Abilene Home to State’s Heritage Railroad

The Kansas legislature last week approved a bill that officially designates the Abilene and Smoky Valley as the state’s official heritage railroad. The legislation, HB2481, also names Santa Fe 3415, the railroad’s prized steam engine, as Kansas’ official steam locomotive. The bill passed the House and Senate unanimously.

According to the Abilene and Smoky Valley Railroad, the designations are expected to give the railroad more statewide stature, while greatly enhancing the non-profit association’s ability to obtain grants and other funding options.

“This is indeed an honor,” said A&SV President and General Manager Ross Boelling. “Our organization was founded three decades ago on the idea of preserving the legacy of railroads as builders of our state. It’s great to make our mission an official Kansas tradition. More importantly, this designation is a great recognition of our volunteers and the tens of thousands of hours they have dedicated to the A&SV.”

While the official status will be used as a focus in grant writing, Boelling said the A&SV will immediately begin branding itself as “the Kansas heritage railroad.” A logo has been designed that incorporates an image of Santa Fe 3415 with the railroad’s new slogan.

The legislation was the idea of State Representative Scott Hill of Abilene, who introduced separate bills in the House on January 12, one for the state heritage railroad designation and the other naming Santa Fe 3415 as the official state steam locomotive. As the bills made their way through the sometimes tenuous legislative process, they were first combined into a single bill and finally bundled together with other transportation related bills. The bundled bill was unanimously passed by the House 120-0 and Senate 39-0. The bill now goes to Governor Laura Kelly, who is expected to sign the legislation.

The bills first advanced to the House Transportation Committee, where Boelling was joined by Abilene Convention and Visitors Bureau Director Julie Roller Weeks and fifth grade students from Enterprise Elementary School, all testifying about the railroad’s local and statewide impact. The bills passed the House on a 110-7 vote and were sent to the Senate, where Sen. J.R. Claeys of Salina introduced the legislation. In the Senate Transportation Committee hearing, Hill, Boelling and Weeks were joined by fifth grade students from Abilene’s St. Andrew’s school in testifying about the railroad’s role in educating young people about the history and purpose of railroads. The bill advanced to the full Senate, where it passed on a 39-1 vote. The legislation went to a conference committee, then was advanced to both houses for Wednesday’s final vote.

“This proposal got lots of great support,” said Hill in referring to the positive testimony that was presented before the committee hearings. Hill said the testimony positively influenced his legislative colleagues. “The idea caught on for a lot of legislators,” he said.

Hill said he was inspired to introduce the bill after observing A&SV operations, riding on trains powered by the steam engine, and upon meeting many of the railroad’s volunteer staff members.

“The dedication of the volunteers was so inspirational…the dedication of the staff is indeed infectious,” said Hill, who added that the Santa Fe steam locomotive is a keystone of the railroad’s uniqueness. “The mechanic in me goes crazy every time I watch it in operation.”

From the standpoint of the Convention and Visitors Bureau, Roller Weeks said the A&SV’s new statewide status adds even more importance to the overall story of Abilene’s colorful history as reflected in the city’s museum district.

“This recognition highlights our town’s commitment to preserving our state’s rich railroad heritage. It’s attractions like this that contribute to Abilene consistently being named a best small town, offering visitors a unique and immersive experience in our history and culture.”

The Abilene and Smoky Valley is the only excursion railroad experience in Kansas and Santa Fe 3415 is the only operating steam engine in several Midwestern states. One of about 200 operating steam engines nationwide, the locomotive enjoys national prominence and is a popular tourist attraction. The engine is out of service this season, pending the Federal Railroad Administration’s mandated rebuild, which happens every 15 years. Boelling said the A&SV will be kicking off the ATSF 3415 rebuild project and fund raising in the next few weeks.