PALESTINE — For decades, train travel was the preferred mode of transportation across these United States. Today, there are faster ways to get around, but history lovers and adventure seekers can take a step back in time courtesy of the historic Texas State Railroad.
This 50-mile-long heritage railroad that runs through the famed East Texas Piney Woods dates back to 1883, when it was founded by the state of Texas and built by prison inmates to haul freight.
Service ended in 1921 and it was leased to private companies until 1969 and turned over three years later to the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. Now operating as a scenic tourist line, the train travels on a limited, year-round schedule between the cities of Rusk and Palestine, about two-and-a-half hours northeast of Killeen-Fort Hood.
The approximately four-hour ride aboard a vintage 1920s-style railroad car takes passengers through a state park and 125 years of history. Most departures take place from the Palestine depot, with some special events beginning at the Rusk depot. The first leg of the trip takes about an hour-and-a-half, followed by an hour for lunch and shopping at the destination depot, then an hour-and-a-half return to the point of departure.
Along with family fun, the railroad offers adult-only trips (21 and older), including a Friday “Pints in the Pines” excursion, featuring a variety of local ale samples and beer snacks, leaving from the Palestine depot. A souvenir tasting glass is included, and all beers sampled, along with other alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages, will be available for purchase. This event is offered in first-class seating, the Upper Dome Car, Presidential Car and privately-chartered Caboose.
Other adult-only special events on the Texas State Railroad include Wine in the Pines, a Friday evening ride beginning at the Palestine depot that features wine, chocolate and a night sky filled with stars. Also offered in either first-class, the Upper Dome Car, Presidential Car and privately-chartered Caboose, the next Wine in the Pines is scheduled for July 24. See the website for details.
And tickets are on sale now for the always-popular “The Polar Express,” a 60-minute holiday train journey to the North Pole and back that begins in November and centers around the classic children’s book by Chris Van Allsburg.
Guests — who are encouraged to wear pajamas — are served hot chocolate and cookies as they listen to live readings of the book (which may be purchased along with tickets for children to read along as they listen). Arriving at the “North Pole,” Santa and his elves greet passengers and everyone receives a silver sleigh bell for Christmas. On the return trip, everyone sings Christmas carols.
All tickets include the train ride, hot chocolate and sugar cookies. First-class, Dome and Presidential-class passengers receive a complimentary keepsake mug, and all passengers in all classes receive a silver sleigh bell. For more information and tickets go to texasstaterailroad.net/events/polar-express.
Palestine is located 100 miles east of Waco. Rusk is another 30 miles east.
There are a number of other scenic train rides located in various parts of the state, as well, including Austin, Cedar Park,and Grapevine. For information on those trips, go to trip101.com/article/scenic-train-rides-in-texas.
Meanwhile, back home in Killeen-Fort Hood, BLORA (Belton Lake Outdoor and Recreation Area), at the intersection of North Nolan Road and Cottage Road, offers a number of family activities, including camping sites, picnic pavilions, hiking, sightseeing, bird watching, hunting, fishing, mountain biking, paintball, a 53-foot outdoor climbing wall and an archery range. Admission for military patrons is $3 per car; all others are $10 per vehicle.
The Recreation Equipment Checkout Center, located within the garrison 14 miles southwest of BLORA, is available to authorized Family and MWR patrons, and offers such equipment rentals as kayaks, canoes, wakeboards, skis, knee boards, tubes, camping equipment, pop-ups/travel trailers, accessories and more. Visit hood.armymwr.com for more information.
Fort Hood’s Apache Arts and Crafts Center is open 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, and 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday for those interested in do-it-yourself projects, including picture frames, ceramics and ceramics birthday parties for kids. Also offered at the center, 761st Tank Battalion and 62nd Street, Building 2337, is screen-printing, embroidery and a wood shop.
The center has a Resiliency through Art program that offers a quiet area with art materials for soldiers to create “whatever comes to mind.” It is available free of charge to all active-duty soldiers during the week until 5 p.m. Soldiers may take their work with them or leave it at the center to be displayed for others to see. For more information, contact MWR.