HAMPTON — The 2023 Christmas season should be particularly joyful for steam train enthusiasts, thanks to Doe River Gorge Ministries’ plan to launch a Christmas train.
Doe River Gorge unveiled plans for the biggest project in its history at a press conference Wednesday morning.
Terry Maughon, chairman of ministries, said the plan includes two HK Porter narrow gauge locomotives, 11 passenger cars, 1.7 miles of narrow gauge track, 43 painted storyboards, 40 decorated Christmas trees, 210 Christmas wreaths decorated, a quarter mile of garland and over 1,000 costumes representing what railroad employees and passengers wore on the train in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
It had all been owned by a successful Christmas Train in Oklahoma that was part of Dry Gulch, a Christian ministry run by Willie George. Maughon said the train was so popular in Oklahoma that when tickets went on sale for the annual Christmas Train, the organization sold 60,000 tickets within hours.
Maughon said Doe River Gorge was looking for ways to expand his ministry during the non-summer season when the Christian Camp was not operating, and the success of the Dry Gulch Christmas Train caught his attention. He and other Doe River Gorge leaders took a trip to Oklahoma to see the Christmas Train in 2013.
“We were fascinated by what we saw,” Maughon said.
The visit prompted them to consider long-term plans to have a Christmas train to Doe River Gorge. This visit, in turn, led to another visit, and then another.
Initially, Doe River Gorge purchased a steam locomotive.
On their fourth visit to Oklahoma, during the 2018 Christmas season, Maughon and his group were invited to meet Willie George. Maughon said at the meeting, George told them he was preparing to slow down and planned to sell the train.
Maughon said George then told them: ‘You’ve been coming here for four years, thinking of buying it. I’ve been considering selling it for five years.
George then presented Maughon with a “once in a lifetime” opportunity: if he took the train to Tennessee and kept everything intact, he would sell it for a fraction of the price.
“Of course his fractions were a lot of dollars for us,” Maughon said.
The Doe River Gorge project budget shows that the Dry Gulch Christmas Train and all other assets were sold for $740,000.
But the sale also meant Doe River Gorge owned two locomotives in Oklahoma, leaving the task and expense of loading it all up and moving it to Tennessee. Fifty-seven tractor-trailer loads later, the move to Doe River Gorge was complete – a move that cost an additional $272,000.
The success of the move was evident at the press conference, with locomotives and passenger cars on display and many Doe River Gorge staff wearing 19th century railway costumes.
But the expenses always happen.
These include the purchase of the nearby sawmill property for $650,000 for the rail lines and the construction of approximately 2.2 miles of rail track for $2.6 million.
There are also expenditures for the construction and renovation of structures to house the locomotives and passenger cars, a storage building for the 1,000 costumes, loading docks, the renovation of the two Porter locomotives and the preparation of the commissioning.
The total cost of the project is $5,850,000, of which approximately 65% of this amount has already been raised. The target date for the grand opening is November 25, 2023.
Maughon introduced some of the men working to help complete the project. These included Dan Eldridge, Co-Chair of the Steering Committee, who said it was “an opportunity to spread the gospel in an inviting environment”. He said the investment will also be of real benefit to the community.
Mitch Cox was applauded during his introduction due to his $1 million donation to the project.
Outlining the reasons for his donation, he said the first was that Doe River Gorge has done a great job over the past 25 years producing young people who have become productive members of society. Second, the Christmas train would provide Doe River Gorge with the opportunity to have another ministry at another time of the year. Third, he said it was an economic benefit for the region.
Meade Tractor owner Chuck Meade was also featured; he donated the heavy equipment needed to build the 2.2 miles of new railroad.
Neil Poland, president of Mullican Flooring, is a longtime supporter of Doe River Gorge and will be supplying sleepers for the project.