When I travel to a new place, one of the first activities I look for is a train ride, especially when the cars or locomotives are vintage workhorses that have been restored and put back in use. There’s no better way to sit back, relax and see the countryside, as well as capture a bit of local history.
In many places such excursion trains are located at the edge of town, in the rail yards where the engine and passenger cars are stored between trips. But Branson, Missouri, is different.
The Branson Scenic Railway depot is right in the middle of town. In fact, I could look down on the depot and one of the big engines from my room next door at the Hilton Convention Center. The morning of my ride, all I had to do was walk out the front door of the hotel and straight into the historic 1905 Branson depot.
Each day, depending on the season, two fully-restored locomotives, Number 98 built in 1951 and Number 99 built in 1962, carry the seven cars, all built between 1939 and 1956, on three to four trips. The excursion train operates on working Missouri and Northern Arkansas Railroad lines and travels as far north to Galena, Missouri or south to the Barren Fork Trestle in Arkansas.
Once on board, seating is open so passengers are free to find a spot they like and settle in. The dome cars fill up fast so I bypassed those and picked a seat in a car in the middle of the train, at a small table so I could take notes as I rode.
Rolling through the beautiful Ozark Mountain foothills in fall is about as pretty a ride as you can imagine. The trees were beautiful. As we rolled along, deer, turkeys and even wild pigs could be seen from the wide windows. The train was full--I understand it almost always is--and most passengers were visiting Branson from all over the country. At one end of the car a group of seniors from Indiana laughed and talked and at the other end a family of four from Texas took photos as we rolled across the tall trestles. It was the kids’ first train ride.
During the 40-mile roundtrip excursion, a narrator pointed out not-to-be-missed views, gave wildlife alerts and filled us in on the history of the train and the region. The rail line we were riding was built at great cost due to the ruggedness of the landscape and it was the primary reason the town of Branson grew and thrived. The car attendants, most of whom have been with the railway for years, stopped by frequently to chat.
Branson is known for big shows and glitzy entertainment but, no surprise here, the train trip was my favorite activity. There is nothing contrived or artificial about it.
So many places raze the old to make way for the new, but Branson went to great lengths to not only preserve its railroad history, but totally reinvigorate a tangible, and still thoroughly enjoyable, link to the past.
More information about the Branson Scenic Railway
Cheryl-Anne Millsap is a travel writer based in Spokane, Washington. Her audio essays can be heard on Spokane Public Radio and on public radio stations across the country. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org