the longest train ride in the world? There are a lot of answers, of
course—the Red Express on the Trans-Siberian railway that goes from
what used to be Leningrad and is now, mercifully, once more Petrograd
or St. Petersburg, near the Baltic, to Port Arthur on the Pacific
is probably the best one. The old Blue Train that once ran from Cairo,
Egypt, to Capetown, South Africa, was certainly in the running, as
was the world-reknowned Orient Express, that ran from London to Dover,
then to Calais via boat, and from there to Istanbul, Turkey. For seeming
to be long without actually being all that long, there’s a stretch
of perfectly straight track that runs for almost 300 miles across
Nullarbor (which means ‘no trees,’ and it ain’t kiddin’) Plain in
Australia, will probably qualify. Another candidate has to be the
original run of what is now Amtrak’s train #1, the Sunset Limited,
when in the 1920s it ran from Chicago to San Francisco via St. Louis,
Memphis, Jackson, New Orleans, Houston,
San Antonio, El
Paso, Tucson, Los Angeles, and Santa Barbara on the Illinois Central,
Texas & New Orleans, Galveston, Harrisburg, & San Antonio; and Southern
But what if ‘long’ has another meaning? What if ‘long’ means not ‘how
far it went,’ but ‘how long it took to get there?’ If that’s the case,
Train #1 of the Gulf & Interstate Railroad, which left Beaumont,
Texas, at 7:00 AM on September 8, 1900, to make the run to Port
Bolivar, about 85 miles away by modern highway, takes the prize
hands down. #1 arrived at Port
Bolivar at 11:10 AM, September 24, 1903—three years, sixteen days,
and ten minutes late. Some of the original passengers were still aboard.
Now—before you start listening for that familiar de-DEE-de-de de-DEE-de-de
theme and start looking around for Rod Serling, this isn’t a time
pocket or UFO story, and it doesn’t belong on Twilight Zone.
There’s a perfectly reasonable explanation for the delay. And
for some of the original passengers still being aboard.
is a well-known date in the history of the southeast Texas
coast. It was on that morning, about 10:30 or thereabouts, that
the 1900 hurricane
blew in. They didn’t name storms in those days, and they didn’t have
much warning one was coming. They certainly didn’t have any idea how
strong a storm would be before it hit. The tides started to rise and
didn’t recede, then those ominous clouds turned up to the south, and
coast folks knew they were in for a blow.
How much of a blow? There was no way to know before it hit, but the
storm that blew ashore on September
8, 1900, was—as Tom Sawyer might have put it—a sockdolager. It
virtually leveled Galveston
Island, killed as many as 8,000 people—an accurate count was impossible
in those days—and destroyed much of the southeast Texas
coast from Orange
to Matagorda Bay. It continued to blow inland for several days, drenching
much of East and Central
Texas and doing property damage and killing folks as far as 250
miles from the coast. 1900,
thanks to that mighty storm, was one of the wettest years the weather
bureau had yet recorded in the eastern half of Texas.
#1 was on High
Island, within 11 miles of Port Bolivar, when the storm surge
came in. When it receded Engine #4 and her tender were buried to the
domes in sand, the baggage car had been rolled and tumbled 500 feet
across the flats, and the head-end revenue and passenger cars were
scattered from Hell to breakfast across the salt marsh. Thirty miles
of track had been swept away.
It wouldn’t have made much sense to go on to Port Bolivar that morning,
because Port Bolivar wasn’t there any more. The ferry that took commuters
from Port Bolivar to Galveston
was scattered in little pieces up Buffalo Bayou halfway to Houston.
Except for a few shattered hulls of buildings, Galveston
wasn’t there either, and neither was much else. Beaumont
was in ruins itself. The survivors of Train #1—and, surprisingly,
most of the passengers and crew survived—didn’t have much left to
go home to, no matter at which end of the line they lived.
soon as the storm blew itself out the Texas
coast began to dig out. Plans were laid and a huge seawall
was constructed on the Gulfward side of Galveston,
to break the force of another such massive storm surge. All up the
coast, smaller seawalls were built to prevent disasters like that
from sweeping inland again. Towns and buildings were rebuilt, bodies
were recovered from the sand—some, years later—and identified if possible,
then buried. Storm widows and widowers were a drug on the marriage
market for about the next ten years. Storm orphans either went to
relatives or to crowded orphanages all across the state. A good many
of the storm-orphaned boys wound up in the Methodist Children’s Home
in Corsicana and later
went on to play football at SMU.
The Gulf & Interstate, as it turned out, was in just about the same
shape as Train #1 after the blow—up to its neck. Instead of in sand,
the little railroad was up to its neck in creditors. They wanted money
and G&I, having lost 30 miles of highly-profitable track, didn’t have
any. The little road had to mine its remaining resources to pay its
debts. For almost three years Engine #4 and the rest of Train #1 stayed
on High Island,
buried to the domes in sand.
Eventually the debts were paid and G&I was in the black once more—but
just barely so. The stretch of track to Port Bolivar was still washed
out. Though the road was operating above break-even, it wasn’t far
enough above it to think about rebuilding the washed-out Port Bolivar
‘port’ in Port Bolivar’s name wasn’t there for decoration. It was—or
it had been—a thriving port. The G&I shipped inbound cargo out of
Port Bolivar to Beaumont,
and outbound cargo from Beaumont
to Port Bolivar. The channel at Port Bolivar was deeper than the one
then, so the little town could handle bigger, deeper-draft ships.
Now outbound had to be shipped via the Texas & New Orleans to Houston,
then transshipped to the Galveston, Harrisburg, & San Antonio to Galveston
before it could be sent to sea. Inbound had to come in via Galveston,
then ride the GH&SA and T&NO back to Beaumont.
It made moving cargo destined for deep-sea ships a lot more expensive.
Port Bolivar was being strangled. To make matters worse, commuters
and shoppers coming to Galveston
from up the Bolivar Peninsula had to take the long way around as well.
That was costing Galveston
and Port Bolivar held a fund drive—bake sales, dances, concerts, the
works—and raised $20,000 to reconstruct the 30 miles of track the
hurricane wiped out. In the meantime the G&I pulled old Engine #4
and her coaches out of the sand, cleaned ‘em up, repainted and refurbished
them, and got the old girl going once more.
At 7:00 AM on September 24, 1903, Train # 1, carrying much of the
original consist, pulled out of Beaumont
for Port Bolivar to complete the run it started three years earlier.
G&I officials offered to honor any punched ticket from the 1900
run that hadn’t been collected. Surprisingly, about a dozen of the
original passengers showed up, still carrying their 1900
The September 24, 1903 run was completed in four hours and ten minutes,
without notable incident. It’s said—and I can’t prove it but it’s
worth repeating anyway--that a passenger who’d telegraphed ahead to
his favorite restaurant on the morning of September 8, 1900 to have
his favorite lunch—two three-minute eggs—ready when his train pulled
in, stormed into the café three years later and roared “Where the
Hell are my three-minute eggs?” Whether that’s true or not—and it
just might be—the run of G&I #1, which began at 7:00 AM on September
8, 1900 at Beaumont
and arrived at Port Bolivar
three years, sixteen days, and ten minutes late, still stands as the
longest train ride in history.