As we stood on the boarding platform of the historic Van Buren train depot, we heard the cry of a distant train whistle. Shortly after, the massive locomotive lumbered into the depot. Before reaching a complete stop, railway workers sprang into action. Conductor Barton Jennings called out instructions to those within hearing range and hand signaled to the engineer as he situated passenger car exits at their designated location. Once the locomotive was safely locked into position, conductors bid farewell to passengers as they exited the train.
Those disembarking had boarded the train in Springdale for the day-long 134-mile roundtrip to Van Buren. Passengers enjoy a three-hour layover in historic downtown Van Buren to explore local shops, cafés, and the area’s rich architecture. Once the cars were emptied our group boarded the train to begin the Van Buren to Winslow, a three-hour seventy-mile roundtrip adventure. For those interested, A&M (Arkansas & Missouri Railroad) also offers a third excursion that travels from Springdale to Winslow roundtrip.
Our reserved seats were in the Vista Dome of the Silver Feather. The car was once part of the famous California Zephyr. At its launch in 1949, it was dubbed America’s most glamorous train. John Wayne enjoyed taking his morning coffee in this car during its time in operation in California. Each of A&M’s vintage 1920-1950 passenger cars has a rich and exciting history that conductors share with passengers during the excursion. The mint-condition railcars have been featured in movies such as Biloxi Blues and Frank & Jessie.
The moment we climbed the steps and entered the Vista Dome, with its wrap-around windows that stretch from the ceiling to table’s edge, we were greeted with views of the clear blue sky. The elevation on the second floor delivers views deep into the bordering forest, which are not available from the lower cars.
Henry Moore, as with many of the volunteer conductors, has been a lifelong train buff. Born in Hot Springs, Arkansas, he made his inaugural train ride when his mother carried him in a cradle to visit family in Cincinnati, Ohio. Henry was a trolley operator at the Fort Smith Trolley Museum for over twenty-nine years. The entire crew of conductors possess a wealth of intriguing information about A&M’s history, the area, and all things railroads. These interesting tidbits are readily shared with passengers, thoroughly complimenting the railway experience.
As the train pulled away from the station, and we settled into the rhythmic rocking motion of the rails, once again the whistle echoed across the River Valley. Upon hearing the whistle, Henry educated us on its meaning. Per the Train Horn Rule (49 Code of Federal Regulations Part 222), train engineers must sound a series of long-long-short-long blasts of the whistle at least fifteen seconds in advance of all public crossings. Although intended as a warning, for me, it was the call of adventure. As we passed bystanders eagerly waving at the railcars, I was reminded of a comment from Paul Theroux’s The Great Railway Bazaar, “I have seldom heard a train go by and not wished I was on it.”
Soon downtown Van Buren was behind us, and we were rolling across the countryside at a blistering top speed of forty miles per hour. From our vantage in the Vista Dome, we enjoyed a view of the train piercing the canopy of overhanging trees as it wove its way through the lush forest of the Boston Mountains. Even for this lifelong Arkansan, it provided a new perspective of familiar locations as we passed under I49 overpasses, crossed county roads I have bicycled, and viewed sections of Frog Bayou I have floated.
The conductors continued to provide interesting historical tidbits about the areas that bordered the railway. Such as how the town of Rudy acquired its name. George Rudy donated land for the railroad right of way if they would name the town after him. Another interesting tale was in the Chester community when the notorious outlaws Bonnie & Clyde stole a 1920 Model A Ford. To their misfortune, the vehicle was owned by the sheriff. We also learned about a group of grave markers just to the side of the rails which honor workers who died of smallpox when constructing the trestles in 1822.
Many conductors consider the Chester to Winslow section of the A&M excursion the most scenic. With this stretch crossing three trestles (the longest being 451 feet in length and 110 feet high), and passing through a quarter mile-long tunnel, it is easy to understand their reasoning. As the train chugs up a 2.6 percent grade, the slower speeds provide passengers more time to enjoy passing scenery. At one point along this section the front locomotive is two feet higher than the trailing car.
On the return trip we rolled through secluded valleys that offered views of the surrounding Ozark Mountains unseen from the highway. It was at that moment I decided to book at least one more excursion, knowing there would be no better vantage point for Arkansas’ colorful fall foliage than from a seat in the Vista Dome.
It was an extraordinary excursion through nature, and to an era I once believed only existed on the big screen in classics like Strangers on a Train and Murder on the Orient Express.
You can visit amtrainrides.com to schedule your own A&M adventure.