|Vol. VII, No. 2, Fall 1993 / Winter 1994|
By Robert Flanders
You can't take a train to Branson; but you can take a train from Branson, though not to any destination. It is the Branson Scenic Railway which runs a regular schedule out of the old Branson station north along Roark Creek, and south across Lake Taneycomo and up Turkey Creek into Arkansas. The point is the scenery and the ride. Both are fine, as I learned on a recent trip, undertaken out of respect to this issue of Ozarks Watch.
The Ozarks looks its best in spring and fall when the leaves are coming and going. This November day in the latter season is the beginning of the region's brown time. It's a good time to ride the Branson Scenic Railway to Bergman, Arkansas and back. The round trip is 40.4 miles, and takes about two hours--and fifteen dollars. Sun and clouds fight for the early morning, clouds winning so far. I fight the raucous croon and thump of a local country music radio station until an obliging trainman intervenes.
The train left the historic Branson station promptly at 8:30, crossed Lake Taneycomo on the old White River Bridge (the first across the upper White, in 1906), rolled past Hollister's Downing Street, and began to climb Turkey Creek Valley.
|Past grazing black cattle we roll, past house trailers, new houses, old houses, burned out houseplaces, dirt roads, and yards of clart--a traditional Ozarks clutter seen now less frequently from the routes tourists drive. By contrast, an elegant new lodge-like residence sits near the tracks, above spring-fed fishing ponds, in a narrow valley at the head of Turkey Creek.|
Turkey Creek runs vigorously over its bed of shelf rock glistening in the clear water. We climb to the head of the watershed, enter a tunnel, then another, and cross a high bridge. It's almost like railroading in real mountains. The palette of nature's colors is simple and austere--brown, gray, and evergreen. Gorgeous autumn Ozarks.
The rolling stock of the Branson Scenic is three 1948 Budd-built stainless steel Vistadome cars, plus a 1939 observation-club car. All are from the old Burlington Zephyrs. They are clean and well-man-aged. The luxury of their art-deco interiors and plush furnishings is still impressive, though now slightly faded. In the heyday of the Zephyrs I was young, and unable to afford a dome car. So this is my first first-class ticket.
The locomotive is a 1964 general purpose engine. The company has purchased two of the old streamliner engines which sit on a siding at Hollister. Unfortunately, they proved too worn to pull the steep grades straddling the Missouri-Arkansas border.
The train has reached the southern terminus of the trip, a point high in the Arkansas forest some 500 feet above Branson. It does not turn around, but merely returns backwards, spearheaded by the rear observation car.
Tom Loker dispenses coffee, sweet rolls, and doughnuts from a lounge bar. He is a semi-retired former railroad conductor, now one of three crewmen on this run. Instead of the traditional navy blue uniform with brass buttons, he wears a neat maroon sweatshirt. Tom is enthusiastic. "We started operations last August, and passed our first one million passenger miles in two-and-a-half months!" They are approaching a million and a half now, though business is slowing as the season advances. So they must already have carried more than 35,000 passengers, I reflect. Branson schools are beginning to book student field trips, a market with off-season potential. And there have been special events. In October, an all-day fall color tour to Norfork, Arkansas, south of Mountain Home, sold out. Rail-Tex, Inc., owner of thirty-two regional railroads (including the Missouri and North Arkansas, which owns Branson Scenic's station and right-of-way) engaged the train for a two day excursion. Celebrating its going public, Rail-Tex took a load of rail and finance VIP's all the way to Batesville, a 300-mile round trip. Three bottles of worcestershire sauce stood on Tom Loker's condiment rack, commemorating the roast beef and perhaps the bloody marys of that trip.
Back at the station, Ilia Kamp visited hospitably while keeping an eye on various details of the business day. Illa is retail manager, with plans to enlarge the station's shopping space. She is also wife of one of the five partners, all Kansas City
business people, railroad preserva~ tionists, and buffs. She drives back and forth, "living out of the trunk of my car," she says. "I hope to find a place I can rent, something with a little kitchen, a place to drop down." You and hundreds of other Branson newcomers, I thought. Good luck, Ilia!
And good luck, Branson Scenic Railroad, another of scores of new Branson businesses great and small in various stages of start-up. This is a good one, a professional operation with good service and a good product. The passengers, myself included, were mighty pleased.
Retired railroadman, Tim Loker, now crewman on the Branson Scenic Railroad.
Bridge over Turkey Creek, west of Hollister, Missouri.
Photos by Don Holliday and Robert Flanders
Sharp curve on the White River line near Cricket, Arkansas. At this point the road passes between the Turkey Creek (Taney County, Missouri) and the Bear Creek (Boone County, Arkansas) watersheds.
Railroad Station, now city offices.
National Register of Historic Places.
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