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story.lead_photo.caption 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

Print Headline: Glory Train fans fight to save park amenity

Comments

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  • tngilmer
    May 26, 2018 at 10:36 a.m.

    Typical bureaucrat. He does not care what the people want.

  • Nodmcm
    May 26, 2018 at 11:40 a.m.

    The magic of being a little kid and seeing that miniature train, on the top of that magnificent mountain in west Arkansas, for the first time is unforgettable. Perhaps one of the few grand highlights of being a kid in Arkansas was riding that train. Why can't the state buy the owner out, contact Chinese manufacturers and see if they have similar, modern equipment, and keep that train running? We fight over the religious tombstone at the capitol, spending a fortune, and little kids eyes don't light up when they see that piece of granite. Bro. Rapert, where are you when we really need you? I figure whoever can upgrade that train and keep it running just might ought to be our next governor.

  • jb8972005
    May 26, 2018 at 1:23 p.m.

    My husband & I rode the train on our Anniversary trip. It was very interesting & a lot of fun seeing nature at his best. Please keep the train going!

  • Plato99
    May 26, 2018 at 9:31 p.m.

    Mr. Spann says the Parks Department has 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 next generation is important, but so is the generation we're living in. Mr. Spann has got marketing speech down pretty well, but he inadvertainly reveals that his employer doesn't really give a darn about the public.

  • BEARTRAP919
    May 26, 2018 at 9:58 p.m.

    You will notice when we have a good, great, unusual thing going, there is some Axs Wipe that wants to fix it for the Future, And the Future does not include anything worth a tinkers damn from the here and now. Keep the Train, Only fools throw unique things like this out. Hopefully the Governor will make a Stand for the Train, otherwise it is probably all over and done with

  • wolfman
    May 26, 2018 at 10:32 p.m.

    Do you thing people in little rock give a crap what people want? nope. they are going to do what they want despite what should be done.

  • merlin749
    May 27, 2018 at 12:37 a.m.

    Note that none of the state park brochures or the website say anything, or show a picture, of the train. The state elites don't think it's significant, like the people do who actually go to the park. In my opinion it needs to be kept in service. I never knew about it until I saw this article. North Little Rock Burns Park amusement park used to have one too, I don't even know if it's still there.

  • cputzi
    May 29, 2018 at 8:10 a.m.

    For once do the right thing and keep the train.

  • OldGuard
    May 29, 2018 at 9:34 a.m.

    State employees prove once again why they are not paid well.

  • Vote18
    May 29, 2018 at 12:38 p.m.

    I really think one sign explaining the facts about the connection to Queen Wilhelmina is all that is necessary. Did she ever visit the mountain? NO Do thousands visit and ride the train every year? YES #savethetrain

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