Monday, March 5, 2007

Sights to be seen on leisurely trip

Telegram Staff Writer

Up a hill, around a curve and between the limestone quarries, the train that thought it could, did.
Albeit, two hours later.
But speed wasn't the point of Sunday's 33-mile trip from Cedar Park to Burnet.
It was 'for us to be on the great big choo choo train,' said 3-year-old Megan Maddry from Harker Heights. Dressed in pink, the little girl grinned as she sat next to 'the biggest window (she'd) ever seen.'
Miss Maddry was part of 'the Temple group,' as so dubbed by Train Conductor Steve Barry.
The 50 Temple people were assigned to Rail Car A of the Hill Country Flyer, an authentic passenger train built in 1922 by the Pennsylvania Railroad Co. They had boarded the train at 10 a.m. after a bus trip from Temple to Cedar Park. Paid at the Temple Railroad and Heritage Museum, each person's fare benefited the Austin Steam Train Association, the non-profit Central Texas rail-roading group that maintains the upkeep of the Hill Country Flyer and its three other passenger trains.
'Everyone you see working on the train is a volunteer. Real easy to spot because of the red vests,' said Hank Henry, attendant for Rail Car A. 'Not one of us gets paid. What you paid for with your ticket helps us get you from here to there. It also keeps the train looking fun, neat and cool.'
Wearing a black cowboy hat 'direct from the one and only Arizona, U.S.A.,' Henry soon set the joking mood for the 'official day excursion from Cedar Park to Burnet.'
'Now, I tell you. We're all volunteers,' Henry said. 'If you have a problem with that, just remember - them people on the Titanic, they was all professionals.'
Then he told the passengers about the train's one rule.
'Don't be walking outside barefoot,' Henry said. 'There's stuff that can cut and hurt. Besides it's cold out there.'
The weather was chilly on Sunday. Most of the train passengers wore coats, and some were bundled in blankets. But nobody complained.
Chugga chugga, went the train down the Austin and Texas Central Railroad line.
The scenery of green trees and blue Wal-Marts started to move like an old-fashioned movie reel. And the Cedar Park Train Station was left in the dust.
Along the way, Henry pointed out several sights.
'Right now, we're on the South San Gabriel River Bridge,' Henry said. 'It's the oldest wooden railroad bridge still being used in Texas.'
According to a pamphlet describing the Burnet excursion, the bridge was built in 1888.
When Tony the Llama peeked his big brown eyes outside his pen, the younger passengers screamed with laughter.
Henry said the llama belonged to a local rancher.
'Tony's a real good pet,' Henry said. 'And he's real good to us. See there. Here he comes.'
The Llama ran beside the train for a good five minutes - just like a dog chases a truck.
Next came Vulture Gulch.
'That's where them big birds come to roost and nest,' said the train's fireman, Chuck Pugh of Austin. 'You can catch them swooping down, every now and then.'
Pugh sat in the engine car with Engineer Bob Currie of Temple.
His job was to 'be the engineer's eyes for the left side of the train.'
At each curve, Pugh would yell to Currie, 'All 4 cars, no fires, no smoke.'
The fireman explained that curves in the track were the only opportunities for 'the front of the train to see the back of the train.'
'As we go around, I look back and make sure nothing's missing,' Pugh said. 'Or burning.'
The fireman had to raise his voice because of the booming 'chugga chugga.' The engine car was where the by-then-familiar chugging was loudest.
Built in 1960, the engine car wasn't as old as the rest of the train.
'But it's the only one in existence,' Currie said about the Alco diesel-electric locomotive engine. 'There's none like this still working.'
Alco engines are unique in their look, explained Currie, a professional locomotive engineer who retired from the Missouri Pacific Railroad Co. after 34 years.
'You know it's an Alco because of its very long nose,' Currie said. 'Its profile looks like a big alligator.'
Riding next to the engineer was like being at the very front of a roller coaster. There the view was panoramic.
At such a clear vantage point, the mile markers along the train track were legible. The engineer said several of the markers were authentic, dating to the early 1900s.
'At Cedar Park, we start at mile 82,' Currie said. 'In Burnet, we stop at mile 115.'
The miles tell the distance from Giddings, the place where the Austin and Texas Central Railroad line starts.
At a place called Summit Quarry, about 20 'train minutes' away from Burnet, piles and piles of crushed limestone sat stacked in freight cars as far as the eye could see.
'As long as there's road construction in Texas, there'll be limestone quarries,' Pugh said. 'That's the stuff they use to fix roads and build bridges.'
When the train got to Burnet, the Temple group set out to find lunch. By that time, it was high noon.
The visitors had two hours to visit the various shops and restaurants in town square.
At 'a home-style cookin'' restaurant near the Burnet Train Station, several train riders from the Temple group took advantage of the advertised pork chop special.
Trains and traveling were the topics of conversation.
'I've been riding trains since I was a kid. From Temple to Boston. Rode them all over,' said Paul Brown of Temple. 'It used to be real interesting when I was kid. You got to meet all kinds of people. You got to see the country. And you got some real good food.'
Brown's idea of the 'best trip ever' would be by train.
'I'd love to go to Vancouver, Canada, and get on a train and travel along the Pacific coast,' Brown said. 'It's some real pretty country up there.'
Arch and Gail Kuntz of Temple, another couple at the restaurant, said they can remember riding trains on the Southern Pacific Railroad to go see horse races.
'We have lived in Temple for 40 something years, and we never took advantage of riding the train,' Mrs. Kuntz said. 'We decided it was about time we did. And it's been fabulous fun.'
The main attraction in Burnet was the cowboy fight that took place in front of the mock saloon and jail.
On the return trip, the children were full of energy, jumping and giggling.
Train Entertainer Maurice Beckham captured the attention of the restless youngsters with a variety of activities. He sang, told jokes, made balloon animals and showed them an emu egg.
About the size of a toddler's football, the emu egg was coconut-colored and oval-shaped.
'We used to have emu farms all up and down this railroad trip,' Beckham said. 'But they all closed after a while. This is one of our favorite souvenirs.'
Sunday's excursion was Beckham's 1,006th trip aboard the Hill Country Flyer.
While the children were playing, most of the grown-ups were napping. Their souvenir bags doubled as pillows and arm cushions.
Chugga chugga, went the train all the way back.

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