What better way to witness the full solar eclipse than to travel most of the way to the viewing location in a historic 1950’s dome car? That is exactly what approximately 40 passengers did on the weekend of August 19-22, 2017 thanks to a private rail excursion organized by Zephyr Route Tours, the American Passenger Rail Heritage Foundation (APRHF)’s Rail Rangers program, and the 20th Century Railroad Club of Chicago.
Let’s back up a bit and rewind nearly a year. The idea for a train to Missouri for the solar eclipse weekend came about in November 2016 at a planning meeting held in Chicago between Mike Abernethy (owner of Zephyr Route Tours) and various members of the APRHF Rail Rangers. Zephyr Route and the Rail Rangers did a successful private rail excursion together to La Plata in August 2016 and many passengers were eager to go back and visit the rail-themed town. Since La Plata was less than a two hour drive from the epicenter of the eclipse, it seemed like the perfect theme (or “excuse”!) for a train trip in 2017. Of course, little did we know a year ago how huge the excitement for the eclipse was going to be.
After some initial planning between Zephyr Route and Iowa Pacific to secure full-length ex-AT&SF dome car “Sky View” for the weekend, tickets went on sale to the public in March 2017. Initial notice of the trip went out to those who were on the APRHF Rail Rangers e-Newsletter list – with those passengers getting first “dibs” on the tickets. After a few weeks, the Chicago Tribune got wind of the trip and published an article about the excursion in their Sunday, April 2, 2017 edition. With-in just hours of the paper coming out and people seeing news of the excursion, all tickets sold out. In fact, we had quite an impressive “waiting list” of several dozen passengers. (That’s why it’s important to get on the Rail Rangers e-Newsletterl list! You get first news of upcoming excursions before anyone else does or it runs in the newspapers!) It was quite humorous how the rush for the tickets went. APRHF Rail Rangers Executive Director Robert Tabern and his wife APRHF Rail Rangers Chicago Coordinator Kandace Tabern were actually coming back on the train from an APRHF Board Meeting in La Plata that day and their phone lit up like nothing they had ever seen before. After about the sixth call in about a 20 minute period, the Taberns had a caller mention they saw “the article” in the Chicago Tribune. They had no idea it was going to be in there and were not prepared for the onslaught of people calling! But it all worked out and the Rail Rangers and Zephyr Route appreciated the publicity received.
Many people don’t realize all of the work that goes into planning a private rail excursion. While Mike Abernethy with Zephyr Route was busy planning all of the train logistics with Amtrak and Iowa Pacific, the APRHF’s Rail Rangers were busy planning the special weekend for everyone once they arrived to La Plata. The hardest thing was choosing an eclipse viewing location. Originally, the Rail Rangers were looking at going to Columbia, Missouri, which was the closest point to La Plata that would be in “totality” – or the best viewing for the eclipse. However, they soon heard Columbia was probably not a smart choice. Being right on Interstate 70, it was expected to be flooded with people coming in from the east and west sides of the state. They then looked at St. Joseph — but this also proved to be a bad choice. The town of 50,000 was expecting 500,000 people to visit for the eclipse weekend – ten times its population. The Rail Rangers were looking for a location that could handle 40 passengers, but also one that was affordable so Zephyr Route didn’t have to increase the cost of the weekend for everyone. Some churches in St. Joseph were charging thousands of dollars to rent out just their parking lots! The Rail Rangers got lucky and had a friend-of-a-friend recommend a horse and cattle farm called Vintage Hill. When the Rail Rangers called the owner, Jeff, back in the spring – he actually didn’t know anything about the eclipse and said he could open up his farm to the APRHF Rail Rangers eclipse viewing party. Vintage Hill is a greenhouse and working farm, and they have actually hosted various horse clinics and catered meals before. The Rail Rangers were a little nervous because no one had time to check out this place before the passengers’ arrival – but as you will read about later on – the APRHF couldn’t have picked a more perfect setting to watch the eclipse.
Fast forward to departure day – Saturday, August 19, 2017. Passengers began arriving around 1:30pm and checking in with Zephyr Route and the 20th Century Railroad Club in the Great Hall. Rail Rangers Chicago Coordinator Kandace Tabern and Interpretive Guide Dave Poole were busying helping to check people in, while Executive Director Robert Tabern was getting things set up on the car. Robert made sure that the Rail Rangers’ wireless speakers were working and all of the various handouts that were printed up were out and ready for the passengers. “Sky View”, our private car for the weekend, was attached to the rear of Train #3, the westbound Southwest Chief. Passengers waited until around 2:30pm in the Metropolitan Lounge. That is one of the nice perks that Amtrak allows for private car passengers – they are able to wait in the First Class Lounge in Chicago along with sleeping car and business class passengers. Finally it was time to board and everyone walked out to the car and found their assigned seats in the upper level of the dome. One of the cool things about using “Sky View” was that it ran for the Santa Fe on the route that we would be taking today between Chicago and La Plata. After Cameron, Illinois (about 10 miles west of Galesburg), passengers were riding a historic 1950’s dome car on the original route that it operated on for many years. “Sky View” was one of the original Santa Fe Big Domes. After Santa Fe ended passenger service, the car ran for many years on the Auto Train. It is now owned by Iowa Pacific and used on various charter excursions across the country.
Between Chicago and La Plata, the APRHF Rail Rangers provided narration about the many trackside communities in Illinois, Iowa, and Missouri. Some of the stories included the Cherry Mine Disaster of 1909, the historic Hennepin Canal, the Mississippi River, and Fort Madison. Passengers really enjoyed hearing narration about the route and learning what they were seeing out their window from the APRHF Rail Rangers. As a fundraiser for the Rail Rangers, guides sold copies of “Outside the Rails: A Rail Route Guide from Chicago to La Plata, MO”, which Robert and Kandace Tabern wrote a couple of years ago. Both the expanded 350 page edition of the book (for $35) and the abbreviated 48 page version (for $10) sold very well and helped to pay for some APRHF expenses from the weekend. Like its parent organization, the APRHF Rail Rangers is a 501(c)(3) non-profit and relies heavily on donations from passengers. All of the interpretive guides who work the excursions volunteer their time and cover their own expenses for the weekend – including getting to Downtown Chicago, parking, and hotel rooms. Anything raised in tips, donations, or from book sales goes toward the upkeep on the speaker system, printing costs for handouts, and for expenses to research new train routes that future excursions will be going on. A portion of the money raised is also donated to the American Passenger Rail Heritage Foundation’s “general fund”, which helps pay for upkeep of Lookout Point Park and the Exhibition of Amtrak History in La Plata.
Just before crossing the Mississippi River Bridge in Fort Madison, the train came to a stop. Why? Well, the train bridge was open! Passengers didn’t seem to mind the 20 minute delay here though because passing before us was the “American Queen”, a large passenger boat that travels between St. Paul, Minnesota and New Orleans, Louisiana. Everyone enjoyed seeing the boat cruise down the river and taking pictures, while the Rail Rangers told everyone about the history of the vessel.
Around 8:30pm, the train rolled into the La Plata Amtrak station. It was there everyone’s luggage was quickly off-loaded by the train crew. Unfortunately, La Plata did not currently have a siding where private railcars can be kept and switched on or off trains – so “Sky View” had to continue on to Kansas City. About eight tickets were sold for those wishing to go on and explore Kansas City. Zephyr Route President Mike Abernethy continued on with them and the dome car to Kansas City, while most passengers got off in La Plata. After a quick welcome from APRHF President Bob Cox and APRHF Treasurer Amy Cox, passengers were loaded into vans and taken over to the Depot Inn and Suites, where they would be spending the next three nights.
The day before the eclipse – Sunday, August 20, 2017 – was a leisurely laid back day. Passengers had the option of exploring La Plata on their own, or taking one of two optional excursions to sites around Northeast Missouri by motorcoach. The morning optional excursion was hosted by APRHF President Bob Cox. He took 32 travelers down to Marceline to explore the Walt Disney Hometown Museum. Disney grew up in Marceline and many say “Main Street” at Walt Disney World and Walt Disneyland was replicated from Downtown Marceline. The museum’s director, Kaye Marlins, gave everyone a guided tour. Kaye grew up in Marceline and was friends actually friends with Disney when she was a little girl. To add to the excitement, the museum is actually located in the old Santa Fe Depot in town. People loved looking at the various exhibits about Disney’s life when he was raised in Missouri. After about two hours of touring, travelers headed over to Ma Vic’s, a popular local restaurant that opened exclusively for our tour group.
After about a 45 minute rest break back at the Depot Inn and Suites, those who wanted to go on the optional afternoon excursion to Thousand Hills State Park boarded the motorcoach. This side-trip was hosted by APRHF Vice President Robert Tabern and APRHF Secretary Kandace Tabern. Before arriving at the state park outside of Kirksville, the Taberns made an unplanned stop at a new Kraft factory in town – as this is where the Midwest’s “Weinermobile” was kept. Nothing was said to the travelers about this stop because sometimes the Weinermobile travels around to events on weekends. It was there though – and everyone who wanted to had the chance to get off the bus and take a few photos. From there, it was just a few minutes until we arrived at Thousand Hills State Park. Ranger Emily and Ranger Jeff boarded the motorcoach and provided a narrated one hour tour of the park. The highlight was a stop-off at the park’s petroglyph shelter. Everyone got to learn about the thousand-year-old rock carvings. To protect them, the petroglyphs are in an enclosed shelter that is normally locked. The Rail Rangers got special permission to have the shelter unlocked so that our travelers could have an up-close look at the drawings.
The group returned to the hotel around 5:30pm on Sunday night and had dinner “on their own”. Many chose to eat at La Pachangas’ or Casey’s; both are with-in walking distance of the Depot Inn and Suites. Having a “free evening” also allowed the Rail Rangers to have a meeting and talk about the rest of the weekend and other business that needed to be attended to. With the APRHF being headquartered in La Plata but most of the Rail Rangers guides living in Chicagoland area, it’s sometimes hard to get together and meet about things and plan future events. Everyone headed to bed early in order to get things ready for the big day ahead.
The alarm went off for the Taberns around 5:30am on Eclipse Day – Monday, August 21, 2017. Since no one had been to Vintage Hill Farm before to check out their facilities, they decided to drive down and scope things out/help set up about two hours ahead of the motorcoach arriving. There were many rumors that traffic would be very bad anywhere in the “totality” zone, so having two Rail Rangers head down a few hours ahead of time allowed everyone else back in La Plata to know if the motorcoach needed to get an earlier start. As it turned out, traffic wasn’t bad at all! There were a lot of people staying at the hotels along U.S. 63 in Macon and Moberly on the way down, but there were no traffic jams and no crowds anywhere to be seen. It seemed to just be media hype that there would be bumper-to-bumper traffic on highways in Missouri on the morning of the eclipse. The Taberns arrived at Vintage Hill around 8:30am, with the motorcoach trailing behind and arriving around 10:30am. As previously mentioned, Vintage Hill is primarily a greenhouse facility that has thousands of plants for sale. They also raise horses and Scottish Highland Cattle (the hairy kind that look like they have a bad comb-over!). They have a beautiful barn which has hosted meals and corporate events before. Vintage Hill actually donated use of their facilities to the APRHF Rail Rangers for the eclipse weekend. Before lunch the passengers bought plants and talked to the parrot at the greenhouse. Lunch was on just before the eclipse started with everyone sitting at one long table in the center of the barn. The food and atmosphere was wonderful.
One thing no one could control was the weather, of course. On the ride down and most of the time setting up, the skies were clear and it looked like we were going to have clear skies for viewing of the eclipse. Unfortunately, just as the motorcoach arrived around 10:30am, skies began to cloud over. People were concerned they were not able to see anything. In fact, it was very cloudy for the entire time the eclipse was starting to form. Amazingly just two minutes before totality, the skies broke and everyone was treated to an amazing show in the sky. It didn’t get quite as dark as Midnight, but the darkness was on-par with sunset. In fact, since everyone were near the top of a hill, we could see what appears to be a sunset in every direction. Just as remarkable were the cattle at the Vintage Hill Farm. Since they thought it was evening they started coming in from their pastures. They stopped in their tracks at the time of the eclipse and as it began to brighten up again, they went back out in their fields.
One of the real treats of this trip was having a scientist ride with us who was able to explain the details of what was going on with the eclipse. While the APRHF and the Rail Rangers focused on planning the excursion activities and providing narration on the train between Chicago and La Plata, Timm Bottini was with the passengers for the weekend also. He is friends with Zephyr Route President Mike Abernethy and lives in the west suburbs of Chicago. Timm brought a special solar eclipse telescope and pair of binoculars with him which helped everyone at Vintage Hill experience the eclipse a lot more. Not only did Timm provided the basics to everyone about the eclipse they could get an up-close view of the event with his astronomical devices. Timm’s wife Lori also rode along and enjoyed the weekend with us.
The travelers ended up staying a little longer at Vintage Hill than expected because skies cleared up to see the eclipse recede… because of the cloudy skies we were not really able to see it build. Everyone boarded the motorcoach and left Vintage Hill around 2:30 p.m. that afternoon. It was about two hours back to La Plata.
Earlier, it was mentioned that the one thing one couldn’t really control was the weather – and that also put a damper on the Farewell BBQ Cookout Dinner that the Rail Rangers had planned for their travelers at Lookout Point Park. For those of you who are not familiar with Lookout Point Park, its main feature is a heated cabin and deck where people can watch the trains pass by the on the BNSF main line between Chicago and Los Angeles. The Rail Rangers planned to cook hot dogs and hamburgers. As all were approaching La Plata, a line of heavy thunderstorms began to fire up. APRHF President Bob Cox quickly made the decision to cancel the BBQ and order in some pizzas from Domino’s in Kirksville instead. Even though the night didn’t have the same atmosphere as the BBQ cookout at the overlook, everyone still enjoyed each others company with the impromptu pizza party hosted in the conference room at the Depot Inn & Suites.
The good news is a few hours after the pizza party started, the skies cleared which allowed those who wanted to brave the wet pathway to head down to the overlook at Lookout Point Park. About a dozen or so passengers ventured out with us along with the Coxs and Taberns. In a period of about 20 minutes, people at the lookout saw 5 freight trains and the westbound Southwest Chief, Train #3, pass through town. Most travelers had never been to La Plata before and were quite impressed with the amount of trains that passed through town, the speed of the freight trains, and the large amount of people getting on at the station. By about 8:00 pm Monday night, it appeared the eastbound train the next morning would still be ontime, so a lot of travelers headed to bed early.
Monday night into Tuesday morning, August 21, 2017, ended up being a stormy one. La Plata saw some good thunderstorms during the evening, but the Kansas City area saw the bulk of the rain. Portions of the city saw as much as eight inches of rain and many roads were closed. While the eastbound Southwest Chief was able to make it through okay, it did lose about three hours due to Flash Flood Warnings.
In order to kill time until the eastbound Southwest Chief would be arriving, passengers were allowed to sleep in a little later than normal at the hotel. Amy Cox, APRHF Treasurer and Amtrak station caretaker, also was able to provide a brief depot tour to passengers while they waited. She told everyone stories of the trains that passed through La Plata in the 1950’s and how, if you a climb a hidden latter, you are able to see some of the original walls of the depot. Many passengers were impressed that one can actually see some of the names of the original trains burned into the background of the arrival board still.
Good things come to those who wait – and that was the case with our return home on the eastbound Southwest Chief on Tuesday morning. Not only was the second engine back the #822 40th Anniversary Engine… two other private cars were on the back of the train, too. These treats, along with 38 passengers boarding “Sky View” to return to Chicago ended up providing quite the scene at the La Plata Amtrak station. It will definitely be a day to remember.
Because of the delayed departure, lunch was served almost immediately. Since passengers were traveling on the same route that they did on Saturday afternoon, the Rail Rangers used the time to answer passengers questions and provided a more one-on-one interaction and experience. Some stories that were missed on Saturday were shared with passengers.
A special treat for the two of us was getting an invite back to the two other private railcars on the back of the train by their owner Patrick Henry of Patrick Henry Creative Promotions. The Taberns had seen the cars many times, but this was the first time they got an invite back from Mr. Henry and the first time we got to ride on the cars. The first car was a sleeper used by crew and guests. The second (and last) car was probably the nicest private car we have ever experienced. It featured both a dome car with very luxurious seating, a beautiful ‘living room’ area, a nice bar area, a meeting table area, and the crown jewel – a rare open ended platform car. Mr. Henry was traveling to Chicago and then on to Denver with a friend. He invited the Taberns to ride any portion of the route back to Chicago on the open platform that they wanted. They chose to ride from Galesburg to Princeton to pass some of the rural landscapes of Illinois – and then again from Naperville into Chicago. Riding “The Racetrack” and passing numerous Metra commuter trains (who we were fighting “upstream”) was a real treat – especially for Robert who grew up in Chicago and would often railfan on the BNSF as a boy. We also got to finally see Mark Hinsdale – who operates a web camera for railfans known as “MH Tower” – near the Western Avenue stop on the BNSF. He was out to see the anniversary engine and three private cars on the back of the Southwest Chief. Upon arriving into Chicago, the Taberns thanked Mr. Henry for his hospitality and gave him a copy of our large “Outside the Rails: A Rail Route Guide from Chicago to La Plata, MO” route guidebook. Their hope is that he will leave it on the car and use it whenever he is traveling between Chicago and Kansas City and has passengers who want to know the landmarks of the route.
The Rail Rangers guides quickly made it back to “Sky View” just before pulling into Chicago and thanked everyone for riding on this amazing four day private rail excursion to Missouri to witness the solar eclipse. And, there it was – by 6:10pm on Tuesday the Rail Rangers’ passengers parted ways with everyone.
This trip will be something that will remain in many people’s memories for the rest of their lives. Having such a beautiful setting to enjoy the 2017 Eclipse was amazing! Having the clouds break just moments before totality was going to happen added to the drama of the day. Getting the chance to ride 600 miles on a private railcar between Chicago and La Plata was also unforgettable. Most of the travelers had ridden nothing better than Metra before and were amazed at just how luxurious a private rail excursion could end up being. Getting the chance to make new friends and future passengers was also the icing on the cake.
For more information about the American Passenger Rail Heritage Foundation’s Rail Rangers program, check out their website at www.RailRangers.org. Two more private rail excursions are planned for this year for the Rail Rangers — including an October private rail trip between Chicago and St. Paul (unfortunately it is sold out now!) and a kids’ steam train charter in St. Paul in December. The Rail Rangers’ private rail schedule for 2018 is expected to be released around February 2018. In the meantime, you can also check out the Rail Rangers in action two to three Saturday per month on the South Shore Line between Chicago-Millennium Station and South Bend Airport, Indiana. Learn about Chicago, the historic steel mill area of Northwest Indiana, the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore, and the rural farmlands of La Porte and St. Joseph County, Indiana. The Rail Rangers have set up a South Shore-specific website at www.DunesTrain.com. And of course, you can purchase the Rail Rangers’ “Outside the Rails” railroad route guidebooks for self-guided rail trips through www.MidwestRails.com.
You can also get in touch with the APRHF Rail Rangers by e-mailing: firstname.lastname@example.org.