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Texas | Columns | "Letters from Central Texas"

It Was That Kind of Railroad


by Clay Coppedge

Even hard-core railroad romanticists like Johnny Cash and Jimmie Rodgers never penned a stirring ballad about the Doodlebug trains of yore. Passengers called them Doodlebugs (no one knows exactly why) but the people on the business end of things called them gas-electric motorcars because they ran with a gas powered engine turned by a generator.

Doodlebugs were popular from the early 1900s through the 1940s, mostly along routes that provided service between smaller towns. The idea traces back to 1904 when engineers at General Electric decided there might be a market for a self-propelled rail car. Not a street car, which runs on electricity, but a car with a motor that could handle traffic on the little-used lines between small towns. It worked out just that way and to that purpose.

The Doodlebug trains didn't require a fireman, which saved railroads the expense of a steam locomotive pulling half-empty cars across vacant miles on the lesser-used lines. People in small towns had a special affection for the Doodlebugs, mainly because they were there and the big steam locomotives weren't.

The typical Doodlebug was divided into four compartments: motor, mail, baggage and passenger. The passenger compartment typically seated a couple dozen people in big, three-place wide seats that allowed passengers to watch in relative comfort, watching the scenery whiz past the windows at 30-35 miles per hour.

Writer A.C. Greene rode a Doodlebug, the Wichita Valley Motor Car, from Abilene to Wichita Falls in January of 1949 and wrote about it for the Abilene Reporter-News.

"People along the line love it like a family pet," Greene wrote "Women, holding babies in their arms, wave from the front porch as the car trundles by, dogs run out barking joyously when the motorcar rolls into town — it's that kind of railroad."


Texas had dozens of such lines in the first half of the 20th century. A Doodlebug route that ran from Estelline to Lubbock on the Fort Worth and Denver South Plains Railway tracks is now part of the Caprock Canyons Trailway, a series of scenic hiking and biking trails in Caprock Canyons State Park.

A "particularly strenuous route" ran from Temple to San Angelo, through Brownwood, over the western section of what was originally the main line of the Gulf, Colorado and Santa Fe. It was popular with local riders, even if the ride was described as "not unlike a wild ride in an unsprung wagon."

The heyday of the Doodlebug trains on the Santa Fe line was 1934, when the railroad had 39 different schedules and 45 cars. Another kind of motorcar — the automobile — hastened the Doodlebug's slow demise.


The Wichita Valley Motor Car that Greene rode, which came to the valley in 1931, made its last run from Wichita Falls to Abilene in October of 1949, but not without some drama. The motorcar's cow catcher caught its last cow somewhere between Haskell and Stamford, resulting in a 20-minute delay and one dead cow. Between Anson and Abilene the motorcar collided with an automobile, resulting in two injuries and an hour delay.

When engineer Z.A. Jeter stepped down from his from his Doodlebug for the last time, an hour and 40 minutes late, he talked to reporters about a more distant past.

"This is a great country we're giving up," he said. "This line blazed a trail through this country. No railroad ever served a richer country than this."

Jeter, a 44-year railroad veteran, talked about the railroad before the introduction of the Doodlebug line, when "immigrant cars" packed with home seekers and boxcars packed with their horses, cows and belongings rode into the country and settled it.

Jeter recalled how the route between Abilene and Haskell was "nothing but thicket and mesquite" when he first hired on with the Wichita Valley Railway. "Now you see as many pretty farms as you'd like to count."

A passenger on that last Doodlebug to Abilene, Bob Dickinson of Seymour, recalled how he had operated a livery stable and a stage coach from Dickens to Seymour and from Seymour to Spring Creek until the railroad came along.

"The railroad put me out of business," he said. "But I gave $25 to help get it here."

Why wouldn't he? It was that kind of railroad.

Clay Coppedge
"Letters from Central Texas" April 17, 21 column



Clay Coppedge's "Letters from Central Texas"

  • The Bettina Experiment 3-17-21
  • The Midnight Ride of Bob Slaughter 2-22-21
  • The Many Lives of Ray Bourbon 1-18-21
  • The "Peculiar Emblem" of Texas 12-28-20
  • Oilfield Voodoo 11-16-20

    See more »



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