By HANK MURPHY
Iron Horse Square’s Harry Meredith Special mini train, which began offering rides to the public on Dec. 15, attracted 4,026 riders through June, according to a city report.
During the same time, it brought in $3,486 in donations and merchandise sales.
After its debut in December, the train was idle in January and February. It began offering free rides to the public in March and gives rides every second and third Saturday. About 20 people are trained as volunteer engineers.
Unlike its full-grown cousins, the mini train doesn’t run in inclement weather, and East Texas’s rainy spring put a damper on April’s and May’s ridership. The train was rained out on April 13 and May 18. Rain also drastically depressed numbers on May 11.
On special days, however, train ridership has spiked.
The ridership numbers “have definitely exceeded expectations on certain days – the days when we have special events,” said Doris Newman, the city’s Main Street Program and tourism director. “The summer months have not met expectations so far.”
A total of 277 riders were tallied for the month of June.
To date, the biggest ridership days are those in which a communitywide event also occurred. The initial run on Dec. 15 drew 758 riders. Another big ridership day (828 on April 20) was helped along by a visit from the Easter Bunny. Fiesta Day on May 4 gave a big lift to train ridership (642).
The money collected through donations and souvenir sales will benefit the Iron Horse Square project, which is being developed in phases.
Future plans call for footbridge over the Union Pacific railroad tracks, which will connect the Commerce Street parking lot with the park. Also on the drawing board is a historical walking trail around the park’s perimeter with signs depicting the story of Mineola’s railroad heritage. Another element will be a replica of the old interlocker tower, which guided train movements through busy rail junctions. Iron Horse Square is also expected to have a playground for children, and plans call for a train car museum as well as the installation of additional benches, trash receptacles and drinking fountains.
“We’ve got a pretty lofty goal, which I believe is completely attainable for the people of Mineola,” said Newman.
Mineola’s mini train has attracted a wide demographic of riders, according to Newman.
“We have had a lot of out-of-town people; we’ve had a lot of in-town people, she said. “I’ve talked to people who have come in and ridden the train and gone and shopped in Mineola and come back and ridden the train some more.”
“We’ve had young people; we’ve had old people. We’ve had people who appear to be from all socio-economic groups. It is actually a pure joy to be there and see the people. They’re so happy it’s free.”
Although riding the train is free, people have been generous with donations to support Iron Horse Square.
“The giving from the people is just a really neat thing to see,” said Newman.