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Depot Inn by day

The Depot Inn & Suites early in the morning after we arrived at La Plata, Missouri.

at La Plata station by a courtesy minivan and whisked right to the Depot Inn & Suites a quarter of a mile from the picturesque old Santa Fe depot. The hotel is a foamer's heaven, with a décor so rail-buffy it's hard not to emit small-boy choo-choo noises while walking around the lobby.

One big lobby TV displays real-time images from a video camera mounted near the station. Below it another shows the dispatcher's board for the Fort Madison Subdivision of the Chicago Division of the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway, with red markers indicating where trains occupy the blocks of the subdivision.

I've stayed at the Depot Inn before, and you can read more detail about it here and see more photos here.

We overnighted gratis in the luxurious Pullman Suite, thanks to my official connection with TrainWeb, part of the outfit that owns the Depot Inn. Debby was unexpectedly delighted with its amenities, which includes a deep jacuzzi, an aircraft-carrier-sized mahogany bed, a flat-screen television on which you can watch cable TV or the trackside webcam at the La Plata station, and a price tag astonishingly well below that of a mere standard hotel room in the big city.

During my previous visit two years ago I hadn't strayed from the hotel property except to park myself and my cameras at the Chris Guenzler Million Mile Lookout, an enclosed cabin with a deck a few yards above the BNSF Transcon line. It’s named for a railfan who a few years ago logged his millionth mile riding trains.

Silver Rails Gallery

This time Debby and I rented a car from Enterprise in Kirksville ten miles north of La Plata (the agency brought the car to the hotel, which has a discount arrangement with Enterprise) so we could see a  bit of “Silver Rails Country,” as the TrainWeb group calls the area.

Our first stop was at the Silver Rails Art Gallery in an old storefront in downtown La Plata. It's a small gallery, but the exhibits, mostly railroad-related photographs and poster art, are first-rate. I was especially taken with the enormous bas-relief oaken carvings of steam locomotives by Jackie Hadnot, a folk artist who deserves to be nationally known.

Jackie Hadnot work

The top carving by Jackie Hadnot is about seven feet wide; the bottom one four feet wide.

Copies of many of the photographs are for sale, and I bought four postcard-sized train shots by TrainWeb veteran Carl Morrison.

Of course I had to pay another visit to the Lookout, and was immediately rewarded by the noisy appearance of a long, long auto carrier train pulled by four mighty Union Pacific locomotives. This is the Burlington Northern Santa Fe, and I wondered what foreign power was doing on it. Turns out that the UP and BNSF have a run-through agreement on each other's rails.

Union Pacific auto carrier train

A SD70MAC-H2 roars past the Chris Guenzler Lookout. Union Pacific on BNSF rails? Yes.

I returned to the Lookout later in the day and found it a train photographer's heaven. More than 60 freight trains plus two Amtrakers thunder by each day, most of them hotshot “stack trains”—made up of more than a hundred deep-well cars carrying double-stacked steel containers. The containers emblazoned “J.B. Hunt” for the famous trucking company carry domestically manufactured goods, said Bob Cox, the Amtrak station caretaker, while those with “Hanjin” and other Asian trademarks are packed with freight from China and other points on the Pacific Rim.

On the BNSF these fast trains typically are headed by four 4,400-horsepower locomotives and are often pushed from the rear by two older engines of 3,600 or so horses. All told, nearly 25,000 horsepower working a single train makes a glorious noise.

BNSF 6648 with stack train

Four 4,400-horsepower GE ES44C4s on the point of a domestic stack train.

To our delight “Silver Rails Country” isn't just a mecca for railfans. Bob’s wife Amy, who runs the Silver Rails Gallery, suggested that we drive a few miles west of La Plata into Plain People country, full of horses, buggies, Amish and Mennonites.

Buggies-share-the-road signs abound on the highway, and twice we overtook enclosed horse-drawn conveyances.

Enclosed Amish buggy

Horse-drawn buggies on the highway are a staple of Missouri's Amish countryside.

We were delighted by the Amish Country Variety Store four miles west of town. It’s a kind of rural Woolworth's for Plain People that’s jam-packed with gewgaws, gimcracks, pots and pans, dishes, baking goods, candy and other survival items. Its dirt parking lot is just big enough for a few pickups and a couple of horse-drawn buggies. One must step carefully among the horseapples.

There for $9.95 Debby bought a homemade spiral-bound cookbook, Amish Cookin,'
edited by Mrs. Henry L. Yoder with contributions from "Mrs. Jonas E. Borntrager, Mrs. Jacob N. Gingerich, Mrs. Jacob M. Hochstetler" and a score of other Mrs.

One wondered about their given names, and one wondered about the size of the gatherings they hosted. Their recipe for bologna starts with “75 lbs. beef, 25 lbs. pork,” and there is one for “Meatloaf for 200.”

Horse and buggy

An open buggy with its motive power at the Amish Country Variety Store.

The Plain People are extraordinarily photogenic, but hate being photographed. What's a photographer to do? My solution was to capture them surreptitiously, with long lenses, and to do so in a way that individuals could not be identified, safeguarding their privacy. So I got a few long shots of an Amishman with his horse-drawn plow and some close-in photos of an Amish horse with its muddy buggy—a reasonable compromise that, I think, respects both sides of the lens.

Amishman plowing

An Amishman with his four-horsepower plow turns over the soil a few miles west of La Plata.

horses on highway

Later in the afternoon, the job done, the Amishman returned his team to its barn.

We stopped in La Plata to photograph the exteriors of a couple of magnificent old Victorian houses, both on the National Register of Historic Places. Neither the Gilbreath-McLorn House nor the Doneghy House was open to the public—tours are by appointment only—but their brilliant colors glowed in the lowering sun.

Doneghy House, La Plata

The picturesque Doneghy House in La Plata, a Queen Anne design built in 1896.

There is more, much more, to be seen in these parts: Truman College in Kirksville, a corn maze, the home of pulp fiction writer Lester Dent, railway museums in nearby towns, farm museums, even wineries. We didn't have time on our one-day jaunt—I wanted to tarry by roadside crossings to catch oncoming trains with my camera—but on our next visit October 16-21, when Carl Morrison and I co-teach a workshop on rail travel writing and photography at the Depot Inn & Suites, we'll see much more of what this rich countryside has to offer.

We dined on sturdy Midwestern chicken salads at the Red Rooster Restaurant door to the Depot Inn, and shortly before train time the hotel van took us to the station, where we chatted with Bob Cox about trains and the train show he'll put on in October right after the workshop. I took a few more shots of eastbound hotshot stack trains before the westbound Southwest Chief rolled in at 7:45 p.m, just a few minutes late, and we boarded it for the overnight trip to our next stop, Winslow, Arizona.

La Plata station

La Plata station has been restored to its original Santa Fe Railway livery.

Immediately we asked our sleeper attendant, Joan, to make up our roomette for the night. We were pooped from the long day's activity under a high Missouri sun, and fell asleep almost instantly.

Amtrak 3 calls at La Plata

As dusk approached, Amtrak 3 pulled into La Plata station on the outside track.