Trains are a big part of the history and today’s ambience of the Upper East Side of Texas. Many people in small towns throughout the region hear the long, haunting whistle of the iron horse daily. Sometimes the trains slow down, wheels screeching to a halt on the rails, as they stop at a station. Far more of them pass on through, blowing whistles at cross- roads to alert pedestrians and automobile traffic.
For an up close and personal experience, visitors to the Texas State Railroad climb aboard vintage steam and diesel locomotives taking them across the piney woods of Anderson and Cherokee counties. The 50-mile round trip runs between the quaint towns of Palestine and Rusk. Depending on the season, passengers experience spring blooms of dogwood or the autumn trees as they change vibrant colors. This time of year, guests are treated to the holiday adventure, The Polar Express.
Hosted by friendly and informative attendants, guests ride in comfortable early 1900 coaches traveling along gently rolling hills. The route passes over 24 bridges, one more than 1,000 feet long. Unusual railroad structures — such as the locomotive turntable located midway — dot the historic route.
The four-hour ride includes an hour layover with plenty of time to peruse both the Rusk and Palestine depots with upscale gift shops and historical story boards. Each end of the route has a beautiful park with a depot complex with its own identity. The Palestine depot represents the Victorian era of architecture popularized when steam engine trains first crisscrossed the American landscape more than a century ago. The Rusk depot is a beautiful rock edifice. It has a vintage movie theater and on select evenings shows movies filmed on the Texas State Railroad including The Great Debaters starring Denzel Washington, O’ Brother, Where Art Thou with George Clooney and John Goodman, and Rough Riders featuring Tom Berenger and Sam Elliot. The Rusk complex offers overnight camping accommodations with the exclusive experience of staying onsite at a historic railroad station.
The train rides are perfect for families, group getaways, and romantic excursions. Several experiences include the adults-only presidential car, the exclusive glass-top dome car, caboose rides, open air coach, and a diesel engine cab ride.
There are many other adventures found in Anderson and Cherokee counties.
Palestine is the seat of Anderson County. Founded in 1846, it has a rich history that is reflected in the buildings and features that shaped the history of the city. Palestine has more than 1,800 recognized historic resources and more buildings in the National Register of Historic Places than any Texas mainland city.
The city’s history includes key contributions from citizens of African descent and a driving tour called Black History and Heritage Tour tells their legends and legacies. The fifteen stops include Mount Vernon African Methodist Episcopal and several other churches, and the Douglas School, McKnight Plaza, Jesse and Alma Stein Home and other houses.
Palestine’s downtown area has many boutique and antique shops and the Redlands Hotel, a beautifully restored historic building, is a destination all its own. Comfortable guest suites, an art gallery and gift shop, a bar, and fine dining at the Queen St. Grille ensure guests enjoy their stay. The hotel is centrally located to downtown popular places like Eilenberger’s Bakery — the oldest bakery in Texas — and the historic Texas Theatre with performances throughout the year.
Just a few blocks away is charming Old Town Palestine, a lively neighborhood of revitalized historic structures with shopping, dining, and ongoing activities within easy walking distance. This is where visitors find many of the locals congregating for concerts or sharing a beer or cup of coffee.
Shelton Gin often has live music and other special events. Wells Creek Crossing is a superb gift and home decor shop and adjacent to Cream & Coffee. The Pint & Barrel Drafthouse has delicious food in a pub-type environment with craft beer. Visitors are wise to leave room for amazing pie from Oxbow Bakery across the street with so many homemade pies to choose from giving in to temptation to try a few is perfectly acceptable.
Walking into Bralys Ace Hardware store in Palestine is a unique shopping experience. In the historic Rusk Elementary School building, it received a Texas Treasure award and was deemed by Ace Hardware as one of the “Coolest Stores on the Planet.”
An unusual find in rural East Texas is NASA’s Columbia Scientific Balloon Facility. It launches large unmanned, high altitude research balloons and tracks and recovers the scientific experiments suspended beneath them for NASA centers and universities from all over the world. Private group tours are available.
North of Palestine is Sabor a Pasion Estate and Vineyard. Owner and chef Simon Webster serves market fresh salads, pasta, wood-fired pizza, and specialty desserts. Guests dine al fresco at the Tuscan Table with a vineyard view or relax in the rustic elegance of the Restaurant Aubergine dining room. Overnight accommodations include several cottages.
Other communities in Anderson County include Tennessee Colony, Cayuga, Montalba, Elkhart, and Frankston each with their own claim to fame and unique offerings.
Visitors find fall foliage driving trails throughout the forest and piney woods region of the Upper East Side of Texas. Some communities make it easy for travelers to find their way around. One of the defined routes is the Pineywoods Autumn Trail, a 145-mile road trip between Palestine and Athens that includes historical markers and magnificent fall colors. Autumn color happens mid to late November but it is always best to call a local tourism center before making a trip.
Crossing the Neches River, travelers enter Cherokee County, named for the Cherokee Indians who lived in the area long before European settlers arrived. Rusk is the county seat, named for Thomas Jefferson Rusk, a signer of the Texas Declaration of Independence.
Rusk, Texas, was the birthplace of another Texas leader, early governor James Stephen Hogg. Governor Hogg is memorialized through the Jim Hogg Memorial Park, a 180-acre piney woods area east of town. The park opened in 1941 to honor the first native-born governor, serving from 1891 to 1985.
A fascinating find in Rusk, located just off of the courthouse square downtown, is the 546-foot Rusk Footbridge, constructed in 1861 to allow passage over a flooded creek bed. Rebuilt in 1889, the footbridge is the longest of its kind in the nation.
Train Robber Ranch near Rusk offers overnight accommodations with hiking and horseback riding and the exciting experience of seeing the Texas State Railroad crossing through the ranch property.
North of the county seat of Rusk is the active community of Jacksonville. The Vanishing Texana Museum there gives visitors some idea of the character of the town and surrounding area — local leaders don’t let a little thing like city limits determine their boundaries and welcome people and artifacts from all over the world.
The museum houses an impressive collection of regional antiquities and curiosities dating back from 1830 through 1950 and from foreign regions as far back as 238 CE. Included in the displays are Native Indian relics, farm equipment, photographs, dolls, and typewriters. An antique coin exhibition showcases currency hailing from the Roman Empire.
Surrounded by forests and several lakes, Jacksonville has a lot to offer travelers, including Lake Jacksonville, boasting more than 13 acres of “liquid playground” including beautiful sunset views. Just minutes from downtown, visitors find campsites, public boat ramps, and two swimming spots with crystal-clear water and a foundation of clean sandy loam underfoot.
Downtown Jacksonville is home to Ritual, a dining, lodging, and spa destination.
Just 12 miles east of Jacksonville is Cherokee Trace, a wildlife park that is home to a variety of wildlife. Guests see more than two dozen exotic and endangered species that thrive in an open habitat similar to their native territory. A self-guided drive takes visitors through the hills and open savannahs of this three-acre preserve. People observe, feed, and photograph the animals in a natural environment with miles of roads that seem like a whole different world.
Neches River National Wildlife Refuge is nearby. It protects wintering, nesting, and habitat for migratory birds to ensure protection of the bottomland hardwoods for their diverse biological value. Visitors find several trails, each with its own set of things to discover. They see wildlife, take photographs, and learn about native vegetation. Wildlife often spotted at the refuge includes white-tail deer, squirrels, rabbits, bobcats, raccoons, and river otters. Birds include waterfowl, mallards, teel, wood ducks, and larger colonial egrets. Attracted to the many flower species, butterflies and dragonflies are abundant.
Other towns in Cherokee County to explore include Reklaw, Maydelle, New Summerfield, Cuney, and Gallatin.
Just four miles north of downtown Jacksonville is Love’s Lookout. It’s a rest stop for travelers, and a delightful destination all its own. Visitors go for picnics, to take photographs, and to soak up the scenic surroundings. At an elevation of 720 feet above sea level and rising 240 feet above the surrounding terrain, the vaulted ridge affords a panoramic view of the eastern horizon as far out as 30 miles on a clear day.
This article is taken from the book Upper East Side of Texas, Small Towns & Cultural Districts available on Amazon this fall. Go to www.speckledcrow.com to sign up for notification of its release.