Rallying Around the Railroad

Locals’ persistence pays off with Amtrak stop

Story by Luis Carrasco

train at stationIf not for the railroad, Mineola might not exist. Or if it did, it certainly wouldn’t be called Mineola.

There are different stories regarding who named the town. Most think the person responsible had a daughter named Ola and a friend whose name was either Minnie or Minna and that the moniker is a combination of these names. Historians do agree, however, that the man who gave the city its handle was working for International-Great Northern Railroad when he combined two women’s names and christened the place Mineola.

With the railroad being an integral part of a community’s DNA, everything eels wrong when the trains just rush on through. That’s the situation in which Mineola found itself beginning in the early 1970s, when the town was no longer a stop for passenger service.

Mineola City Manager Mercy Rushing, who was a local shop owner at the time, remembers that feeling: “I could see it from the front of my store. Amtrak comes through all the time, and you can hear it because it’s right downtown. There was a passenger rail coming through Mineola, and they’re not stopping.”

By the mid-1980s, the town’s formerly bustling downtown was struggling. Boarded-up storefronts flanked once-busy streets. “It was bad in those days,” Mercy says. “We had about 40% occupancy downtown. That’s a lot of vacant buildings.”

For some, the train speeding through downtown was a sign that Mineola’s better days were in the past. For others, the train was an opportunity to build on the town’s history and help secure its future — no matter how long it took.

Start to Stop

The Mineola Chamber of Commerce formed a committee to get an Amtrak stop in town. Over the years, many people contributed to the effort, but the linchpin was Barbara Musgraves. If Barbara’s last name rings a bell, it’s likely because you’ve heard of her granddaughter, country music superstar Kacey Musgraves.

Amtrak Ticket Agent, Griff Hubbard, joined Mineola City Manager, Mercy Rushing, to staff a travel show booth.

“Barbara was like a bulldog with a bone,” Mercy says. “Every year, she would send the folks at Amtrak, like, a coffee cup that said, ‘Mineola, Texas, wants you,’ or a T-shirt from one of our festivals with a note that said, ‘Hey, Mineola would like Amtrak.’ She would call the corporate office.”

The response from Amtrak was always some variation of no. “Sorry, we’re not adding any new stops.” “Sorry, Mineola just doesn’t have the population.” “Sorry, it doesn’t make sense.” Officials and boosters understood that Amtrak couldn’t simply throw a switch and have a stop in Mineola overnight. The company doesn’t own the rails. It must lease the rights to stop at a particular town, a process that costs money.

On its face, Mineola just didn’t have the numbers, but locals contended that passenger service wouldn’t depend solely on the town’s then 4,200 residents. Amtrak had to see the bigger picture of nearby cities, including Tyler, which were growing.

In 1995, after nearly a decade of enthusiastic and persistent lobbying, Barbara got a call. Joy Smith, who worked for Texas Eagle Amtrak, reached out to ask how, despite one rejection after another, the Mineola committee maintained the determination to keep sending cups and hats and T-shirts and big bundles of letters. Barbara’s response was simple: She and the other advocates believed Mineola was a wonderful little town and would make a great destination for an Amtrak stop.

Barbara put Amtrak representatives in touch with Mercy, who was then the director of the Main Street downtown revitalization program for the city, and Amtrak officials arranged to visit later that year. Of course, in the decade prior, Mineola hadn’t hung its hopes only on Amtrak. Company officials would not be visiting a downtown of boarded-up storefronts. Instead, they found a recovering core in a town that welcomed them with open arms and clear support.

Three months after their visit, Mercy picked up the phone. “Joy Smith calls me and says, ‘You know what? We’re going to make it happen. We’re going to come to Mineola, Texas,’” Mercy recalls. On April 28, 1996, Mineola became an official stop on the Texas Eagle route.

Wine Time

Today, Mineola’s downtown is on the National Register of Historic Places and is back to thriving — full of stores and restaurants. The railroad is a key part of that success. Events and festivals liven up the town year-round, including the Railroad Heritage Festival in October. In 2006, the town rededicated its historic depot after restoring it to its original 1906 appearance. It now features a museum with railroad memorabilia and model trains.

One of the most successful events is the Texas Wine Train fundraiser, where participants get to ride the rail from Mineola to Dallas and back while sampling different Texas wines. The wine train has steadily grown in popularity. For its last run

in 2019, more than 250 people helped raise $15,000 for Mineola’s downtown revitalization.

The pandemic has delayed the wine train’s return, but local officials expect it to be back in 2022. Mercy is not worried that the break will affect its popularity. After all, it took a decade to bring back Amtrak. Mineola knows all about the virtues of patience.