Trails and Rails on the Southwest Chief #3

We are just a few weeks away from our Trails & Rails Inaugural Run on the Southwest Chief between Chicago and La Plata, Missouri… and all 25 docents are very excited… and hope you can be part of the experience this summer. So what has lead up to all of this? Well, I thought I would share some of the back story about Trails & Rails for you. What is now known as Trails & Rails had its beginnings in 1994. Mr. James Miculka, who is now the National Coordinator of Trails & Rails, was a ranger at a national historical park in New Orleans at the time. His family owned a ranch back in Texas and he would often take the train between Louisiana and Texas. Why drive when you can just kick back and take the train, right? Being a professional nature lover, Miculka would informally point out plants, animals, and historic sites out to passengers in the Sightseer Lounge Car on the Sunset Limited. There are a lot of beautiful sites near the Gulf Coast that the train passes through down there! Anyway, Miculka’s observations were so popular the conductors would ask him to do it anytime he was aboard the train. One day, a marketing official from Amtrak was aboard and decided this should be a formal program. In the late 1990′s, Trails & Rails was developed with rangers and volunteers from the parks doing talks on the Sunset Limited in Louisiana and Texas and on the City of New Orleans in Louisiana and Mississippi. The program expanded to the Midwest in 1999 and 2000. The first Trails & Rails program out of Chicago was on the Texas Eagle between Chicago and St. Louis and was sponsored by the Illinois & Michigan Canal National Heritage Corridor in Lockport, Illinois. Rangers and volunteers would point out various historic sites along the way to passengers. I&M Canal was the sponsor of the program because the train ran right along the canal for the first 37 miles of the route between Chicago and Joliet. Continuing on to St. Louis, docents would talk about Illinois farming and Abraham Lincoln sites. The program lasted for four years. In 2004, docents were switched over to the Empire Builder route. This was the result of management/administrative changes at I&M Canal and the desire to have more Trails & Rails programs on Amtrak’s premiere long distance train. In 2005, Chicago-based docents did a program to Minneapolis-St. Paul. Between 2006 and 2010 the program was scaled back to Winona, Minnesota. In 2008, the Mississippi National River & Recreation Area became the official National Park Unit sponsor of the Chicago Trails & Rails program after there was not an official local park sponsor for three years. The Chicago-based program saw an expansion around the same time with more than 50 docents total out 7 days per week on trains between early May and the middle of September. In July 2010 it was announced that Chicago-based docents would be replaced by St. Paul-based docents on the Empire Builder. This decision was made because St. Paul-based docents could do the trip in a single day versus Chicago-based docents who would require overnight lodging in Minnesota. It was also easier for the sponsor park (Mississippi National River & Recreation Area) to manage the program based in their home city, as opposed to docents being 417 miles away. In 2011, a brand new Trails & Rails program was formed out of Chicago sponsored by the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore on Wolverine trains to Niles, Michigan. Only about half of the original Empire Builder docents decided to be part of the Indiana Dunes Trails & Rails program because it was such a short route and featured single level equipment and a lounge car with small windows. Former Trails & Rails docents kept looking for another long distance route but found it hard to find a proposal that was economically passible to Amtrak and the National Park Service. In mid-2012, the owners of the Depot Inn and Suites in La Plata agreed to provide the rooms for docents if a Trails & Rails program was ever established to La Plata. On December 3, 2012, a meeting was held at Chicago Union Station with the National Coordinators of Trails & Rails (James Miculka and Anne McGinnis), APRHF President Bob Cox, Robert Tabern (Coordinator), and Assistant Coordinators Kandace Tabern, Dick Holt, and Richard DeMink. An agreement was reached establishing a trial season of the program with 25 docents on the Southwest Chief from Chicago to La Plata. Heavy research of the route was done in December 2012 and January 2013 (see first blog entry). The reference manual for volunteers was written and published in February 2013. Docents went through the required Amtrak safety training class on March 11, 2013. During April and May 2013 docents have been going through on-board training between Chicago and Galesburg. The Inaugural Trails & Rails trip will take place on May 18-19, 2013 and will feature Assistant Coordinator Dick Holt and his partner will be Alane Morgan, who was one of the founding Chicago-based docents going back to 1999 on the Texas Eagle days. You can be part of the Trails & Rails program this summer long. Docents will be on Train #3 between Chicago and La Plata on Thursdays and Saturdays between May 18 and September 21. Docents will be on Train #4 between La Plata and Chicago on Fridays and Saturdays between May 19 and September 22. This writing was contributed by Robert Tabern.  He is the Trails and Rails Chicago coordinator.

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