Kansas Snapshots by Gloria Freeland - June 23, 2023


Choosing a surprise gift is always risky. This is especially true if it's for a family. But when it came into view and I heard Timo say, "Zug!" - German for "train" - I was pretty sure we had a winner.

Our "adopted" German son Tim, wife Meike, and sons Mats, almost 6, and Timo, 4, arrived June 6 for a two-week visit. Husband Art and I wondered what we might do together, but when we asked Tim for guidance, he sighed and said, "Sit on your couch and talk." They had been traveling for some time and "down time" was what they wanted most.

Still, after a few days to recharge, they would enjoy doing something special. A ride on the Abilene and Smoky Valley Railroad sounded like fun. Choosing a night with the 1919 Atchison-Topeka-and-Sante-Fe steam locomotive would multiply the effect. A website check revealed a Saturday-night excursion that included Brookville Hotel's famous fried-chicken dinners. A train ride, a steam engine, and good food - what more could a person ask for?

We arrived in Abilene 45 minutes before departure time, but we should have come earlier. There were things to see in the old depot and, with Old Abilene Town and the Dwight D. Eisenhower Presidential Library and Museum nearby, making a day of it would have been easy.

Engine 3415 was quietly discharging wisps of steam across the street from the old Chicago-Rock-Island-and-Pacific depot. Steve, a friend and former university colleague, has worked as an official host at the railroad for nine years. Decked out in a red vest, he greeted people boarding. He has loved trains all his life.

... As a kid, I grew up in Selma, Kansas, right by the Kansas City to Parsons line of the Missouri-Kansas-Texas Railroad. When I was two or three years old, my dad, who ran the Smethers Grocery Store in Selma, moonlighted for the Selma Post Office. He would go down each night and meet the Texas Special, the Katy's evening passenger train, to get the mail being delivered to the Selma Post Office ... I would often go with him to see the train come in and watch the mail car as he threw the mailbag. Right before Christmas one year, the engineer, who I loved waving at, threw me a Christmas stocking full of hard candy. I'll never forget that experience.

We boarded the "Chicago" coach, while others entered the wooden "Enterprise" car. Tim's family of four sat at the table to our left and we shared ours with a couple from Stafford, Kansas.

The star of the show was the steam engine, celebrating its 104th birthday this month. During its first 35 years, it transported passengers between Chicago and Kansas City and hauled freight and mail as far as Colorado and Oklahoma. Before being donated to the city of Abilene, it had covered a distance equivalent to going around the world 60 times.

It then sat in the city park until 1996, when a group of steam enthusiasts decided refurbishing it and the old CRIP rail lines nearby held the potential for a special attraction ... the only steam railroad in the state of Kansas. It took more than four years and 10,000-12,000 hours just to restore the locomotive.

The engine, which is on the National Register of Historic Places, originally burned coal, but in the late 1930s was converted to oil. The engine and tender, along with its supplies of oil and water, weigh in at more than 500,000 pounds - about the same as 150 medium-sized passenger cars.

The Abilene-to-Enterprise journey took about 45 minutes, traveling only about five miles an hour to ensure we could enjoy our meals without our plates slipping off the tables from the swaying and occasional jerking motion of the train.

While we older folks enjoyed the chicken dinners - complete with mashed potatoes and gravy, creamed corn, coleslaw, cottage cheese, peaches, biscuits and ice cream - Timo and Mats spent much of the time watching the passing scenery. We traversed pasture land, wheat and corn fields, and crossed the Smoky Hill River.

When we stopped at Enterprise, Tim, Meike and boys took the opportunity to climb into the engine to see its mechanical workings.

In 1869, Swedish immigrant Christian Hoffman opened the Hoffman Grist Mill, prompting the formation of the village. The mill produced flour, which was eventually sold in 48 states and several foreign countries. In a replica of the mill, a man demonstrated the process of grinding wheat by stone using some of the mill's original equipment.

As the end of our 30-minute stop approached, Art took up a position north of the rails to document the engine moving to the other end of the train for our return trip. Our German family watched from the south side as the engine huffed and puffed along the tracks.

On the return trip, we rode in one of the two gondola cars. Both were manufactured in 1951 and originally used for hauling freight, such as rails, pipes and wooden poles. They were acquired in 1994 and modified by adding concrete floors, picnic tables, and benches. Canopies shield passengers from the rain and sun. The caboose had originally been donated by the Union Pacific Railroad to the Riley County Historical Society. The RCHS later gave it to the A&SV Railroad and it has been part of the train since 1994.

During our homeward journey, Meike was fascinated by the wide-open sky and the beautiful Kansas sunset. Tim and the boys chatted about the train.

By Abilene, the engine had consumed about 2,500 gallons of water and 250 gallons of fuel.

In 1950, thousands of steam trains had kept America moving. Today, only about 150 remain. Of those, the "Saturday Evening Post" website listed the A&SV Railroad as one of the top seven. Meike commented "This will be something we will always remember." The Zug had been a good choice!

Top (l-r): the CRIP/A&SV depot is also on the National Register of Historic Places; number 3415 being "inspected" by two waiting passengers; friend Steve about to welcome passengers aboard; interior of one of the dining cars. Bottom (l-r): Tim and Meike have finished their meal while Mats and Timo work on theirs as ripening wheat passes by outside the window; Timo and Mats visit the engineer's area of the locomotive with mom Meike behind them; Mats does some manual grain grinding while Meike documents the moment; passengers collect near the train in anticipation of the return trip to Abilene; Tim explaining to Timo that the moisture he is feeling is not from rain, but from water expelled from the engine's smoke stack.

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