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  Texas : Features : Columns : All Things Historical :

RAILROADS

by Archie P. McDonald, PhD
Archie McDonald Ph.D.
In his network television show in the 1970s, Johnny Cash always had a segment in which he sang railroad songs. He oft repeated, "I've got a thing about trains." So does yours truly..

In my growing up time, trains were pervasive. The Santa Fe, Missouri Pacific, Southern Pacific, and Kansas City Southern lines crisscrossed Beaumont and gave residents the quintessential excuse for tardiness "I caught a freight train." They really meant that a train had blocked a grade crossing and they could not proceed to class, appointments, or jobs. Wasn't always so. Railroading came to America in 1837, and by 1860 there were 30,000 miles of track here, but none in East Texas save a few short lines that served Houston or Galveston.

The state had tried to encourage rail construction with a subsidy of eight sections of land (5,120 acres) per mile of tract. The line was supposed to sell the land to raise construction money, then profit from freight and passenger users once the tract was in service.

Texas Reconstruction government switched to bonds and financial incentives, but the "Redeemers" switched back to land in 1876, and more generously better. Comes now Collis Huntington's Southern Pacific across southern Texas, Jay Gould's Texas & Pacific through the north; and Paul Bremond's Houston East & West Texas Railway through the heart of East Texas. Bremond's line opened the giant timber industry because it provided market access to the world. And his line actually founded many of the communities between Houston and Shreveport, possibly most notably Lufkin and the celebrated-in-song "Tenaha, Timpson, Bobo & Blair."

It was not without cost. Homer ceased to be the seat of government in Angelina County when the HE&WT bypassed it in favor of its own town Lufkin. Missing out on the mainline of the T&P, plus the loss of Cypress Bayou as navigable access to the Red River, caused the demise of Jefferson AND preserved it as a quaint and fun place to visit in our time.

Most communities had to pay for the privilege of rail access. They did so with contributed rights-of-way, depots, round houses, and cash. And they were rewarded. Passenger trains provided East Texans relatively inexpensive and usually reliable transport to Houston, Dallas, or Shreveport, and connections to anywhere. Freight trains hauled in what East Texans needed and hauled out what they produced. Boarding houses and hotels clustered around depots to serve the travelling trade. Trains brought salesmen, and mail, and excitement to town.

Trains are still crucial for moving freight, despite competition from trucks. Airplanes and cars move people. Some folks are fond of these. Johnny Cash and I have a thing about trains.

All Things Historical >
June 1-7, 2003 column
A syndicated column in over 40 East Texas newspapers
This column is provided as a public service by the East Texas Historical Association. Archie P. McDonald is director of the Association and author of more than 20 books on Texas.
 
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