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Rural Missouri Magazine

Ozarks by Rail
Passengers see the beauty of southwest Missouri
on the Branson Scenic Railway

by Jarrett Medlin
The Branson Scenic Railway offers excursions in southwest Missouri and northwest Arkansas. The railway’s signature bright red locomotives were built in 1964.

Long before the neon signs, Silver Dollar City, Shoji Tabuchi or even Highway 76, there was the railroad. It sliced through the rugged Ozark hills and came to a small train station on the bank of the White River, now known as Lake Taneycomo.

Laying the tracks that run past the station was one of the most ambitious construction projects ever undertaken in the Ozarks. It took thousands of workers four years and more than $12 million to lay 239 miles of tracks where there was once only steep hills and valleys. When it was completed in 1905, however, the White River Railway gave pioneers access to the land and allowed them to begin developing the small towns of Lucia and Branson.

Of course, Branson has since grown from a small Ozark town to one of the largest tourism destinations in the United States. Nowadays it’s not unusual to see impressive, million-dollar theaters rise and fall in a matter of years as the city expands. But in the heart of downtown Branson, the small train station still stands after more than a century.

Visitors can admire the Ozark scenery while riding one of the train’s seven passenger cars, including three 1948 stainless steel Vistadome cars and a 1939 observation club car.

Today, the Branson Scenic Railway occupies that station and carries on the railroad’s legacy. The passenger train offers visitors the opportunity to see breathtaking views inaccessible to automobiles.

“I always tell people, ‘It’s the most comfortable thing to do in Branson,’” says Donn Menzies, conductor for the Branson Scenic Railway. “It’s nostalgic and that’s what people need nowadays.”

From March through December, passengers can ride a vintage train across tall bridges, through damp tunnels and past the wilderness of the Ozark Mountains. It takes nearly two hours to complete the trip as the train covers 20 miles before reversing and returning to the station along the same path.

The train travels in one of two directions from downtown Branson: north or south. The route is determined by the Missouri and Northern Arkansas Railroad just prior to departure, depending on freight traffic since the old track is still used for commercial and industrial shipping. The northern route stretches to Galena and the James River Valley, while the southern route extends into Arkansas and the Barren Fork Trestle.

The Branson Scenic Railway has been operating since 1993. Each year, nearly 90,000 visitors take a ride on the vintage passenger train.

Along the way, a Branson Scenic Railway employee gives a colorful narration of landmarks, as well as wildlife, scenery and the railroad’s history. Passengers hear about such landmarks as Cricket Tunnel, Crest Tunnel, Barren Fork Trestle, Walnut Creek Trestle and Tharp’s Grade, as well as the ghost towns of Gretna, Melva and Ruth. The narrator also points out any turkey, deer or other wildlife in the valleys and hills.

Since there is no assigned seating, passengers move about and explore the different cars during the trip. The passenger cars consist of seven different cars, including three 1948 Budd-built stainless steel Vistadome cars and a 1939 observation club car. The dome cars offer visitors a panoramic view of the beautiful scenery from the top of the train, while large windows in the sides of the train offer a fine view from anywhere else.

The antique train cars were acquired in 1993, when a group of Kansas City businessmen decided to start the tourist railroad. The group found the train cars through a network of private car owners.

“The individuals who had them had put a lot of time, money and effort into restoring the cars; when we got them, they were ready to roll,” says Illa Kamp, the Branson Scenic Railway’s vice president and general manager.

Conductor Donn Menzies says goodbye to passengers as they step off the train. Donn joined the Branson Scenic Railway 13 years ago and still enjoys it.

At first it was a challenge to set up the business, but the Branson Scenic Railway quickly became a staple in the community. Tourists began wandering to the train station in droves. It was hard to miss the bright red engine and shiny passenger cars.

“I believe the train itself is our star,” says Illa, explaining the train’s appeal. “So many people have never been on a train or equipment like ours. Passengers love the wildlife and scenery, but the history of the equipment and the area goes hand in hand.

In addition to regular rides, which depart three to four times a day, the Branson Scenic Railway hosts special events. On Saturdays at 5 p.m., from May through December, passengers are treated like first-class citizens from the 1940s as they eat a four-course meal by candlelight on a dinner train.

The Branson Scenic Railway, which runs on a working commercial railroad line, travels 40.4 miles roundtrip and goes either north to Galena or south into Arkansas. The train’s direction of travel is determined by the Missouri and Northern Arkansas Railroad shortly before departure. Illustration courtesy of the Branson Scenic Railway.

The railway also offers additional special trips throughout the year. In the past, the train has run to Carthage for a tour of Precious Moments and historic homes in the area. It’s also traveled to scenic Calico Rock, Ark., where visitors shopped throughout the town’s historic downtown area. Illa anticipates offering similar trips in the future.

Besides special events, Illa hopes the Branson Landing, which is slated to open later this year, will draw additional visitors into the downtown area. The $420 million project will stretch 1.5 miles along Lake Taneycomo’s shoreline and include retail, lifestyle, restaurant and waterfront entertainment. For now, however, construction surrounds the station and makes it more difficult for visitors to find parking.

“The construction situation is a challenge, but ridership has been even greater than a year ago,” says Illa. “The weather is so pretty, and it’s just a beautiful time to come to the Ozarks.”

Visitors seem to agree. The Branson Scenic Railway attracts around 90,000 passengers each year from all over the world. They see the train advertised on billboards, pamphlets, the Internet, or local newspaper and television ads and they decide to take a ride. In its 100th year, the old station is as busy as ever.

Visitors wait at the Branson Scenic Railway’s historic 1906 depot, located in downtown Branson. In its 100th year, the depot predates Branson’s founding.

In fact, the train’s 1 millionth passenger stepped on board last summer. Charles LaPorte, an avid train enthusiast and retired Navy lieutenant from Tucson, Ariz., had ridden many passenger trains throughout the country but never the Branson Scenic Railway. After his ride, on July 25, the entire train crew and a swarm of local media were waiting to surprise him.

“It was a big deal,” he recalls. “The folks at that railroad are first-rate. It was just like you’d want for that type of experience.”

Now armed with a stack of coupons for free rides, Charles plans to one day return and ride the train again. After all, a ride on the Branson Scenic Railway is an experience to remember.

“The scenery, the equipment and the ride were all top-notch,” he says. “We’ve been on a lot of tourist railroads, and it’s among the best.”

For departure times, prices and reservations, call 1-800-2-TRAIN-2 or (417) 334-6110. You can visit the Branson Scenic Railway’s Web site at www.bransontrain.com.

The Branson Scenic Railway crosses Lake Taneycomo on the historic White River Bridge. Below the bridge, the lake bustles with fishermen and visitors to Branson.
Rural Missouri magazine - April 2014 issue
 
 
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