A proposed Amtrak stop could be the start of bigger things in De Soto.
That’s the message from a group called Fast Track De Soto, which envisions a new rail platform in De Soto to accommodate twice-daily stops for Amtrak, the national passenger train network.
Native De Sotoan and local entrepreneur Jim Thomas, president of the group, has steadily gathered support for the passenger platform from local business and governmental leaders as well as from Union Pacific, whose large train-car maintenance facility on the east side of downtown could provide the necessary rail lines for passenger-train service.
De Soto welcomed train travelers as recently as April 1971 (aboard Missouri Pacific trains) but the rail stop in the city disappeared in 1982 with the demolition of the city’s train station, erected in 1919.
Union Pacific has agreed to cooperate on the project and every area government official whose constituency includes De Soto has sent a letter of endorsement to Derrick James, Amtrak’s government affairs director in Chicago.
“The more than 300,000 people in Jefferson and surrounding counties would find a perfect place to board the train and disembark,” wrote Congressman Jason Smith (R-Salem), who’s 8th District takes in the southern portion of Jefferson County, including De Soto.
“Visitors would find themselves in the heart of De Soto’s Main Street where new restaurants and shops are springing up as part of the area’s revitalization.”
Other leaders sending letters to James earlier this year were state Sen. Gary Romine (R-Farmington), state representatives Elaine Gannon (R-De Soto) and Mike McGirl (R-Potosi) and County Executive Dennis Gannon, along with the five members of the De Soto City Council and City Manager Todd Melkus.
Thomas has received Amtrak’s specifications for a train platform, along with some preliminary pro-bono design work from local engineer Paula Arbuthnot. The next big step is for Thomas to get the green light from James.
“He’s the one who oversees new routes and also is very familiar with our route,” Thomas said about James. “He’s the main one to convince at this point. It’s safe to say everybody (here) is on board.
“Businesses on Main Street would absolutely love it.”
The Texas Eagle
It helps that Amtrak already passes through De Soto twice a day. The 1,306-mile Texas Eagle line runs from Chicago to San Antonio, where it connects with westbound service three times a week to Los Angeles.
The Texas Eagle rumbles through De Soto heading northbound around 6:30 a.m. and going south at about 9:15 p.m. The nearest stops it makes are about an hour away in each direction – St. Louis to the north and Arcadia Valley to the south.
Those pass-through times are an advantage to De Soto, Thomas said, because of the convenience to passengers coming and going in either direction.
“The times the train comes through town (are) very easy for passengers to use,” he said. “So if somebody wanted to come down and stay in De Soto, they could get off the train, pick a bed-and-breakfast to stay in or (an) Airbnb (rental), (and) go anywhere on Main Street.
“(They could) do the winery tour for the day, and then the next day if they wanted to leave and keep going, they could get on the train again at 9 (p.m.) and just keep going south. So it works out well for that kind of thing based on the schedule.”
The Amtrak stop, he added, would trigger associated economic development.
“Once Amtrak stops here, it fuels other things. If they stop here, we could use a hotel on Main Street. We could use a rental-car place on Main Street. It’s sort of like dominoes. Everything has to fall just exactly right, in the right order, to make it all happen. But the potential is certainly there.”
De Soto site pushes
lots of buttons
The project, Thomas said, will require private financing or some kind of public-private partnership that would include grant funding.
He envisions an open-air platform.
“We’re guessing $300,000 to $400,000 (to complete the project),” he said. “We’ve had a lot of local businesspeople saying they would jump in and help us raise that.”
Other advantages De Soto offers, Thomas noted, are history and topography.
“The history of De Soto is, we’re as much a railroad town as you can get,” he said. “The railroad has been here since before the Civil War. Jesse James, his first train robbery was on the line from De Soto to Poplar Bluff. The history of railroading in De Soto is tremendous.
“Also, Main Street is a mile and a half of completely flat ground, so it’s going to be real easy to build a platform and have a place for the train to stop. De Soto also has a unique advantage in that it has plenty of places to park.”
Thomas said the proposed location for the platform, after input from Union Pacific, is across from the De Soto Public Library, 712 S. Main St.
“We still have the dual tracks there, (which) makes it easy; if you look at where the tracks run, (they are) very, very level compared to Main Street. It should make it fairly cost-efficient to build a platform.”
Arbuthnot said the Amtrak stop “would be one more economic boom to our local downtown Main Street and to the town itself. It’s an important step to the overall planning and revitalization of the town that has always wholly embraced its train industry and culture.”
Melkus said he was excited to hear about the project when he took over as city manager last October.
“I think it would be a great thing for the community,” Melkus said. “It’s going to be a long-term plan to try to do this, but we’ve got to get started.
“It’s going to take a private-public partnership for sure. I really think the community will get behind it.”
Recapturing the past
Thomas owns Tag Team Global, a public relations and marketing firm at 517 Pratt St. in De Soto, and is perhaps more familiar to the citizenry as the organizer of the Frank Wilcox Film Festival every spring. He is renovating a building at 106 N. Main St. for a new Mexican restaurant that will open later this summer. It’s part of the changing look for the city’s key thoroughfare.
The Amtrak stop, he said, would simply amplify that.
“We’re doing lots of building renovations on Main Street, and having an Amtrak station would be great; it would be like the anchor,” Thomas said.
It could also stoke a bit of nostalgia as the town looks to recapture some of the magic of train travel.
“There’s a lot of people who were disappointed when they tore the (old) station down, back in ’82. It broke a lot of hearts. (The old station) was beautiful. It had a tile roof and was something to look at,” he said.
The Amtrak stop is the kind of project, Thomas believes, that the whole town can rally around.
“A lot of people would like to make this happen and continue De Soto’s legacy as a railroad town (for) 170 years.
“The main thing (now) is to get Amtrak to say yes.”