer serves passenger trains but its grand architecture offers a reminder of what travel by rail used to be like. Once one of the busiest terminals in the world, the 1894 edifice is now a hotel-shopping mall complex. Check out the railroad memorabilia on display near the 18th Street entrance.
Ray Jordan is a free-lance writer and an enthusiastic rider of trains.
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