|America's railroad heritage may be fading, but its fascination with
trains is as strong as ever.
How else to explain the phenomenon of the St. Louis Iron Mountain & Southern Railway? About 100,000 people ride along each year as the train, pulled by a 1946 model steam engine, ambles through a short stretch of southeast Missouri countryside.
The small tourist train actually hails from Jackson, Missouri, just north of Cape Girardeau. The name is derived from a line in the mid-19th century that transported iron ore from Iron Mountain north to St. Louis.
On a hot afternoon in July, it was hard to tell who was having more fun, 3-year-old passenger Kevin Patterson or 81-year-old engineer Jim Bullock.
Kevin, riding with his mother and grandmother, proclaimed that he was going to be a "train guy" when he grows up, belting out his version of a train whistle's "woo woo" to prove the point.
Bullock has been a train guy most of his life, retiring in 1980 after 47 years with Union Pacific Railroad.
For the past several years, Bullock has been making the 80-mile drive from his home in Bonne Terre two or three times a week to volunteer at the helm of the Iron Mountain.
"I started out on a steam engine in 1937," Bullock said, his hands blackened and sweat dripping from his face. "I just never got over railroads, steam engines especially."
The Iron Mountain offers a variety of different rides. There are "Murder Mystery" trips in which passengers interact with actors to help solve the staged mayhem.
There are "James Gang" trips in which actors on horses stage a mock robbery. Fake money is passed out beforehand to the passengers. The "robbers" board the train shooting guns with blanks and take the fake money.
For a more relaxing excursion, try the basic no-frills one-hour, 20-minute round trip to Gordonville. It's also the cheapest for adults and children, free for kids 2 and under.
The small train looks like a bigger version of a model railroad. Before the run, many of the passengers gather around the engine for an up-close look at a bygone era.
That's where engine hostler Jarit Keith can be found shoveling loads of coal into the furnace at the front of the engine's cab. Inside the furnace, the coal makes the steam that pulls the train.
The locomotive builds a head of steam for another run. "It gets hot, probably 118 to 120 degrees on a hot day," Keith said.
Betty Hester helped lift her four young grandchildren onto the front of the engine for a picture.
"When I was a little bitty girl I rode a steam engine from Campbell to Kennett (in the Bootheel). They called it the Moose," Mrs. Hester said. "That was fascinating."
The grandkids seemed fascinated, too, though the brief picture pose left their legs and shorts covered with black coal dust. "It'll wash off," Mrs. Hester said, smiling.
The ride itself is a slow one, 10 mph, about the speed of a fast runner. One of the three passenger cars is air-conditioned. But the true ambiance of railroading's heyday comes in the other, older cars.
There, window screens provide the only relief from the Midwestern heat and humidity, and 10 mph doesn't generate a lot of breeze. Occasionally, a puff of black smoke from the engine sifts through the car.
From the bench seats to the rustic light fixtures to the music piped through the train (Johnny Cash singing "John Henry", old country versions of songs like "I've Been Working on the Railroad"), the mood reflects an earlier time.
The ride itself begins at the nondescript train station near downtown Jackson, slides through an industrial area and then through the woods and corn fields on the way to a picnic area near Gordonville. After a brief leg-stretching stop, passengers re-board and ride caboose-first back to Jackson.
Conductor Duane Reynolds volunteers once a week to man the caboose. Like Bullock, Reynolds was a career railroad man.
"We're like old soldiers, we never die, we just go on telling stories about the railroad," he said.
The original St. Louis & Iron Mountain Railroad ran through the end of the 19th century before being absorbed by another railroad. The track remained in use for freight traffic until 1984, when a proposal was made to abandon it.
That's when a group of local steam enthusiasts proposed running a tourist train around Jackson. The Iron Mountain made its inaugural run in 1986. Now, the train operates on weekends March through December, with Valentine's Day rides in February. Wednesday and Friday rides are available June through August.
The worker makeup of the train is further evidence of the popularity of railroading. Three people are on staff, manager Janna Davis, train chief Jeremy Hill and Keith. The engineers, the conductors and the food servers are all volunteers. About 50 people from up to 100 miles away volunteer their time each week.
Reynolds, waving at cars from his perch in the caboose, said payback comes with every ride.
"When you go down the track, people honk and wave," he said. "You see people holding their kids, their grandkids, and just watching. There's a mystique about the trains."