David Kerr isn’t unlike a lot of his fellow Arkansas & Missouri railroad conductors when it came to finding a niche after retiring.
But Kerr admits he knew almost nothing about railroads before signing on with the A&M 15 years ago. The 77-year-old with a white beard has also learned the railroad’s history.
“I didn’t know a lot of history about these parts of the Ozarks,” Kerr said. “But I can tell you everything about these little towns between Van Buren and Winslow; I can tell you about the trees, the rock formations, the streams. (But) the only thing I ever had to do with trains was when I was little, my grandparents lived near the tracks in California, and we would put pennies on the rails.
“That’s about the only thing I ever did with the railroad.”
It’s 10:52 a.m. Saturday. Nervous, eager passengers have gathered outside the old Frisco Depot in downtown Van Buren for a journey back to yesteryear, perhaps visiting the museum or walking around the Veterans Memorial Plaza beforehand. Half an hour later, Kerr is clutching a microphone, ready to fuse the past with the present, as two Alco C420 locomotives — themselves almost 55 years old — tug the passenger cars over Frog Bayou, underneath I-49, and toward the 1,702-foot long tunnel before cresting at Winslow.
Kerr has familiarized himself with every twist and turn along the path. There are black bears in these parts, he tells passengers, though he’s never actually seen one. There are foxes and wild turkeys, too.
Kerr warns that walking through unprotected railroad tunnels is never a good idea, but doing so in the summer is even worse. “Snakes are all over the place,” he said.
“About the only crazy thing you’ll see is a cow on the track,” he said. “But generally speaking, it’s pretty uneventful.”
The trip allows riders to see parts of the state only viewable by train. And, though fall can bring vibrant fall colors, Kerr prefers the spring. Other A&M excursions take riders from Springdale to Van Buren and back on an eight-hour journey, complete with a three-hour layover in Van Buren for lunch and shopping, and Springdale to Winslow.
“My personnel favorite is during the spring,” Kerr said. “If you time it just right, when the dogwood (trees) come out, you get quite a bit of color. It’s really vibrant, but you’ve got to hit it just right.”
The A&M hauls about 40,000 passengers a year through the Ozarks. Naturally, the fall colors draw the most riders, Kerr said.
“In the fall, when the trees start to turn, that’s when it gets really busy,” he said. “It’s pretty as far as the eye can see, because of the colors. It’s also our busiest time of the year; we’re pretty-well booked up.”
The A&M runs a north-south line, connecting Monett, Missouri, with Fort Smith — a spinoff of the old St. Louis-San Francisco (Frisco) Railway system built in the 1880s.
In addition to the four-times-a-week excursion trains between April and November, the A&M runs a number of freight trains between Fort Smith, where it connects with the Union Pacific and Kansas City Southern, and Monett, where it intersects with the BNSF (Burlington Northern Santa Fe).
In two years, the Arkansas & Missouri Railroad will celebrate its 35th year of taking passengers up and down the mountains. Kerr has been there for the past 15. He and the other conductors aboard the Van Buren train all work on a volunteer basis to help make the experience come alive for the passengers.
“When I retired from Hiram Walker, I was kind of hanging around the house being a nuisance, and my wife (Hannah) dropped me off at Van Buren and got me on the train,” jokes Kerr. “That was 15 years ago. And until that time, I had never ridden a train.”
Kerr sees himself riding up and down the tracks for maybe another five years. He’ll be 82 by then.
“I’d like to get five more years in,” he said. “(But) it all depends on how I feel. I might not be as energetic by then.”