By Carolyn Tomlin
Some say the days when railroads were king are only a distant memory. However, for the ten thousand people who annually ride the St. Louis Iron Mountain & Southern Railway, those days are very much a recent memory.
Hailing from Cape Girardeau County in the small town of Jackson, the historic diesel locomotive Number 5898 ambles through a short stretch of southeastern Missouri countryside. Along the route, neighbors gather and bring their children to wave at the train. And if they’re lucky, the engineer will blow his whistle as a friendly greeting.
This year marks the twenty-ninth season of the railroad’s tourist operations in Jackson. During the past two decades, the locomotive has become a well-known attraction to train enthusiasts, vacationers, and local residents.
Across the country, railroad buffs are discovering vintage trains that offer short rides, and these excursion trains are a growing source of tourism. According to TouristRailways.com, 304 tourist trains still run in North America. But the fact that the Iron Mountain Railway is staffed entirely by volunteers sets this hospitable, old-fashioned locomotive experience apart.
A Baby in a Valise
Perhaps the Iron Mountain Baby is responsible for some of the success of the railway. Legend has it that on August 14, 1902, William Helms, a seventy-two-year-old farmer and Civil War veteran, was walking along the track near Big River. Speeding northbound over the bridge, Engine Number Four came around the bend. Seconds later, he heard a strange noise and investigated to find an infant in a valise.
Helms took the baby home to his wife, and they nursed the badly bruised child back to health. Naming him after his foster father, Bill Helms, and Gould, the owner of the railroad, the Helms family formally adopted the boy when he was six years old. The St. Louis Iron Mountain & Southern Railway paid for his college education at Southwest State Teachers College in Springfield.
He died in 1953 but lives on through the legend of the Iron Mountain Baby. John T. Barton wrote “The Ballad of the Iron Mountain Baby” in 1902, and in 2007, author Evault Boswell published a novel based on the story. However, William Gould’s true origins remain a mystery.
If Trains Could Talk
The year was 1851. Herman Melville wrote Moby Dick. The New York Times started publishing two-cent papers. And the St. Louis Iron Mountain Rail Road was created by a special act of Missouri legislation—ten years before the first shots were heard at Fort Sumter.
The railroad was a vital transport link before the Civil War. Then, the rails played a significant role in military actions in Missouri. Like a tapestry woven of various threads, the Iron Mountain transported troops, delivered supplies, and connected families from both the North and South.
However, during the Civil War, many tracks were destroyed in order to prevent trains from delivering the necessities of war. Both Union and Confederate soldiers often removed the iron rails, heated them to a high temperatures, and bent them into useless objects. So following the pattern of other railroads of its day, economic hardships and extensive damage to the rails during the war caused the railroad to close on January 7, 1867. But all was not lost for this historic line. The founder of Allenville, Thomas Allen, and two other investors purchased the Iron Mountain that year, and it was eventually merged with the Missouri Pacific Railway in 1917, later coming under the umbrella of Union Pacific.
The Little Staff that Could
Fast forward to the year 1985. To encourage tourism, investors brought the train back to the abandoned Jackson section of the rail line. Twenty members formed the Friends of Steam Railroading. Today, this nonprofit group has approximately thirty dedicated members of all ages and talents. Their one goal is to keep the St. Louis Iron Mountain Railway alive and well.
In 1986, locomotive Number 5, built in 1946 by the H.K. Porter Company of Pittsburg, was the engine. The 1,100-horsepower engine weighs 115,000 pounds. And despite its age, old Number 5 proved itself capable of moving the area’s only steam-powered rail service, returning passengers to an earlier period in America’s history when railroads offered the best mode of travel. But by 1998, Engine Number 5 was a well-worn piece of machinery. Locomotive Number 5 needed many repairs, and it became very difficult to continue providing a dependable and safe engine for the tourist train.
That’s when a new locomotive, new at least to those that support the St. Louis Iron Mountain & Southern Railway, came into the picture. Built in 1952, an E8 diesel locomotive— rated at 2,250 horsepower and capable of speeds up to 120 miles per hour—took over. Even with the new, powerful engine, keeping this train chugging along isn’t easy.
“There are numerous challenges to keeping the railroad running,” says Elane Moonier, a four-year volunteer coordinator with Iron Mountain. “Probably, one of the greatest challenges is keeping up with repairs. Safety is our top priority.”
The cross-ties and rails require maintenance. Tree limbs hanging over the track must be removed.
The late Bill Spiecker, a former president of the group, was quoted in the Kansas City Star in 1993: “We have been successful at preserving the equipment and maintaining the roadway because of the growing number of volunteers.” The train has to meet the Federal Railroad Authority’s standards to keep its license. And with Saturday afternoon trips for nine months of the year, three engineers volunteer and rotate their services.
“Each engineer and conductor is qualified per Federal Railroad Administration requirements,” Elane says. “Several crew members drive from St. Louis to Jackson each weekend.”
Old Train, New Tricks
About five years ago, Elane brought her grandson Aspen to see the train. The curious five-year- old noticed the diesel engine needed a paint job.
“He asked, ‘Can we paint the engine?’ ” she says. “I answered, ‘No, we can’t do that.’ Then, like all small children, he wanted to know ‘why?’ ”
That’s when the idea was born to raise money for the old engine by selling snacks and train caps. In two years, volunteers raised the $6,000 needed to paint the engine the bright red you see today. At age ten, Aspen is now the junior conductor on the Iron Mountain Railway.
Keeping the train attractive and comfortable is important to the Friends of Steam Railroading, and they realized the 1950s New York Central passenger car needed remodeling, too. With air conditioning, it’s now the car of choice for many travelers on humid Missouri summer afternoons.
The stationary Art Gallery Car is another new attraction. Thanks to owner Oliver Glocose, the elegantly restored dining car is now filled with paintings of trains, various artwork, and gifts created by volunteers. Each month, a small painting is raffled off, and a larger piece is used in an annual raffle to raise money for the train.
Courtesy of the Missouri Division of Tourism
Every year, the Friends of Steam Railroading add new thing to draw in visitors. One new feature is a nineteenth-century Western village. Stopping on the trip back to Jackson, passengers have time to visit the jail and church and perhaps purchase merchandise from the general store.
“Seeing the smiles and excitement that riding a train brings to people makes it all worthwhile,” says Harriet Drusch, who works with Iron Mountain. “Not everyone has ridden a train. We’ve giving them a new experience. Each season we add something new. This year, we included a vintage baseball and a Civil War weekend.”
Every excursion offers a surprise. One trip might feature a bluegrass musician whose music takes you back to a time long ago. Another might give you the chance to dress like your favorite Star Wars character from a galaxy far, far away.
And remember the James Brothers? The outlaws, Frank and Jesse, robbed the train back in 1874 when it stopped in Gads Hill. Don’t panic if you look out a train window and see the gang charging through a cornfield with guns blazing.
The James Gang isn’t the only band of thieves in the area, though. Hold on to your valuables because Bonnie and Clyde might be robbing banks nearby and decide to board a getaway train. The train also offers “Murder Mysteries,” a dinner trip where passengers interact with actors to help solve the staged mayhem. And the Christmas trains in December are more than well-attended.
“The Santa Express is so popular we often run five to seven trips each weekend,” Elane says. Space fills quickly as parents and grandparents bring youngsters to tell Santa what’s on their wish list.
An Easter egg hunt in the spring, a Halloween train in the fall, and a Dr. Seuss train all attract both the young and the young at heart. And there’s more. Lazy L Safari Park transports small animals for a petting zoo throughout the season.
All train trips begin and end in Jackson, as the train goes to the end of the line, then backs up for the return trip. The regular season trips run on Saturday afternoons from 1 to 3 pm from the first weekend in April to the last day of the year.
However, there are special events every month except January through March. The train is available at a charter rate for events like birthdays, family reunions, and anniversaries. Afternoon and evening trips are scheduled on weekends.
Reinvigorating Cape County
In an area where tourism is an important part of the economy, the Iron Mountain Railway acts as a model.
“The St. Louis Iron Mountain & Southern Railway is one of our top attractions,” says Stacy Dohogne Lane, director of public relations for the Cape Girardeau Convention and Visitor Bureau. “The more events and attractions we have in the area, the more people attend.”
And that makes sense. A great group of volunteers offer friendly service. People come; they bring their children and grandchildren.
Since its beginning in 1986, thousands of guests have learned about the history of the railroads by visiting Jackson.
Journeying through the scenic Missouri countryside, you’ll pass fields of freshly cut hay rolled up like over-sized pastries, dairy farms dotted with black and white Holstein cows, and friendly neighbors waving from pickups along the tracks.
It’s the Heartland at its best.