Kansas Profile: Abilene & Smoky Valley Railroad

How big is your museum? Today let’s visit a museum that is five miles long and 100 feet wide.

What in the world is that kind of museum? The answer is, it’s like a moving museum – a historic excursion train operating on railroad track in rural Kansas.

Ross Boelling is president and general manager of this remarkable train known as the Abilene & Smoky Valley Railroad. Thanks to railroad volunteer and retired K-State department head Steve Smethers for the following information.

The Abilene & Smoky Valley Railroad operates on railroad track that had once belonged to the Chicago, Rock Island, and Pacific Railroad, which began service in 1886. The Rock Island operated successfully for many years. It was the lifeline of a burgeoning regional agribusiness industry, but after nearly a century, the company was in financial trouble.

The Rock Island took bankruptcy in 1980 and the MKT took title. In 1988, the Union Pacific acquired the lines, but company executives decided not to use the portion through Abilene.

Two local men decided to try to save the Rock Island legacy in Dickinson County. Joe Minnick and the late Fred Schmidt approached the Union Pacific and proposed to acquire the Rock Island rail between Abilene and Woodbine, Kansas.

The two railfans had the backing of the community, including some banks in the county. The banks agreed to loan money for the purchase of track between Enterprise and the rural community of Woodbine, population 157 people. Now, that’s rural.

The Abilene to Enterprise leg of the line was donated and that became the railroad route. The non-profit Abilene & Smoky Valley Railroad Association was formed in 1993, so it is celebrating 30 years. In 1994, the A&SV operated its first excursion train from Abilene to Enterprise and back.

Over time, the association acquired historic pieces of rolling stock. Those now include a century-old Santa Fe steam locomotive, a first-generation diesel switch engine, and vintage passenger and freight cars.

Among those are a 1902 MKT wooden passenger car, a 1930s vintage Chicago and Northwestern passenger coach, a gondola car made for the Missouri Pacific in June 1951, and a Union Pacific caboose.

Today the Abilene & Smoky Valley Railroad offers regular excursion trains, private charters, school field trip excursions and dinner trains for a 90-minute roundtrip journey between Abilene and Enterprise, near a historic grist mill. Excursion trains run on weekends from May through September, with dinner trains scheduled every weekend in June and July.

The “Great Pumpkin Express” runs in October, featuring Charlie Brown and Snoopy. “Cowtown Santa Express” runs late November through Christmas Eve.

Riding the train is like immersing oneself in a mobile museum. “A&SV passengers don’t just ride the rails,” Smethers said. “They experience train operations firsthand by touring the engines; observing crew members doing their jobs; asking questions of volunteer engineers, conductors, brakemen, firemen and car hosts.”

For a special fee, passengers can ride in the Union Pacific caboose or the cab of the engines.

Passengers can learn history, see the sites, and enjoy the dining car. For 2023, AS&V Railroad is offering a special Dining Car Heritage Series. Using area restaurants and caterers, the heritage series will offer cuisine that passengers would have experienced on the dining cars of four railroads with ties to local history. Those are the M-K-T, the Santa Fe, the Rock Island, and the Chicago North Western.

Smethers describes the train as an experiential “museum on wheels,” 5.5 miles long and 100 feet wide. Since its inaugural season in 1994, the Abilene & Smoky Valley Railroad has carried well over a quarter-of-a-million passengers.

For more information, schedules, or for tickets, go to www.asvrr.org.

It’s time to leave this museum, which might be described as five miles long, 100 feet wide, and full of interesting history. We commend Ross Boelling, Joe Minnick, Steve Smethers, and all the volunteers of the Abilene and Smoky Valley Railroad for making a difference with railroad history.

“All aboard!”

And there’s more. Remember the grist mill in Enterprise? We’ll learn about that next week.

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The mission of the Huck Boyd National Institute for Rural Development is to enhance rural development by helping rural people help themselves. The Kansas Profile radio series and columns are produced with assistance from the K-State Research and Extension Department of Communications News Media Services unit. A photo of Ron Wilson is available at  http://www.ksre.ksu.edu/news/sty/RonWilson.htm.  Audio and text files of Kansas Profiles are available at http://www.kansasprofile.com. For more information about the Huck Boyd Institute, interested persons can visit http://www.huckboydinstitute.org.