In the summer of 1963, workers were in the midst of constructing a permanent children’s zoo in Lincoln. It had been just five years since founder Arnott Folsom had begun planning for the new zoo. While buildings and exhibits around the property were being constructed, work on the Zoo’s train had come to a conclusion. With the train track laid and the locomotive ready to operate, Folsom had the idea to sell tickets to ride the train, named the Iron Horse. The train tickets sold would help raise money for the completion of the Zoo.
Throughout 1963, part-time train crews were hired to give passengers a ride around the Zoo. “Guests could actually watch the Zoo being constructed as they rode the train,” Zoo president and CEO John Chapo said. At this time there was less vegetation and passengers could easily see much of the Zoo while riding. Folsom hoped this would get people in the community excited about the Zoo and in turn help fund the project.
The summer of 1963 was such a success that Folsom decided to hire a full-time crew to start running the train in the spring of 1964. That year the train drove approximately 2,800 miles. Newspaper articles from 1964 reported that over 150,000 tickets had been sold during the two-year span prior to the Zoo opening. “Mr. Folsom was an amazing person. He was able to build anticipation for the Zoo opening with all those train rides and at the same time raise money,” Chapo said.
The following year Lincoln Children’s Zoo would open to the public. It garnered great praise from families, media and community leaders. The Iron Horse Railroad became an instant must-see attraction at the Zoo. Some of the early engineers recalled how every child who visited the Zoo would beg their parents for a ride on the train.
The years that followed brought many changes for the train. The track was expanded three times as the Zoo grew. Two trips around the Zoo now account for over a mile. A storage building was added to house the train as well as act as a tunnel for it to travel through. A visit to the Zoo isn’t complete without hearing children yell as they travel through the tunnel. In 2002, funding was completed for a new locomotive and the railroad was renamed ZO&O.
This July, the Zoo will celebrate 50 years of the train encircling it. Today the train is operated by dedicated volunteers who work each day to ensure the train runs whenever the Zoo is open.
“The train is iconic—we have grandparents who rode the train when they were young now riding with their children and grandchildren,” Chapo said.
Lincoln and its zoo have greatly changed over the last 50 years but one thing has remained constant—a ride on the old Iron Horse still produces a smile and a wave from the tens of thousands who ride each year.