Story by DANNY MOGLE // May/June 2017
Although I’ve always lived only about an hour away from Palestine, Texas, until recently I never had spent much time in this city of 20,000. I had no idea I was missing out on so much.
The town has many buildings and homes dating back more than 100 years. Its spectacular courthouse is a living museum. The historic Texas State Railroad turns back time.
A great place to start exploring Palestine is the Visitor’s Center housed in a restored railroad depot at 825 W. Spring St. The setting is appropriate considering Palestine’s heritage as a railroad town.
Palestine went through a boom beginning in 1872 with the arrival of the International Railroad and then the Houston & Great Northern. The railroads merged in 1873 and the I&GN moved its offices, shops and shipping yards to Palestine.
That meant suddenly a lot of people with good salaries needed nice places to live and spend their money.
Today, thanks to that influx of wealth, Palestine boasts one of the largest collections of late-1800s and early-1900s buildings in the state. At the Visitor’s Center, I picked up brochures with driving tours through neighbors filled with older homes and churches.
Mary Raum, the director of tourism, showed me the site of a railroad-themed park being built adjacent to the Visitor’s Center and was anxious to share that a large model train collection and railroad memorabilia will go on permanent display in a building nearby.
The best way to get up to speed on local history is to stop at Museum for East Texas Culture, 400 Micheaux. Housed in a former school built in 1915, the museum’s exhibits include a railroad memorabilia room and a recreation of an early 1900s’ classroom.
The Howard House Museum, 1011 N. Perry, is one of the city’s oldest and best preserved, homes. Built in 1851 in the style of Greek revival architecture, it displays furnishings of some of its earliest residents.
MAIN STREET DISTRICT
The 44-block Main Street District is filled with shops, eateries and businesses. On just about every corner, you’ll encounter a large sculpture. Eighteen sculptures from artists throughout the region are on view as part of an ongoing program called Art Tracks.
The renovated Texas Theatre is promoted as the crown jewel of downtown Palestine. Located at 213 W. Crawford, it was built in 1930 as a grand movie palace and boasts Spanish Colonial architecture and a distinctive neon sign.
The Historic Redlands Inn, 400 N. Queen, was built in 1914 as a hotel and later became the headquarters for the I&GN Railroad. After the railroad was purchased and the owners moved the headquarters out of Palestine, the vacated building was renovated.
It now offers extended-stay and overnight suites. The first-floor houses shops and The Redfire Grill, an upscale restaurant.
Old Town Palestine is located between downtown and the Anderson County Courthouse. Old Town was once the industrial heart of the city. Today, several of the tin buildings house restaurants and specialty shops.
I was told I shouldn’t leave Palestine without stopping there at Oxbow Bakery, 215 E. Crawford St. The bakery, which only is open Thursday through Saturday, sells pies by the slice or whole pie.
By the time I arrived, less than two hours after it had opened for the day, it had already sold all of its famous pecan pies. Instead, I settled for a buttermilk pie.
ANDERSON COUNTY COURTHOUSE
The impressive Anderson County Courthouse built in 1914 stands as a seat of justice, living museum and historic landmark all in one.
The neoclassical architecture includes entrance porticos framed by huge stone columns. A spiral staircase extends from the basement to the third story.
Look up and you’ll see the stained glass skylight. Look down and you’ll see a Texas-themed mural on the basement floor.
A mural depicting early Texas heroes is in a courtroom. Photos from yesteryear Palestine are on the walls and items from the city’s past are in display cases.
TEXAS STATE RAILROAD
The biggest tourism draw remains the Texas State Railroad, which takes riders through the scenic East Texas countryside between Palestine and Rusk. The Palestine depot is located off Texas Highway 84, east of town.
The railroad dates back to 1881 when the state prison system began laying tracks to provide rail access to a smelter it operated in Rusk. Eventually the railroad became a historical attraction operated by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. Today, a private company operates the railroad.
The train excursions often sell out, so it is best to make reservations. On my visit, I made sure to book a seat in one of the air-conditioned rail cars.
The train sometimes offers Polar Express themed rides, upscale dining and fall foliage excursions.
Through its Victorian-style depots and use of steam and diesel locomotives, the Texas State Railroad lets riders experience a glimpse into Palestine’s railroading past.