Going Up Windy

March 17, 2012 § Leave a comment

Like all 3-year-olds, nephew Jonas loves trains. So yesterday afternoon (Friday) we boarded the CapMetro Redline at MLK Jr. Station for a round trip dash to Lakeline station. I would have preferred to go all the way to the northern terminus at Leander, but at this point in time, you can only do this round trip in the morning, boarding the 7:17 downtown, arriving Leander 8:19; leaving Leander 8;30, returning downtown at 9:32.

As some of you may know, the Redline follows the original Austin and Northwestern route, which was originally built as a narrow-gauge line, 1881-82, to Burnet. It went bankrupt barely more than a year later. But the reorganized line’s fortunes were revived when the decision was made to build our present state capitol with pink granite (16,000 carloads) from Granite Mountain, near Marble Falls. Dozens of huge blocks of granite that spilled from the train during wrecks and derailments lay scattered picturesquely all along the line. Accordingly, the ANW was extended to Granite Mountain, Marble Falls, and eventually to Llano in 1892. The line was acquired by the Southern Pacific system in 1891 and the line was converted to standard gauge the same year.

According to the grand Texas tradition of “cheapness,” the ANW was built on the cheap; narrow gauge roads cost a lot less to build and promoters touted that they could carry almost as much freight as the more expensive standard gauge railroad. The ANW was just one among many narrow gauge lines built across the country in the 1880s, as “cheapness” swept the nation. Narrow gauge roads have their proper place in the world of railroading, principally in mountainous regions where tight turns are necessary; narrow-gauge trains are ideally suited for this.

The phrase, “Going Up Windy,” (“Windy” as in “winding,” not as in lots of wind) came from the road’s tortuous path. In order to minimize building costs, the route followed the contours of the countryside as closely as possible, minimizing the number of expensive bridges to be built and grading to be. In fact, the line runs due east for well over a mile before it finally turns north and eventually veers northwest, as its name implies. This anomaly earned it a spot the O. Henry short story, “Friends at San Rosario.”

In 1986, the Southern Pacific sold the ANW line to the City of Austin and Capital Metro. The Austin Steam Train Association began running a weekend excursion train a couple of years later between Cedar Park and Burnet. SP steam engine 786, which sat in a tiny downtown Austin park for more than 30 years, was resuscitated to pull a string of vintage passenger cars along that stretch of the line. The better part of 10 years ago, No. 786’s boiler was discovered to be in dangerous condition, the result of a serious wreck during its working years and a half-assed repair job. It was yanked from service and has been in the shop ever since, hopefully to run again someday. In the meantime, the tourist train chugs on, pulled by a vintage diesel locomotive.

At $5.75 for the round trip to Leander, the Redline is an entertaining way to pass a couple of hours and change. From downtown, be sure to pick a seat on the left (west) side of the train. Once you are out of Austin, the scenery on that side is much more pastoral. the bluebonnets are just coming now, and for the next 6 weeks or so, the wildflower viewing should be topnotch.

I am now working on a new chapter for the next edition of Hill Country about the ANW, called “Going Up Windy,” of course. The trip route will run from downtown Austin up to Llano, and will involve rides on the CapMetro Redline, the ASTA weekend excursion train, and some auto driving. Rail enthusiasts in Llano are trying to get tourist train service from Llano to Burnet, but that has yet to translate into reality. But in anticipation, Llano now has a railroad district with a reconstruction of the old ANW station, the last of the old railroad hotels, and an old rail car or two.

Go on now, and “Go Up Windy,” while the flowers are out. If you like trains, you’ll love the ride.

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