Just a few days ago, the American Passenger Rail Heritage Foundation announced the formation of its newest outreach program, the APRHF Rail Rangers. The goal of Rail Rangers is to make experienced volunteers easily available to private rail car owners and organizers of group rail excursions across the Midwest; docents will present on-board educational programs that are also fun and entertaining for passengers. The work that the APRHF Rail Rangers do is quite similar to that of the National Park Service’s Trails & Rails program, however APRHF’s Rail Rangers program focuses exclusively on presenting talks on private rail cars, instead of Amtrak trains.
The new program is also sponsored locally in Illinois and Missouri by the American Passenger Rail Heritage Foundation, instead of being overseen on the national level by the National Park Service and Amtrak. For almost three years, the APRHF did sponsor a Trails & Rails program on Amtrak’s Southwest Chief between Chicago and La Plata, Missouri, however that came to an abrupt end on July 19, 2015, when the National Park Service decided to terminate its partnership agreement with the non-profit APRHF. Many of the same people who organized the Trails & Rails program on the Southwest Chief between Chicago and La Plata, MO back in late 2012 are now behind the new APRHF Rail Rangers endeavor, including APRHF President Bob Cox, APRHF Vice-President Amy Cox, Chicago Coordinator and newly appointed Rail Rangers Executive Director Robert Tabern, and Assistant Chicago Coordinator Kandace Tabern.
While the APRHF Rail Rangers program formally launched on Monday, July 20, 2015, a “test run” of the new program was held on Saturday, June 27, 2015, on board a private 250-mile rail car excursion between Chicago Union Station and Quincy, Illinois. Private rail car owner Mike Abernathy of St. Charles, Illinois teamed up with APRHF Rail Rangers for the pilot program. Abernathy is a huge Burlington Route fan and is currently in the process of restoring ex-CB&Q dome/observation car “Silver View” in Iowa. To raise money for his restoration efforts, Abernathy organizes private rail car charters several times a year throughout the Midwestern United States. Some typical destinations are Chicago, Quincy, Hannibal, Missouri, St. Louis, and the Twin Cities. On June 27th, Abernathy offered a First Class day-trip excursion on the Friends of the 261 “Super Dome” car for passengers to ride between Chicago and Galesburg for the annual Galesburg Railroad Days Event, or all the way to Hannibal, Missouri, for the city’s popular Mark Twain Days Festival. The ex-Milwaukee Road Super Dome was placed on the rear of Amtrak Trains #381 and #382, the “Carl Sandburg”. The Taberns presented commentary on board the dome car, while the Cox family greeted passengers at the Galesburg Amtrak Station and offered them tours of the Amtrak Exhibit Train.
Even though Abernathy had been organizing private rail excursions since 2009, he never had anyone on board his train cars greeting and socializing with passengers and doing commentary about the history seen along the way. Robert Tabern, the new leader of the APRHF Rail Rangers program explains, “Doing commentary for a private rail car excursion is a lot different than you might do on a bus tour, or even when we did Trails & Rails in the lounge car on the Southwest Chief. People are paying a lot more money for these private rail trips and want to hear very light commentary so that they can also enjoy their gourmet meals and conversations with their friends or family members. You really have to pick and choose which stories you are going to tell people over the car-wide microphone, but then also make yourself more available to passengers because they will have questions for you about the route… generally a lot more than coach passengers on your typical Amtrak run.”
One of the stories that the Taberns told everyone on board the dry run of the APRHF Rail Rangers program involved the Cherry Hill Mine Disaster. Passengers who travel the BNSF between Mendota and Princeton in Central Illinois may see a couple of lonely 150-foot tall hills in the distance on the south side of the train, about three miles or so away. Some passengers on the June 27th private rail car excursion thought the hills were trash heaps or perhaps Native American burial mounds. Someone even shouted, “I think it’s a volcano!”. But, no, none of those answers were correct. The APRHF Rail Rangers asked everyone to close their eyes and picture they were back in rural Illinois more than 100 years ago. Electricity was very sporadic in the area in 1909, so torches were often used to light paths through the coal miles that dotted the landscape. At the Cherry Hill Mine, whose slag hills you still see from the train today, there was a group of mules who actually lived in the second and third layers of the mine. During their research, the Taberns learned that it was actually better for a mules to live in the mine; being constantly taken from bright conditions to pitch-black conditions would have damage the animals’ eye-sights even more than if they just lived in the mine on a semi-permanent basis. On this particular day in 1909, workers were lowering bales of hay down into the mine to feed the mules, when some of the hay brushed up against a torch. A horrible fire began; the end result was more than 250 miners, some as young a nine years old, perished. Many train travelers who ride the BNSF line today don’t realize they are passing the site of what remains the deadliest mining fire in United States History.
Pointing out sites like the Cherry Hill Mine Site to passengers on private rail car excursions is exactly what the APRHF Rail Rangers program is all about. Assistant Chicago Coordinator Kandace Tabern says, “People were just amazed with our stories on the train between Chicago and Quincy. So many people came up to us and thanked us for being on the train and making their ride that much more enjoyable.”
APRHF Rail Rangers strives to go beyond just presenting an interesting interpretive program for passengers. Instead, their mission is to truly connect private rail car passengers with the history, people, and places that are all around them outside their windows on any given trip. When given enough preparation time, APRHF Rail Rangers actually drive the route of the upcoming train excursion, and connects with some of the residents who live track-side. The Taberns made a trip out to the site of the Cherry Hill Mine in preparation for the Chicago to Quincy excursion. It was there they met the Bartoli brothers, who currently own the land that encompasses the former mine site; their grandfather purchased the land from the railroad in the mid-1930′s when the mine was finally shuttered. While exploring the property with the Bartolis, the Taberns stumbled across a piece of metal that was partially buried in the group. At first, the Bartolis thought it might had been an old railroad spike, as a railroad spur led to the mine. Upon some digging in thick brush, the object turned out to be an actual mule shoe that appears to have survived the 1909 fire; it was later authenticated by an Amish horse shoe maker. The Bartolis gave the item to the APRHF Rail Rangers to use during their on-board presentations. Kandace Tabern says, “Passengers really get a kick out of some of the props that we bring along on our trips. Everyone wanted to hold the mule shoe that survived the Cherry Hill fire… that is our most popular item, I think. We also carry with us a small jar of Mississippi River water that we show to passengers when we cross the Mississippi River; everyone marvels at just how muddy the Mississippi is! You can’t tell that by looking out your train window. We also pass a few alpaca farms on the ex-Santa Fe line near Ormonde, Illinois. We visited one the farms you see from the train and got to meet the alpaca you see — their names are Jack and Martha. The farmer gave us some of their fur that we let the passengers feel. Again, we’re making a real connection with what is out the passengers’ windows. No one else besides APRHF Rail Rangers does what we do.”
The next scheduled APRHF Rail Rangers on-board interpretive program will take place on Sunday, October 4th on a private rail car operated by Mike Abernathy’s Zephyr Route between St. Paul’s Union Depot and Chicago Union Station. Tickets are still available for this excursion and special weekend get-a-way package in the Twin Cities; check out www.zephyrroute.com. Besides just doing on-board programs, the APRHF Rail Rangers will do special outreach events that occasionally take place off the train. You can join volunteers at the popular Trainfest in Milwaukee, Wisconsin on Saturday, November 14th and Sunday, November 15th. For more information about the APRHF Rail Rangers program, you can check out their brand new Facebook page at www.facebook.com/railrangers or log on to their new website at www.railrangers.org.
Private rail car owners and those who are responsible for chartering group trips who are interested in having APRHF Rail Rangers aboard, can contact Bob Cox at firstname.lastname@example.org or Robert Tabern at email@example.com. Since APRHF Rail Rangers is an affiliate of the American Passenger Rail Heritage Foundation, a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization, the services of the Rail Rangers come at a very minimal cost, generally just covering supplies and covering the costs of the volunteers to travel to the city of origin.