SAN ANTONIO – The San Antonio Zoo train has been chugging around Brackenridge Park since 1956 and has become a treasure to the city. But one of the conductors behind the city gem is also a treasure.
Rhetta Minnis has been driving the train for years and recently walked KSAT12 through her prep routine for the CW2 Express.
Minnis said she shows up two hours before the first scheduled ride at 9 a.m., and she walks the tracks to make sure everything is clear. Then she heads to the roundhouse where the trains are kept in Brackenridge Park to warm up the engine and make sure there are no problems with the train.
“Let it warm up a little bit,” Rhetta said. “And then we also walk the train.”
Minnis blows the leaves off the track with the new electric leaf blower, which she prefers to the old heavy gas powered one. And then she takes a lap around the park in a practice run before the first train ride of the day.
“The train is getting ready to leave the station please stand clear of the train,” she announces over her loud speaker from the conductor cab.
“Gotta move the button to get the shutter down,” she explains. The conductors are the ones that put the rail road crossing arms down in Brackenridge Park to alert park pedestrians and drivers the San Antonio Zoo Train is coming.
“Honk the horn to let the people know we are coming, and here we go,” Rhetta said.
Always with her red bow in place and wearing overalls, Rhetta has been doing this for 15 years.
“19,000 trips, 38,000 miles,” Rhetta said proudly. “That’s larger than the circumference of the earth. So I’m on my second time around this. It’s my second world tour.”
This wasn’t her first job. She started as a conductor after she retired from her state job of 30 years.
“I never particularly cared for office work,” Rhetta said.
So when she was looking for her retirement job, she knew she wanted to do something completely different.
“This is as different as it gets,” she said.
A friend recommended she work at the zoo, and there was an opening for train conductors.
“The minute I stepped foot inside that roundhouse, I felt right at home,” Rhetta said. “I knew I had found my niche. And it’s been great ever since. Just unbelievable.”
If you couldn’t tell, Rhetta loves her job.
“It just puts you in a different frame of mind,” she said. “And it’s a happy thing. Everybody on it is happy. And you’re driving it and you’re happy. It’s just a great thing.”
She says part of what makes the San Antonio zoo train so special is the nostalgia.
“I’ll be talking to the passengers and they’ll be saying, you know, I came down here and rode this when I was a child with my mother or grandmother,” Rhetta said. “And it brings back wonderful memories.”
She said it’s a rule, if you pass people riding on the train and they are waving, you must wave back.
Rhetta said as she gets older she keeps telling herself that she’ll start working less days a week. But she knows it’s the trains magic that keeps her inner child alive.
“I know that on the outside I’m pretty darn old now, but on the inside, I’m still young. And I think this is part of the reason; you know, every day, you know, is just happy. And I feel young and I talk with people from all over the world and children and so forth.”
The train is open daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. seven days a week, during San Antonio Zoo hours. You can book your train tickets here.