In 1907, the Southern Railway completed its new rail line from Evansville to French Lick, Ind. The new line transported coal and tourists, who came to visit the area’s mineral springs.
The coal trains are gone now, as are the tracks of the old Monon Railroad, which met the Southern line in French Lick. But, thanks to dedicated volunteers and a community rebirth, the tourism business is booming again.
Last year, about 46,000 people hopped aboard a train of the French Lick Scenic Railway. The regular trains travel about 10 miles to the south, then return to the depot in French Lick — a one hour and 45 minute trip. Along the way, trains pass through the 2,200-foot-long Burton Tunnel and into portions of the Hoosier National Forest.
Rick Olsen, the railway’s general manager, says the local casino, which opened in 2006, was a catalyst for a rebirth in French Lick and neighboring West Baden.
“It is a community effort,” says Olsen. “As there have been more things to do and more places to stay, our ridership has increased.”
The railway recently underwent a major track improvement project, and many pieces of rolling stock that were no longer serviceable have been removed. Renovations to the 1907 French Lick depot are nearly complete.
“We are working on a large modernization project,” says Olsen. “We have a new office building and warehouse. We’re cleaning out our collection. We’re trying to take care of what we can take care of.”
One of the most popular events for the railway is the annual Polar Express, which recreates the familiar story from the children’s book and movie. A new event this year is the “Day Out with Thomas,” which features the children’s television character Thomas the Tank Engine.
Another big project is the reintroduction of an electric trolley service between the historic hotels in French Lick and West Baden. New trolleys, funded in part by a grant from the Department of Transportation, could be in service soon.
Along with regular trips, the railroad also offers special Wild West Hold Up trips, where “bandits” take over the train near Gradman Station and take hostages. All trips depart from the depot in French Lick.
For more information about the French Lick Scenic Railway or to order tickets, visit indianarailwaymuseum.org.