The Possum Trot Line
"Take a Ride on the Reader"
Each year, thousands of persons from all over the world traveled to Reader, Arkansas to ride the Reader Railroad, also known as The Possum Trot Line. This renowned steam-powered short-line railroad is the last exclusively-steam-powered common carrier standard gage railroad left in North America that operates regularly-scheduled passenger trains.
This short-line railroad started in 1880 when Lee Reader came to Nevada and Ouachita Counties in Arkansas to erect a sawmill. The railroad was put down to haul logs from the woods to the mill. Spurs ran like tentacles to various logging camps 12 to 15 miles into the woods. The Reader Mill was the proud owner of this small coffee-pot-locomotive which had to be helped over the steeper hills by a team of oxen.
In 1884, the St. Louis Iron Mountain and Southern Railroad laid a line from its main line at Gurdon, Arkansas to Camden, Arkansas, located about 30 miles to the southeast. Near the West boundary of Ouachita County on the railway line, a post office called Sayre was established in 1891. The site of Reader Mill just up from Sayre soon became the community of Reader, Arkansas.
In 1910, the Reader Mill was sold to the McVay Lumber Company. Then, in 1913, the McVay Mill burned and was taken over by the Valley Lumber Company. Valley Lumber sold the mill and the railroad to the Mansfield Hardwood Company in 1923. Since oil had been discovered in 1921 in the Waterloo area, the Mansfield Company decided to diversify and started to haul oil on its railroad. Because it was hauling products other than its own company's logs, the railroad had to be chartered as a common carrier and the Possum Trot was born.
The Reader Railroad puffed serenely along in the post-war years until 1956, when the Mansfield Hardwood Company decided to divest itself of the railroad. The Reader Railroad was bought by Tom Long, who operated the line as a freight line for many years. The Reader Railroad interchanged its freight with the Missouri Pacific Railroad at Reader, Arkansas.
Soon, people heard about the short-line railroad and its strange attraction of exclusive-steam power in a time of dieselization. They beat a path to the little station at Reader, Arkansas. With cameras in hand to shoot pictures, they asked questions and begged for rides in the engine and caboose. After signing waivers, they were usually permitted a ride on the Possum Trot Line. The steam train huffed and puffed through the quite woodlands and scared deer, squirrels, rabbits, turtles, birds, and other wildlife. The shrill whistle would blast at crossings and grades.
The office was so besieged with requests for specifications on its engines, they had to mimeograph the details to have enough supply. Soon, the caboose was filled to overflowing with each trip the train made. Mr. Long decided that with a little promotion, this isolated railroad could start hauling passengers on a regular basis. The line purchased several passenger couches, filed their passenger tariff with the Department of Transportation, and started selling tickets. The first revenue passengers were carried on December 19, 1962, and the first year 2800 persons paid to ride the Possum Trot Line.
Between Reader, Arkansas and the tracks' end at Waterloo, Arkansas, the line passed through such colorful places as Cummings Springs, Goose Ankle, Terrapin Neck, Possum Trot, Camp Dewoody, Dills Mill, Anthony Switch, and Lackland Crossing. Although these were once thriving communities, today they are just scenic woods and marsh land overrun with wildlife. These ghost communities of the mid-1830's add to the rich historic atmosphere of the line today.
With the close of Barry Asphalt Plant at Waterloo in 1973, Mr. Long started pulling up track and abandoning right-of-way. It looked bad for the Reader Railroad and a group of people who had heard what was happening decided to try to save it. So they formed a corporation and bought the railroad on May 1, 1975.
The present train ride takes about a seven-mile round-trip from the station at Adams' Crossing to Camp Dewoody, where the engine is turned around on a turn-table for the return trip to Adams' Crossing. The train Is pulled by Old No. 7, the Possum Trot's own wood-burning locomotive. The No.7 is a 2-6-2 Prairie Locomotive and is the only wood-burning locomotive still in regularly-scheduled service in North America. The No. 7 was built by the Baldwin Locomotive Works in June 1907, and has been in continuous service ever since. The Reader Railroad purchased her from a logging company and put it to work on the Possum Trot Line.
The station where passengers board the train is the last station of its kind still in use. It was constructed in 1887 by the St. Louis Iron Mountain and Southern Railroad and was the original station located at Whelen Springs, Arkansas.
The Reader Railroad or its equipment has been featured in several motion pictures and documentaries. These include, Boxcar Bertha, This Property is Condemned, The Long Rides, North and South, and Summer's End.
Note: The railroad is presently not in operation while equipment is being refurbished. Plans are being made to resume service in the near future.
This article was submitted to PCFA.ORG by George H. Ivey of Prescott, Arkansas, on June 30, 1995.