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Today is October 4, 2022

On Track

Marion County’s recreational railroad couples trainloads of fun to local history

By Debbie Stringer

On Track

Passengers prepare to board the train at the Columbia Exposition Center. The switch engine pulls (or pushes) a large passenger car and a caboose for a 45-minute round trip on a section of track leading into Columbia.

    The locomotive’s whistle blasted with such authority that no one would have suspected a kindergartener was pulling the cord.
    Five-year-old Benjamin Dearmon gave a few more long pulls before giving up the train engineer’s seat to the other rail fans waiting in line.
    Benjamin’s hands-on exploration of the locomotive cab topped off his recent ride on the Marion County Recreational Railroad, in Columbia.
    “He has something about trains. He loves to look at them, loves to ride them—loves just about everything about them,” said his grandmother Eleanor Robinson, a Dixie Electric Power Association member.
    Since the train began making regularly scheduled runs in April 2012, people of all ages have climbed aboard for the 45-minute round-trip ride into Columbia’s history.
     Consisting of a 25-ton diesel-powered switch engine, a flatbed car converted into a passenger car and a bright green caboose, the train departs the first Saturday of each month from the Columbia Exposition Center. From there it rolls southward into Columbia on the historic Silver Creek–Columbia line.
    Passengers pay $5 each to settle into one of the caboose’s vintage green-and-white vinyl benches and watch the landscape slide past at an easy 6 mph.
    The train’s engineer is William McNeese, a member of Pearl River Valley Electric Power Association who used to run a train for Georgia-Pacific when that company leased the railroad. He ambles among the passengers, answering questions about the train and explaining the railroad’s prominent role in local history.
    Lending sound effects to his talk are the creaks and groans of steel wheels rolling on steel rails, the clanging of the train’s bell and the long whistle blasts at road crossings. The caboose rocks slightly as it rolls, adding yet another singular sensation to its passengers’ experience.
    Local volunteers serve as train conductors, assistant engineers and flagmen. Communicating with hand-held radios, the men stay in constant contact with each other to ensure the safety of their passengers.
    The volunteer flagman speeds ahead in a pickup truck to stop traffic at each of the railroad’s road crossings as the train approaches.
    Finally, brakes applied, the train squeals to a halt before reaching a wooden trestle bridge. Had it not burned in ‘09, the bridge would have given the train access to Bluff Street Park, overlooking the Pearl River. The bridge will be rebuilt, but for now the stop allows passengers to step off the train, walk to the bridge and hear more stories about the historic railroad and the community’s plans for its preservation.
    “We typically share our hopes and aspirations for expanding the route by rebuilding the bridge and maybe taking it on in to downtown,” said Lloyd Thompson, a volunteer conductor and flagman.
    Preserving the railroad’s history while developing its potential as a tourist attraction is the concern of the five-member Marion County Railroad Authority (MCRA), chaired by Columbia native Eddie Ray Breakfield, a member of Pearl River Valley Electric Power Association.
    Beginning around the turn of the 20th century, railroads played a vital role in the early development of Columbia and Marion County. By mid-century, three railroads served the area. Logging and lumber companies used the railroads to transport locally harvested yellow pine logs to sawmills, and lumber to markets across the country.
    The county’s recreational railroad was once a part of the Columbia–Silver Creek line, owned by Illinois Central. Marion County acquired the line when it was abandoned by the Gloster Southern Railroad in 1995.
    The late Maurice Danton, a former mayor of Columbia who chaired MCRA, led a group of local business people in securing funds to buy the line. “It was his vision and dream to have a recreational railroad,” Breakfield said, “and we have been working on it for years and years and years.”
    Much of the track, including one road crossing, had to be rebuilt and switches removed to transform the line into a recreational railroad.
    Danton’s enthusiasm for the project must have been contagious; in its first eight months of regular operation last year, more than 1,000 people of all ages rode the railroad as he envisioned.
    “We’re the second-largest passenger carrier in the state. We’re also the only other one besides Amtrak,” Thompson quipped.
   The passengers are train lovers and travelers, elementary school children and senior church groups, grandparents and retirees. For most of the children, it is their first train ride.
    The train may be reserved for private events. The passenger car is suitable for birthday parties, reunions and other special events.
    “I had a 5-year-old here last year from Lucedale. He’s a train nut,” McNeese said. “His mama said every time the train blows going through Lucedale she has to put him in a car and they go watch it. So he had a birthday party on this train, and he asked all kinds of questions.”
    MCRA members believe the railroad will attract visitors looking for something fun and different to do on a weekend.
    “To me, it’s really exciting because the train is so unique,” said Robin Sanderson, an MCRA member and CEO of Citizens Bank in Columbia. “We really want to grow this. We just need to work together to see the potential, and to use the energy, enthusiasm and creativity to turn ourselves into a [tourist] destination.”
    “My dream is to get an old dining car and every month or so have a special ride with food and entertainment,” Breakfield said.
    There is talk of building an old-style railroad depot in Bluff Street Park, with restrooms and a gift shop. Soon to become a reality is the Pearl River Interpretive Plaza, whose centerpiece will be a large scale model of the entire Pearl River basin fed by an artesian well.
    Income from ticket sales and party car reservation fees pay the train’s operating costs.
    Funding sources for the development of the recreational railroad have included the Marion County Development Partnership, the Mississippi Department of Transportation and the Pearl River Basin Authority. A $170,000 grant from MDOT will fund the repair of the trestle railroad bridge and construction of a new passenger loading area.
    But it takes more than money to energize a project like this. The passion of a small but dedicated group of volunteers and supporters burns at its core.
    Thompson, for example, became a railroad volunteer simply because he loves trains. “I’ve loved trains since I was knee-high to a frog. I have tons of model trains and one day will expand that layout when the kids move out,” he said with a laugh.
    Thompson manages the railroad’s website, in addition to serving as a conductor and flagman and, on occasion, a trimmer of limbs overhanging the track. 
    “We’re small now, but we’re hoping to grow it and add more stuff for the people. We would love for people to come out to see what we’re doing and what our vision is,” he said.
    Since his first ride on the MCRR in early February, Benjamin Dearmon has been asking his grandparents when he can ride again. “That’s all he has talked about,” Eleanor Robinson said.

    The Marion County Recreational Railroad offers rides for up to 100 passengers on the first Saturday of each month at 10 a.m., and at other times by reservation. Admission is $5 per person. Group rates are available. Volunteers are welcome. For details, contact William McNeese at 601-408-7544 or william-mcneese@att.net, or go to www.marioncountyrailroad.org or www.facebook.com/marioncountyrailroad.

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