Bouncing through The Great State

Posted by Fred Frailey
on Tuesday, June 3, 2014

When last you heard from me, Mark the Amtrak red cap in Chicago had met my four-hours-late Lake Shore Limited and hustled me onto the Texas Eagle, which was being held for our tardy train. Also held were all the other westbound streamliners trains that afternoon. Good hustle! I was impressed. But what about the rest of my way to Texas?

The Texas Eagle is almost unique among Amtrak trains, most of which are close to mirror images of trains established long before Amtrak came into being in 1971. True, routes between end points may be a bit different (the Capitol Limited being an example, between Chicago and Pittsburgh). The Coast Starlight between Los Angeles and Seattle combines three pre-Amtrak trains. But the Eagle, when you think about it, has pieces of Gulf, Mobile & Ohio’s The Limited, Missouri Pacific’s South Texas Eagle and West Texas Eagle, Santa Fe’s Texas Chief and the Katy’s Texas Special. Parts of today’s train trod all of those pre-Amtrak routes. That’s a lot of railroad heritage to assume. How does it work in practice?

I will end the suspense and tell you: pretty well, in my opinion. In the mid 1960s, you’d take a bit over 16 hours getting from Chicago to the Texas state line in Texarkana, changing from The Limited to MoPac’s Texas Eagle in St. Louis. Today it’s one train and still takes a bit over 16 hours. Then it slows down. Texarkana to Fort Worth on the pre-Amtrak West Texas Eagle was 5 hours 40 minutes. Today it’s a 7 hours 27 minutes. And Texarkana to San Antonio was 9 hours 40 minutes then but almost 16 hours now. This is accounted for because yesteryear’s Eagle went more or less straight toward San Antonio from Texarkana, whereas today’s train makes a westward detour to reach Dallas and Fort Worth before turning south.

But who cares if you’re having a good time, and I do. We reach Texarkana at 735 a.m., and I get off to walk around. The old Union Station (Missouri Pacific, Kansas City Southern, Cotton Belt) beneath which we stop is closed, Amtrak using what had been a ground-level office for its waiting room. Texarkana was the destination of my first day-long train-watching trip, in 1955, as the 11-year-old guest of R.S. Plummer, a legendary Texas photographer in the 1940s and 1950s and a friend of my family. I remember eating at the Union Station lunch counter. Then back at his car Roger pulls a flask from his camera bag and pours himself a big dollop of sherry. I was mighty impressed. On our way back to Sulphur Springs, Tex., he stops at Bassett siding and photographs me photographing Cotton Belt’s Los Angeles-bound Blue Streak Merchandise. That was a heady day for a kid, let me tell you.

So off the Texas Eagle goes into its namesake state, and for the next couple of hours you may as well call the Union Pacific tracks my Memory Lane. The village of Atlanta, where in 1962 I boarded the Texas & Pacific campaign special carrying gubernatorial candidate John Connally; I was an 18-year-old reporter for my dad’s newspaper, the Daily News-Telegram of Sulphur Springs. Big Sandy, where into the 1960s a 24-hour office protected the busy crossing of the Missouri Pacific (now UP) and Cotton Belt (now also UP); I loved hanging out there. Hawkins, where the constable grabbed me in 1961 doing 60 mph through the 30 mph village as I tried to beat the eastbound Texas Eagle to Big Sandy, where it was to meet another train (“Okay, young man, get out of here, but if I ever catch you doing this in my town again I’ll throw you right into our jail”); as he said these words, the Eagle raced through Hawkins, but I still got to Big Sandy in time to witness the twilight meet. Mineola, where my parents put me on the West Texas Eagle in 1956 and 1957 to visit my friend John Pharr in Midland, 420 miles to the west. And Dallas Union Station, scene of so many departures and arrivals during my youth. The most bittersweet of those arrivals was on Rock Island’s Twin Star Rocket, on Sunday, November 24, 1963, for Thanksgiving vacation from the University of Kansas; as my dad and I were a block away from police headquarters in downtown Dallas, headed toward home, police sirens erupted all around us — Lee Harvey Oswald had just been shot to death by Jack Ruby. And, finally, Fort Worth, another popular Sunday destination of Roger Plummer, with his happy young protégé Freddie Frailey in tow.

Leaving Texarkana that morning, 1 hour 45 minutes late, the conductor announces we ought to be on time departing Fort Worth — that’s how much recovery time exists in that part of the schedule. He would have been right, too, had we not had to swap locomotives with the one that arrived just before our train on the Heartland Flyer. Watching as the new power was being backed toward our train at the pace of a turtle, I turn to the fellow standing beside me and say “If that’s our engineer leaving town, we’ll never reach Cleburne,” the next stop. The man laughs and says not to worry; he is the train’s engineer and the fellow at the controls is a trainee being judged by two Amtrak supervisors on how lightly he couples to our train.

We leave Fort Worth about 20 minutes late, now on BNSF Railway tracks and on the route of Santa Fe’s Chicago-Houston Texas Chief. The Texas Chief was probably the first train I ever rode. It was definitely the first train whose locomotive I ever occupied. This was in Arkansas City, Kan., during a crew change. I was 4 years old at the time. After about a minute in the cab of the F unit, I burst into tears, afraid the streamliner would leave with me still aboard it. I think I really feared being separated from my mother. About a week later little Freddie was back in the Texas Chief’s locomotive again for another visit. Again I burst into tears, this time because I didn’t want to get off. In the interim, I guess I became a train lover.

I’m surprised at how rough the BNSF track rides, after almost 24 hours of sylvan Union Pacific trackage. I hate to give UP that much credit for anything, but hey, the truth be told. We bump and bounce ourselves through Central Texas that afternoon, me sipping a Diet Pepsi in the Sightseer Lounge as I fantasize about the smoked brisket I will eat in Austin the next day at Franklin Barbeque, a famous dive I’ve always wanted to visit.

On the south side of Temple, the bouncing ends as we switch back to UP tracks. But to my way of thinking we have ceased to be Amtrak’s Texas Eagle and for the next 37 or so miles become the Katy’s Texas Special. My only time to ride that train was July 1, 1965, as it made its last arrival into Dallas, not much of a train by then. But oh my, in its time, the St. Louis-San Antonio Special was every bit the train, competing against both the South Texas and West Texas Eagles for business and doing well at it until the Katy ran out of money in the mid 1950s as a result of the terrible drought in Oklahoma and Texas. But that’s ancient history. At Taylor, it's back to former South Texas Eagle route and the last lap of my journey.

I get off in Austin a happy camper. As the taxi goes beneath the UP tracks on Cesar Chavez Avenue, my train passes overhead, as if to say goodbye. A nice ending to a nice trip, eh? But wait! I’m not through. An hour later I’m at the bar of my Courtyard Marriott, sipping a martini, and ask the bartender if she’s familiar with Franklin Barbeque. Oh yes! she replies, but are you willing to wait four hours to be served? I say I plan to show up about 30 minutes before it opens at 11. Then the guy sitting next to me laughs. I was there today with my girlfriend, he tells me; we got there at 8 and were so far back in line that by 10 o’clock we were told they would run out of brisket before we got to the counter.

At that point I switch destinations for the next morning, to The Salt Lick BBQ in Driftwood, southwest of Austin. Texans do take their smoked brisket seriously. Keep that in mind next time you’re in that part of the state.—Fred W. Frailey

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