By John Kanelis
The Sad Monkey Railroad once gave youngsters visiting Palo Duro Canyon the thrill of their young lives.
That was until 1996, when the owners of the popular tourist attraction – citing the high cost of demands from the state to upgrade the train – decided to shut it down.
Will it come back? Or has it been relegated to the increasingly distant past?
State Rep. John Smithee, who has his own vivid memories of riding on the train when he was a child, said the train is likely gone for keeps – and he blames what he described as a reportedly overzealous state agency for asking too much of the owner of the train – the late Clifford Burtz – and for seeking to impose overly restrictive regulations on them for the train's demise.
Smithee – the dean of the Texas Panhandle legislative delegation – has served in the Texas Legislature since 1985 and he was able to witness the struggle between the railroad owners and the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department unfold in the 1990s. "Parks and Wildlife became extremely bureaucratic in the '90s," Smithee said. He added that TP&W "became interested in conservation concerns" and that the top management of the department "let others run the day-to-day operations" of the statewide agency.
One of the concerns expressed by TP&W, Smithee recalled, was "liability," although he called that issue a non-starter, given that the "state has sovereign immunity," meaning that no one could sue the state of Texas "without the state's permission."
"If someone got hurt I suppose they could sue the vendor," said Smithee, who chairs the Texas House Insurance Committee and who – when he's not making law in the Legislature – practices civil law out of a 10th-floor office at the Maxor Building in downtown Amarillo.
Burtz told the Amarillo Globe-News in October 1996, after the railroad had closed, "We never had an injury of any kind. We have an insurance company that had passed us after a rather strict examination for a $1 million policy."
"Some bureaucrat in Austin decided to make liability an issue," Smithee said. The result, he recalled, was the state imposed restrictions on the railroad that the owners couldn't meet.
Andy Sansom is the former head of Parks and Wildlife and he said he worked with Smithee to find a solution to the issues involving the Sad Monkey Railroad. "The railroad was out of code," said Sansom, who now works as director of the Meadows Center for Water and the Environment at Texas State University in San Marcos. "The railroad wasn't meeting requirements with regard to safety."
There also were some Americans with Disabilities Act regulations that needed to be fulfilled, according to Sansom.
He said the state agency "had to insist on compliance or else the (Parks and Wildlife) department would have been cited" by federal authorities.
Sansom said he "always tried to hold on to beloved components of our state parks, even though they might not have been up to code." Sansom, who expressed a special fondness for Palo Duro Canyon and the Texas Panhandle, said he and Smithee had a "great relationship," adding that "We worked together to save" the railroad. "I couldn't speak more highly of John," Sansom said of Smithee.
The Sad Monkey Railroad ran along a two-mile route on the floor of Palo Duro Canyon. It opened in 1955 and took visitors on 20-minute train rides until it closed for keeps in 1996.
Smithee remembered how Burtz "went to Austin and tried to reason with Parks and Wildlife. They couldn't change anyone's mind." So the railroad was forced to shut down.
Smithee said he is still saddened by the fate of the Sad Monkey. "I have a lot of memories going there as a kid," the 64-year-old Smithee said, adding that his own three children used to ride frequently on the Sad Monkey.
"Everyone I talk to who is my age remembers the ice cream cones" they could purchase at the train station, Smithee said, remembering that they "actually were made of frozen custard."
"My oldest kids are in their 30s now and we'd all go down there for a ride on the train and we'd get an ice cream cone," Smithee said.
Smithee said he sought to intervene on behalf of the Sad Monkey Railroad. "I had several conversations with Park and Wildlife," he said, "but they were adamant that they had to make the railroad safer."
The railroad got its name because it passed under some rock formations that Native Americans said resembled the face of a sad monkey, according to Smithee.
Smithee said he still is baffled by the state's interest in making the train safer. "They never had any accidents down there," he said, adding with a chuckle that the train "was painfully slow" as it chugged along the canyon floor.
"To put all those rules on the train made it impossible to continue," Smithee said.
Smithee lamented the absence of the railroad and the fact that "kids today don't have the chance to experience riding on the train through the canyon. People my age just reminisce about it and we miss the railroad."
The depot is vacant, but some of the sightseeing rail cars – including the locomotive – are on display on private property next to Texas Highway 217 just a few miles from the entrance to Palo Duro Canyon State Park.
According to a newsletter published on PaloDuroCanyon.com: "The Sad Monkey was more than just a children's ride; it was an interpretive ride in which the 'engineer' pointed out
geological features of the Canyon and its flora and fauna."
Could the train be put back on the rails? Smithee doesn't think that will happen. "The only problem now would be the cost" of outfitting the train to conform to current regulations, he said. "The summer is busy and weekends are busy," Smithee said, "but the season is generally pretty short."