Fans fight to save iconic miniature train at Arkansas park; state agency opted not to renew contract

Posted: May 26, 2018 at 4:30 a.m.
Updated: May 29, 2018 at 4:30 a.m.

Undated handout photo of one of the Rich Mountain scenic trains at Queen Wilhelmina State Park near Mena, Arkansas.

For the first time in nearly 60 years, the miniature train that once carried tourists around Queen Wilhelmina State Park won't make its seasonal debut this weekend, and its fans are upset.

The state Parks, Recreation and Travel Commission decided not to renew the concessions contract that allows the train to operate on state-owned land and take visitors on miniature tracks that circle 2,681-foot-high Rich Mountain in Polk County.

Instead, the commission wants to transform the tracks into a walking and cycling barrier-free path. The new pathway would include "playscapes" to tell the story of Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands. The life-size railroad in the valley below -- now the Kansas City Southern -- had Dutch investors. The park was originally a resort opened in 1898 and named after the queen, who died in 1948.

An online petition to save the park's miniature train has garnered thousands of signatures. A Facebook post by unofficial Glory Train activist leader Chris Daniel of Mena was shared more than 1,400 times and garnered more than 1,000 comments from local and state residents as well as others from Oklahoma and Texas and as far away as Canada.

"This will be the first Memorial Day weekend that it hasn't opened," Daniel said. "I've gotten hundreds of emails and calls from people. I never seen anything go crazy like that."

The park is managed by the Parks Division of the state Department of Parks and Tourism.

Numerous people have reached out to the division's director, Grady Spann, and voiced their displeasure with the decision. They've asked for a compromise.

Spann said Friday that the effort to save the iconic attraction is heartening, but the Parks Division has to look at the area in a holistic way and how it can change to meet the year-round needs of a "changing society, changing audience and changing user group to our parks."

"We try to keep up with those trends. Those things impact the way we do business," Spann said. "We really want to make sure that we are connecting to the next generation. That's what it's all about. We're in the forever business."

The "carnival-type concessionaire" at Queen Wilhelmina is unique to the state parks system and doesn't match the overall mission of the agency, Spann said.

"We're connecting people to nature, to the outdoors," he said. "The train is an outlier."

Messages left for the train's owner, Ronnie Waggoner, were not returned as of late Friday.

State Rep. John Maddox, R-Mena, has joined the fight and has lobbied Gov. Asa Hutchinson to help keep the Glory Train rolling down the tracks.

Maddox -- a Pope County native who rode the train as a young child and then took his own children on frequent trips -- said his phone has been "ringing off the hook" with pleas for help from hundreds of his constituents.

He credited Spann for his "excellent" response to the outcry and willingness to discuss the situation.

"We certainly are doing all that we can to try and see if the [commission] could rescind their actions," Maddox said. "Let's at least look at it and see if we can save it and maintain it."

The top of Rich Mountain -- the state's second-highest peak, with the tallest being Mount Magazine -- in the Ouachita Mountain range is home to the recently renovated Queen Wilhelmina Lodge.

The train loops around the lodge, providing riders with an expansive view of the valleys below and the wildlife on the mountaintop.

"It's not unusual to see a bear during a ride," Daniel said.

Locals and others from around the state have brought their children to ride the miniature rails for years, Daniel said.

"Hundreds of people I know have said that two or three generations of their families have ridden the train," Daniel said. "Grandmas would take their kids and now those kids are taking their own."

Julie Ann Berry of Glenwood said the mountain and the train ride were "magical." The 52-year-old Royal native said she remembers at age 5 riding the train and feeding deer at a now-defunct petting zoo.

Berry rode the train with her children and now two grandchildren.

"When we rode in the fall, there were butterflies everywhere. It was the most magical feeling to see them as we rode the train and listened to the clacking of the wheels on the track," she said.

Ashley Smith, the director of the Mena Chamber of Commerce and the Mena Advertising and Promotion Commission, said the train has been a valuable economic attraction for the area.

"It's a huge part of our history," she said.

But the miniature train was often down for repairs and parts were expensive and hard to find, Smith added. It was frustrating, she said, for families to travel from all over the state and country specifically to ride the mountain-top train only to find it closed.

"I would love to see it up and going, but I want to see it up and going better than it has been in the past," Smith said.

Daniel said he hopes the end result is that the proposed changes can be implemented while keeping the train running.

A statement from the governor on Friday gives some hope to the train's fans.

"Arkansas State Parks are an incredible resource to our state, and Queen Wilhelmina is no exception. In fact, as Governor, the First Lady and I spent a weekend at the park two summers ago and enjoyed it immensely," Hutchinson said in a statement released by his spokesman, J.R. Davis. "As for the train, it's important to note that Parks and Tourism does not operate this attraction but rather an independent vendor. A recent decision was made not to renew the vendor's contract for various reasons. At this point, Parks and Tourism is listening to members of the community and reviewing all options before the next step is taken."

Spann said in light of the public outcry, the agency will take another look at the proposed changes and the voice of the people will "absolutely" be heard.

"We're still looking at things and we're still listening," Spann said. "We're not ripping up track or anything like that yet."

Metro on 05/26/2018