The Texas state prison system established the railroad in 1881. Inmates built the line, which was used to transport hardwood which was used as fuel for the furnaces at the prison-operated iron smelter at the Rusk Penitentiary. The furnace supplied the State of Texas with iron products, including the columns and dome structure for the capitol building in Austin. The original construction was a narrow gauge line but was later built in standard gauge in order to join into the main line.
In 1906 prison crews extended the rail line to Maydelle and in 1909 reached their final destination of Palestine. Once the train line was completed into Palestine the line was easily accessible to the main lines and commerce in and around the area flourished.
One of the original railroad crews from the 1900s
The current railroad crew in front of the same building, 2008
In 1913 the prison ceased operations of the iron furnace and the Penitentiary was converted into the state mental hospital. In 1921 the regular rail service was discontinued and the line was leased to the Texas & New Orleans (Southern Pacific Railroad Co.) The Texas Southeastern Railroad leased the line in the early 1960s and continued operation of the line until 1969.
The railroad was conveyed to the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department in 1972 and state inmates were again brought in to help with the creation of the state historical park. The park and railroad were opened to the public on July 4th, 1976, as part of the nation's Bicentennial Celebration.
In 1981, the Texas State Railroad acquired a turntable and installed it in Maydelle. This vintage piece of equipment is used to turn the engines around to go in a different direction.
It was built in the late 1890s by the St. Louis and San Francisco (Frisco) Railroad on site at their Paris, Texas rail yard. It began operation in Paris in 1902, serving a six stall roundhouse.
The Texas State Railroad is proud to possess this rare example of railroad technology and to be able to demonstrate, during special train rides, what was done routinely so many decades ago in rail yards across our nation.
In 2003 Texas State Representative Chuck Hopson lead the way in proclaiming a resolution from the 78th Legislature of the State of Texas, designating the Texas State Railroad as the Official Railroad of Texas.
The state's parks and wildlife department successfully ran the railroad until the management was privatized with a contract with American Heritage Railways in September of 2007. In August of 2012 American Heritage Railways sold the Texas State Railroad to Iowa Pacific Holdings. In addition to continuing passenger operations, Iowa Pacific Holdings opened the track to the main line in Palestine on November 1, 2012 to begin offering freight services.
Please join us in helping to maintain this important piece of Texas heritage by taking a ride on the Texas State Railroad, truly a "Texas Treasure!"