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On the Rails

When railroads passed up Rusk, the East Texas town built its own.


Wandering around the East Texas town of Rusk, you may come across a thing or two that prompts a head-scratching pause. What the heck is this doing here?

Finding the answers is part of the journey to the heart of Cherokee County.

Footbridge Park, two blocks off the square, is an example of something that has a deeper, or perhaps unexpected, meaning in Rusk. The 546-foot wooden trestle-type bridge, which locals claim as the nation’s longest, extends across a low, partially forested valley. The trickle of the creek gurgling below belies the historical problems it once caused for the town’s founding families.

Before the remedy of paved streets and drainage solutions, rainy season floods separated the valley’s east side, where most of the families lived, from the doctors, businesses, schools and churches on the other side. A crude bridge built in the 1860s first spanned the divide. Several iterations later, it still stands.

Rusk has long been the center of Cherokee County, by design if not function. The Texas Legislature created the county seat on April 11, 1846, mandating that Rusk, named after Texas Declaration of Independence signer Thomas Jefferson Rusk, be located within three miles of the county’s geographic center. A landowner’s objection forced the commission charged with carrying out the mandate to settle for a 100-acre site not too far away.  

Another head-scratcher: What small town has its own railroad?

Rusk became the county’s trade center yet was bypassed — twice — by major railroad projects. That misfortune forced the town to try rails of its own, culminating in 1883 with the construction (with labor from the Rusk State Penitentiary) of a connection to carry timber and pig iron to nearby Palestine. The line eventually became an East Texas tourist attraction, the Texas State Railroad, a 25-mile heritage railway. Today, the town encompasses 6.82 square miles; its population is about 5,600.

Locals forgive the summer’s heat and humidity because of the area’s rich habitats. A damp 50 annual inches of rain here keeps the aquifers full, the forests growing and the wildlife teeming. Twenty-three public lakes fall within an hour-and-a-half drive, and that excludes all the private lakes.

Visiting Rusk cracks the door open for all kinds of adventures in the region. And don’t forget the live band playing for the country-western dancers on the first Friday of every month at the Rusk Civic Center by the golf course.

It’s lunchtime, so I follow the advice of a young woman at the locally owned Wallace-Thompson True Value Hardware store (sort of a chain franchise meets mom-and-pop shop) and make my way to La Charra Mexican Restaurant downtown.

I park in front of a big “Rusk Eagles” banner and a sidewalk sign board that promises “Always great Mexican food.” Inside, sombreros hang on bright red walls. I dawdle over savory tamales slathered in gravy topped with chopped onions.  

PieJar

Fortified, I venture to the nearby Heritage Center of Cherokee County for an enlightening conversation with its curator, Betty Marcontell.

Marcontell tells me that all roads heading west once came through Cherokee County. The historical markers that swarm Texas Highway 21 are a reminder that it was once El Camino Real, the primary overland route for the Spanish colonization of what is today Texas and northwestern Louisiana.

“The people who stayed made important headways into development of Rusk, Cherokee County and East Texas in general,” Marcontell says.

The retired schoolteacher came here from the Houston area in 1998 (her mother had relocated here in 1982). The museum, founded in the late 1980s to house local businessmen’s World War II memorabilia, was struggling by 2013. Marcontell suggested a fundraiser to keep its doors open, helping with the event. That led to a Cherokee County history crash course, and a docent role. She was hired as curator, sorting through the storeroom and arranging its materials.

“I’m not a trained curator, but I know that local stories need to be tied to the artifacts, because things aren’t meaningful unless you know where they came from and why,” she says.

The county’s namesake heritage comes from the Cherokee, but they lived in the area for only about 20 years, driven out in 1839 after Texas Republic President Mirabeau B. Lamar refused to recognize earlier treaties President Sam Houston made with the tribe. Still, their name lives on here.

The area is on the Central Flyway for bird migration, but Rusk is still a well-kept secret as a birding destination. Nevertheless, it has an unusual avian connection.

While John James Audubon is most associated with bird artwork, Rex Brasher (born 18 years after Audubon died) was more productive and detailed than his more famous predecessor, Marcontell explains.

“They both used watercolor; some critics note that Brasher’s work is better because he worked with live birds, most frequently in their habitat, where Audubon used dead stuffed models,” she says.

While Audubon painted 489 bird species, Brasher’s work included every North American bird — 875 watercolors of 1,200 species and subspecies. To save money while compiling his book, Birds and Trees of North America, Brasher produced 75 12-volume sets of printed black-and-white lithographs and hand painted them in color. 

Rusk-born Viola Gregg Dickinson met Brasher in Washington, D.C., in 1932. She sponsored his Texas trips to study birds here. Brasher gave Dickinson a collection of original lithographic paintings, seven of which her family donated to the local library in 1973. The paintings moved to the Heritage Center of Cherokee County recently and are now on display.

“I love connecting dots, and people tell me something almost every day that connects another dot,” Marcontell says.

About 20 minutes after leaving downtown, I pull up to Butch and Pam Grugard’s Horseshoe Inn Bed and Breakfast, nestled in thick trees on the southern end of Lake Jacksonville. Butch’s story is representative of many from this area, who leave for education and career and later return home.

The former Houston teachers had planned to retire to a community outside Houston when in 2007 they booked their first bed-and-breakfast ever for a family event. At breakfast, they discovered the owners planned to sell. Although they had no prior experience in the hospitality industry, they jumped in.

The next morning, I drive 27 miles to the Texas State Railroad Depot in Palestine for a round-trip journey to Rusk aboard a historic train. The three-hour run starts in Palestine, stops at the Rusk Depot for about an hour break, and then returns (one-way rides are available).

Today, the Palestine Depot is hopping. The North American MGA (sports car) Register is holding a get-together. The train’s first-class cars are jammed with about 60 jovial club members from throughout the country.

After the train ride, I pick up turkey and sausage takeout at All Star Bar-B-Q in Rusk, the most over-the-top, Houston-Astros-baseball-memorabilia-decorated eating establishment ever. I enjoy it back at the Horseshoe Inn watching the light retreat off the lake’s surface and darkness settle in among the pine trees.

The next morning, I stop at the Neches River National Wildlife Refuge just a few minutes away. The refuge is still growing. Credit a local retired dentist’s efforts for it even being in the ballgame.

Michael Banks is ebullient in describing the Neches.

“It’s an amazing place,” says Banks, who co-founded the nonprofit Friends of the Neches River in 2006 to help fight off City of Dallas plans for a reservoir that would have swallowed this bottomland, including part of the Texas State Railroad rail. “It’s our East Texas river. Most people are only aware of it when they pass over it on the highway, but there is so much in between the bridges. When you get in and paddle, you really appreciate it. I am amazed each time I am on it. It’s just beautiful.”

Working with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Banks and a cadre of organizations and local supporters waged a public relations and legal battle that ended with a 2010 Supreme Court ruling in favor of the refuge.

To my good fortune, I have the refuge to myself at 10 on this Saturday morning. I park just inside the 7,200-acre-and-growing U.S. Fish and Wildlife-run refuge (only about 2,000 acres are accessible now) and walk the main road, checking out the trailheads. I veer off onto Songbird Trail, a wide, mile-long path leading to the river.

These bottomland hardwoods contain important wintering habitat for waterfowl and songbirds.

“Ducks cover up the place from November to January,” Banks says. “Spotted fawns are born in the spring and start showing up in June. River otters. Minks. Beavers. River birds, great blue herons and kingfishers. Wood duck year-round. Bobcats. Alligators.”

As I navigate past a gaping hole in an old bridge (a grant has been secured to replace it), the nearby highway traffic is a whisper. At the river, I encounter wood duck nesting boxes, sponsored by the Friends of the Neches River and installed by volunteers. A fish splashes to the surface on my left.

Banks championed a Texas Parks and Wildlife Department paddling trail that covers 6.6 miles from the Neches River Run ATV Park to the U.S. Highway 79 bridge (about a three-hour paddle). He expects to pursue another paddling trail from that point that will cover another 14 miles.

“Don’t tell anybody, but East Texas is a fantastic place,” Banks says. “I was born here, went off to school and came back. I had a heritage of hunting and fishing on the Neches even when I was a kid.”

Sounds familiar. That heritage lives on in those who return home to Rusk.

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