APRHF Rail Rangers Recap: 2016 St. Louis Excursion

The APRHF Rail Rangers program has only been around for ten months now, but its small group of dedicated docents continue to participate in numerous outreach programs, plus various on-board educational programs on private railroad excursions. The most recent on-board trips took place on Saturday, April 23, 2016 and Sunday, April 24, 2016. Passengers riding between Chicago Union Station and Saint Louis’ Gateway Station were treated to amazing views of the city, suburbs, and prairie lands from ex-Santa Fe Big Dome “Sky View”. There was also narration about the various communities and sites along the way from three APRHF Rail Rangers interpretive guides.



APRHF Rail Rangers Interpretive Guide Robert Neil (left) points out landmarks to passengers


Shortly after the APRHF Rail Rangers program was launched in July 2015, the group got word of a possible private rail excursion that might be taking place in Spring 2016 between Chicago and Saint Louis. Even though most of the APRHF Rail Rangers interpretive guides have ridden the rail line several times before, they really hadn’t done much research on this particular route. So, before the first flake of snow began last winter, Rail Rangers Executive Director Robert Tabern and Rail Rangers Chicago Coordinator Kandace Tabern drove part of the route to learn about its history. This expanded into three weekends of driving portions of the 284-mile route across Illinois! One weekend the Taberns drove from Chicago to Joliet… the next weekend they drove from Joliet to Springfield… and the final weekend they drove from Springfield to St. Louis. As they had done with other routes, Robert and Kandace drove as close as possible to the tracks and took their time – stopping at various local museums, chambers of commerce, and even at folks’ farms and homes to hear their hometown stories. The Taberns report that driving the route from Chicago to St. Louis was relatively easy compared to other routes, since much of the rail line is paralleled by old U.S. Route 66, and present-day Interstate 55. One of the hardest routes for them to research was the BNSF line between Chicago and La Plata, as most country roads run north-south or east-west, and the rail line goes on a diagonal. The Taberns published their notes on the Chicago to St. Louis route into a 102 page route guide that they ended up selling on the April 2016 excursion; it is called “Outside the Rails: A Rail Route Guide from Chicago to St. Louis, MO”. This book, and other railroad route guides, are also currently for sale on their website, www.outsidetherails.com. The Chicago to St. Louis book retails for $20.00 plus S&H, with all money above printing costs being donated to the APRHF Rail Rangers program.



Private car “Sky View” (ex-Santa Fe Big Dome) was the centerpiece for the trip from Chicago to St. Louis


APRHF Rail Rangers partnered with Zephyr Route of Saint Charles, Illinois for the April 2016 excursion between Chicago and St. Louis; the President and CEO of Zephyr Route is Mike Abernethy. If you are not familiar with Mike and Zephyr Route… there is an interesting story there. Even though he was a school teacher most of his life, Mike started out working for the Burlington Route out of Chicago in the 1960’s. In the past decade or two, he decided to purchase private rail car “Silver View” (an ex-CB&Q round-end observation/dome car). He keeps it out on a spur tracks in Northeast Iowa where it is undergoing restoration. In order to support his restoration efforts, he charters private rail car trips around the Midwest and uses the profit made for items he needs to re-build “Silver View”. Mike was one of the original charter partners in the APRHF Rail Rangers program when it was established last year. In fact, Mike let APRHF members do a “test run” of APRHF Rail Rangers in June 2015 on one of his trips to Hannibal, Missouri, even before the program officially had a name or was announced to the public. Mike often charters his cars from Iowa Pacific.



Amtrak Conductor Micheal Case (left) and APRHF Rail Rangers Chicago Coordinator Kandace Tabern (right) pose with a copy of “Outside the Rails: A Rail Route Guide from Chicago to St. Louis, MO”


Mike’s car of choice is often “Prairie View” for his excursions, however for this trip it was out in North Carolina and Virginia performing excursions with the Norfolk & Western 611. So, instead, he chartered “Sky View” for the trip to Saint Louis; it’s an ex-Santa Fe Big Dome. It was built in 1954 and was used on many historic passenger trains that passed through La Plata, including the “San Francisco Chief”, “the Chief”, “the El Capitan”, and “the Texas Chief”. Between 1971 and 1981, “Sky View” ran on the “Auto Train” between Virginia and Florida. For the next 20 years, before returning to service on the mainland in 2007, “Sky View” ran between Anchorage and Fairbanks on the Alaska Railroad.



Passengers get views of the Sears Tower and the Chicago Skyline on “Sky View”


The APRHF Rail Rangers began the trip on Saturday, April 23, 2016 with a pre-departure meeting with Mike Abernethy around 8:00am at Chicago Union Station. Interpretive Guide Robert Neil and Rail Rangers Chicago Coordinator Kandace helped Mike greet passengers in the Great Hall of Chicago Union Station, while Executive Director Robert Tabern got everything set on the dome car. Set-up ahead of passengers getting on the train can often take some time. APRHF Rail Rangers now own two wireless speaker systems which are used on their excursions; these were purchased by the APRHF for its former Trails & Rails program between Chicago and La Plata, but they are used now for APRHF Rail Rangers. Wireless speakers let passengers on both end of the dome car clearly their narration, while the person doing the narration can freely move about the car.



Two Zephyr Route passengers (left) enjoy interacting with APRHF Rail Rangers Chicago Coordinator Kandace Tabern (center) and APRHF Rail Rangers Executive Director Robert Tabern (far right)


Around 8:45am everything was in place, and passengers began to board “Sky View” for the southbound trip to St. Louis. Almost immediately after boarding, passengers were served a warm breakfast of scrambled eggs, bacon, cubed potatoes, and toast. Rail Rangers also began their narration rolling out of Chicago Union Station. The first 37 miles of the train route, between Chicago and Joliet, is on the Canadian National (ex-Illinois Central).  Most of this portion of the route follows the historic Illinois and Michigan (I&M) Canal… and there are many sites to see and talk about. While many people many not have heard of the I&M Canal, it marked a major transportation milestone for the United States. Before its completion, if one wanted to travel between Chicago and New Orleans by boat, they would have to head east through the Great Lakes, up the St. Lawrence River, around the East Coast and Florida… and into the Gulf of Mexico. With the completion of the approximately 100-miles I&M Canal, boats were able to head directly down to St. Louis and New Orleans via the Canal and Illinois River. While boats don’t use the I&M Canal anymore, several of its locks and dams are still around. In fact, a few are even visible from the train line. There are also many refineries and other factories that we told passengers about. 

Around 10:30am, the train pulled into Joliet Union Station. Amtrak recently closed the historic building and moved to a smaller station; the old building will be used for special events Just north of Joliet, the route switches from Canadian National to Union Pacific. The train stays on the Union Pacific route all the way to Saint Louis – except small stretches that are jointly owned by Norfolk Southern, Kansas City Southern, and the Terminal Railway of St. Louis.



A view of the Joliet Amtrak Station from the ex-Santa Fe Big Dome “Sky View”


Three of the major themes of the Rail Rangers’ presentation to passengers throughout the day were about Abraham Lincoln, coal mining in Illinois, and Route 66.  The train route between Chicago and St. Louis goes through Springfield, which was the home for many years of our 16th President. Many passengers found it interesting that Abraham Lincoln rode the very rail line that we were riding – both as part of his campaign for the Oval Office in 1860 – and sadly, for his funeral train between Washington, DC and Springfield, Illinois. Coal mining is a major industry in Central Illinois. Interpretive Guide Robert Neil pointed out a four-mile-long conveyor belt that runs along the tracks near Elkhart, Ill.; it’s part of the Viper Mine. If you are going southbound, it can be seen off on the left side of the train between Lincoln and Springfield. There are still many active coal mines the train passes through. Finally, many stretches of Route 66 can be seen from the train route between Chicago and St. Louis. U.S. Route 66 was one of the original federal highways created in 1926; it ran from Chicago to St. Louis… down to Oklahoma City… across the northern part of Texas… through New Mexico and Arizona… before passing through Los Angeles and ending at the Santa Monica Pier at the Pacific Ocean in California. It was immortalized by the television show and other media. Through the 1970’s and early 1980’s, many portions of Route 66 were replaced by various Interstate Highways; in Illinois, it was Interstate 55 and in Missouri it was Interstate 44. Since the interstate went around towns, and Route 66 went through towns, many stretches of the original highway can still be seen today. Viewing the old roadway bed is especially good from the train, since it was often built to parallel to the tracks. These are just three of many topics that the APRHF Rail Rangers docents shared with their passengers.



A view from the dome car of the Illinois State Capitol in Springfield, Illinois


Around 1:00pm lunch came out and was enjoyed by all – including choices of a cheeseburger, club sandwich, or chicken Caesar Salad – and a wide variety of drinks and desserts.  If you have never been part of one of the excursions that APRHF Rail Rangers partners on, the meals are just as great as the interpretive guides’ narration. These are not your typical fast food, or even Amtrak meals. Chefs with Iowa Pacific prepare all meals from scratch onboard. Looking in the kitchen, passengers didn’t even see a microwave or convection oven. Robert Neil and Robert Tabern both had the cheeseburger and commented to the chef how it was one of the best burgers they ever had. The chef commented that he and his co-workers actually grounded the meat by hand and rolled the hamburger patties out before putting them on the grill. Amazing service like this on a train exists today! But it works – it was one of the best burgers we’ve had in a long time. Kandace’s club sandwich was so huge she wasn’t even able to finish it!  Not only are you riding in a historic 1950’s dome car – you are getting meals prepared fresh aboard like passengers in the 1950’s got to experience them. This is all part of the experience and makes it well worth the ticket prices that are charged for private railcar trips.



Zephyr Route President/CEO Mike Abernethy also helps narrate for passengers


Around 2:45pm, passengers were crossing the Mississippi River and heading into Downtown St. Louis. APRHF Rail Rangers docents explained to passengers there were actually two different routes that Amtrak uses to access Gateway Station. One route goes over the Merchant Bridge – and the other goes over the MacArthur Bridge. It seems like most trains, especially recently, have been using the MacArthur Bridge. This bridge goes by the Gateway Geyser – the tallest water fountain in the United States. Three times a day it shoots water 630 feet high – the same height as the Gateway Arch right across the river. Docents explained to passengers that the only other higher water fountain is located at the King’s Palace in Saudi Arabia! Going the MacArthur Bridge route – you also get a sweeping view of the St. Louis Skyline coming in. If the train would have taken the Merchants Bridge route – the train goes under tunnels under the Saint Louis Arch – you can look up and see the tallest monument in the United States out your window.



APRHF Rail Rangers Chicago Coordinator Kandace Tabern (left) tells passengers about the Gateway Arch


The train arrived in St. Louis a few minutes early. Passengers were given a full 26 hour turn-around time to enjoy the sights of the city. Zephyr Route offered passengers an optional trolley tour of the city, while others headed out on their own to take a riverboat ride or buy tickets to go up on the Arch. It was also the hockey playoffs between the Chicago Blackhawks and St. Louis Blues – so there were also a fair numbers of our passengers who were going to hit the hotel and watch sports.

Passengers returned to Chicago on the following day, Sunday, April 24, 2016, again on “Sky View”. Interpretive Guide Robert Neil took the lead in providing narration on this segment of the route, offering up different stories that were shared with passengers the day before. Since passengers were on the late train (Train #306) between St. Louis and Chicago, it got dark around Springfield, Illinois. This let Robert Neil focus more on interacting with passengers one-on-one than strictly doing narration over the wireless speaker system. It was once again an early arrival, with passengers getting back into Chicago around 11:00pm.



APRHF Rail Rangers Chicago Coordinator Kandace Tabern and Interpretive Guide Robert Neil with “Sky View” in St. Louis


If you missed this APRHF Rail Rangers excursion between Chicago and St. Louis, you are not totally out of luck. We have several other exciting events coming up later this summer and fall.  On Friday, June 3, 2016, our interpretive guides will be a private railcar excursion between Chicago, La Plata, Missouri, and Kansas City. This trip is sponsored by American Rail Excursions; passengers will be going on a five-day tour of the “Iron Triangle” between Chicago, St. Louis, and Kansas City. For you steam engine fans, get ready to hit the rails with APRHF Rail Rangers on Saturday, June 4. Our interpretive guides will be aboard selling custom-made route guides and providing narration services for Premium Class Passengers going from Minneapolis to Duluth, Minnesota. A third APRHF Rail Rangers event will take place in June. On Saturday, June 26, join our guides again as we travel on a Zephyr Route excursion between Chicago, Galesburg, and Quincy, IL/Hannibal, MO.  Limited seating is still available for this trip – it is very likely to sell out very soon!   The APRHF Rail Rangers will offer its keynote excursion of 2016 between Friday, September 9 and Sunday, September 11 – as a private car trip is planned to La Plata, Missouri for the first time ever. Participants will enjoy a 600-mile roundtrip rail ride through Illinois, Iowa, and Missouri, two nights at the Depot Inn & Suites, and a guided all-day tour of Northeast Missouri – ending with a cook-out along the tracks done by none-other than APRHF President Bob Cox and APRHF Vice-President Amy Cox. APRHF Rail Rangers will also offer a fall colors excursion the second weekend in October between Chicago and St. Paul, Minnesota. As you can see, there are a lot of exciting events ahead this year for APRHF Rail Rangers. We encourage those interested to follow us on facebook at www.facebook.com/railrangers and check out our website at www.railrangers.org for an always “up to date” listing of our excursions and outreach events.

Also, stay tuned to the APRHF Blog!  In the next week or so, we will be releasing exciting news exclusively on here about a new partnership between APRHF Rail Rangers and another private railcar organizer. This will result in a second private railcar trip being offered between Chicago and La Plata, MO this fall. Seating will also be very limited on this excursion… so you will want to be one of the first to call and get your tickets.



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