wasn’t the longest railroad in East Texas.
And it certainly wasn’t the most profitable.
But it taught its builders,
the good people of Rusk, how not
to run a railroad.
The Rusk Tramway was born from Rusk’s
disappointment over losing a railroad connection in the 1870s.
and Great Northern, headed by Dr. C.G. Young of Rusk,
had planned a route through Rusk,
but when Dr. Young died unexpectedly, H&GN officials curved the line westward
to Palestine to connect with
the International Railroad Company.
It was a serious blow to Rusk.
While other communities in East Texas
were growing from railroad commerce, Rusk
was still depending on slow-moving, horse-drawn wagons and coaches to carry its
goods and travelers.
In an effort to save its economy, Rusk
in 1874 organized the Rusk Transportation Company and, despite inadequate funds,
took steps to give the town a railroad
link with the outside world.
By its own admission, the company was inexperienced,
but it purchased $22,000 in rolling stock, borrowed additional funds, and awarded
a construction contract for the line using convict laborers from the state prison.
Instead of iron, which was too costly, the builder put down rails of native pine.
It was a decision that meant disaster. On April 29, 1875, using a small
locomotive named the Cherokee, the railroad made its maiden voyage from Jacksonville
south to Rusk. Pandemonium broke
out at the Rusk station when the
little engine arrived two and a half hours late.
The president of the
Rusk Tramway, a local minister, reported enthusiastically to the crowd: “We rejoice
over deliverance from the grave..the old hulk that was floundering has been righted,
the leaks have been corked, and with steady helm and full-bent sail, she is riding
into port. Your town is safe.”
But the nautical assurances were a little
Spring rains soaked East
Texas, a merciless sun baked Cherokee County, and in five months the wooden
rails were so warped and buckled that a trip over the line became an exercise
rarely made the trip without disembarking to help train crews to put the engine
and its cars back on the wooden rails. Freight was thrown from the open cars by
the jolts and bumps. The train was so slow that even mule-drawn cotton
wagons beat it over the route.
The tramway’s directors met in emergency
session to raise money to install iron rails, but failed. The line was finally
sold at public auction for $90.50.
For a while the line was leased to a
freight-hauler who used mules to pull the flatcars from Rusk
to Jacksonville, but the
route was eventually abandoned and its right-of-way sold.
only a ridge of red clay, almost obscured by forest growth, is all that’s left
of the Rusk Tramway.
little wooden-tracked railroad left Rusk’s
citizens with a bitter memory, and it was little wonder that a local historian
made this observation:
“We cannot but believe we would be happier and
more prosperous if there were not a single railroad west of the Mississippi.”
Bowman's East Texas
September 27, 2009 Column
A weekly column syndicated in 109 East Texas newspapers