Travelers roll through in style on the American Orient Express

Published 12:00 am Monday, March 12, 2001

American Orient Express employees David Emerson and Jen Albrecht set the tables for lunch inside the Zurich Dining Car of the train Friday. (The Vicksburg Post/MELANIE DUNCAN)

[03/12/01] “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” played on the overhead speakers while Hattie Gable sat quietly reading in the Seattle Club Car of the American Orient Express.

The retired California native was alone in the car with its plush seats, hardwood walls and baby grand piano. Most of the other 87 passengers on the seven-day trip from Washington, D.C., to New Orleans had left to tour the Vicksburg National Military Park, the Old Court House Museum and the Gray and Blue Naval Museum.

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But Gable had already been on two other tours that the vintage train line offers in other regions and was content to stay on board on the rainy Friday morning.

“This is just such a wonderful train,” she said.

For the first time in 33 years, a passenger train stopped in Vicksburg Friday at its next-to-last stop en route to New Orleans. The American Orient Express spent half of the day stopped in the city, while passengers shuffled off to see some of the city.

“A lot of (the passengers) don’t even do the tours,” said Bruce Isaac, rail line coordinator. “They just like sitting on the train and looking out the window.”

A 1950s-style luxury train line made its first of eight stops in Vicksburg this spring as part of tours through the South. The American Orient Express will be in the city again Monday.

The River City is a new stop for the tour line that also offers tours of the Midwest and a transcontinental route. Other stops along the Antebellum South tour include Richmond, Charleston and Savannah.

“It’s great riding through the countryside and you don’t see all the billboards and you don’t see all the gas stations and everything else to associate with I-20,” said Bill Johnston of Atlanta.

Johnston, along with his fiance and his sister, flew from Washington to Atlanta to catch the train to New Orleans. The trio planned to spend a few days in the Crescent City before flying home.

Rather than taking the guided tour provided by the company, the retired producer for public television opted to get a cab.

“The service is just impeccable,” he said. “Just to have dinner is fun.”

Among the 16 cars of the train are two dining cars, three club cars and five sleeping cars. Between meals and socializing with other passengers, Johnston said they spend most of their time looking out the window.

“You think you’re going to read a book, but the next thing you know you’ve put it down and you forget all about it,” he said.

The sleeping cars are vintage Pullmans built in the 1940s and 1950s, restored at a cost of $15 million. Most rooms have hide-a-way beds, and four share a shower.

Tickets for the eight-day, seven-night trip start at $2,590, depending on the accommodations. Presidential suites, which include private showers, start at $4,490.

The American Orient Express will run the Antebellum South route through April 29.

Passenger service began in Vicksburg when the first tracks were laid in 1836, but ended in 1968 when the last passenger train pulled out of the Holly Street Depot off Cherry Street bound for Shreveport.

Tracks that once ran from Vicksburg to Baton Rouge have been abandoned for years. Because those lines are no longer available, the American Orient Express had to return along Kansas City Southern Railway tracks to Jackson and then turn south to New Orleans.

The passenger train’s stop was the first in decades, but hopes are high that passenger service will soon return to Vicksburg.

Amtrak officials said that it will start a new route through the city as soon as improvements are made to tracks currently used only for freight service.

Amtrak operates passenger rail service all around America, including north-south trains linking New Orleans to Chicago and Washington.

Under Amtrak’s proposal, the train through Vicksburg would originate in New York City and travel south and west to Meridian. Once in Mississippi, the train would be split with one section continuing south to New Orleans and part headed west through Jackson, Vicksburg, Monroe and Shreveport to Fort Worth and Dallas. At that point, the train could connect with trains headed to Mexico and the West Coast.