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Growth of Texas Railroads

Selections From The Splinters - Volume 7

The following paper on the growth of Texas railroads was read at the San Antonio meeting of the Texas Academy of Science by Mr. R. A. Thompson, engineer of the Texas Railroad Commission: (December 27-29, 1905)

When we contemplate the great development that has occurred during the half century past of the agricultural and economic resources of Texas, the magnitude of the enterprise now under construction and projected within her borders, the wonderful growth of her manufactural and industrial interests, and the high position of social and political prominence and influence which she has so lately attained among the most advanced and prosperous of her sister States, we are moved to discover the great factor to whose potency this marvelous transformation has been chiefly due.

A casual consideration of these extraordinary achievements will convince the most skeptical that to the "railroad" is due the credit and honor more than to any other single instrumentality, and what is of as great significance, more mature reflection will convince us that from this same agent must the future exploitation of the boundless resources of our State derive inspiration.

It has been well said that this country owes more to its railroads, as an agency in increasing its wealth and population, than to all other agencies combined. Through them the vast wealth of our prairies, forests and mines has been unfolded and their products placed upon the markets of the world. They have been the advance guards of civilization, the channels through which the progress and enlightenment of the world have passed, and no other great invention of modern times has contributed so much to the prosperity and happiness of mankind.

While it is fundamentally true that the wealth of a country lies in the fertility of its soil, it is a fact that in order to realize upon such resources, transportation facilities must be afforded, and no other medium is comparable to the railroad for fulfilling this necessity. By means of its communities, States and Nations are able to exchange the commodities and products of the one for those of the other, and the luxuries of our fathers and grandfathers have now become our necessities.

The main highways of commerce before the successful inauguration of the railroad were the seas and the navigable streams. Upon these the principal cities were built and the business of the world was done through their ports. These cities were the centers of population and the territory adjoining them, on account of its proximity to the markets, was more valuable than the interior. As the population increased the demand for more available land was met by the extension of the navigable streams in artificial canals. These canals were for a long time regarded as the only practical means of developing inland resources, and the early history of our country shows that their construction was encouraged by aid, both State and National. In fact for some time after the advent of railroads it was thought that their chief utility lay as feeders for canal systems.

Railroad building in the United States began in 1828. The first railroad built for a regular passenger and freight traffic was the Baltimore & Ohio out of Baltimore. Ten miles of this road was opened for business in 1830. The South Carolina Railroad was begun out of Charleston in 1830 and by 1833 it had 135 miles in operation. On this road was used the first locomotive of American manufacture.

At first short lines were built by local interests to promote the welfare of some special town or community. As these were extended and their number multiplied, consolidations were effected and the foundations laid for our present gigantic railroad system. The growth of the railroads of the United States has been most remarkable and today its mileage is estimated at over 215,000.

The Early Railroads of Texas

We find that great necessity was not felt for more modern transportation facilities in Texas until after the successful installation of the railroad elsewhere. The first railroads were projected from towns of commercial importance situated on the coast and navigable waterways. These were centers of social and political influence as well as wealth, which in addition to giving substantial support in the way of donations of land and money, could lend vigorous aid in securing valuable bonuses from the State Government.

Railroads were early projected from Sabine Pass, Galveston, Port Lavaca, and Indianola on the gulf, Houston at the head of deep water on Buffalo Bayou, and Jefferson and Texarkana in the northeast, on Red River.

The first charter for a railroad corporation in Texas was granted by the first Congress on Dec. 16, 1836, to the Texas Railroad, Navigation and Banking Company, and it was forfeited because of the failure of the company to carry out any of its promises. A large number of other companies were chartered soon after, but none accomplished any work, and all the charters were forfeited up to March 11, 1849, when the Galveston & Red River Railroad Company was granted a charter by the Legislature. This company, now the Houston & Texas Central Railroad, was the first chartered that was actually built, although the Buffalo Bayou, Brazos & Colorado Railway, chartered Feb. 11, 1850, was the first to actually begin construction.

The pioneer of Texas railroads is the Galveston, Harrisburg & San Antonio Railway, which was chartered Feb. 11, 1850, as the Buffalo Bayou, Brazos & Colorado Railroad. This road was designed to develop and secure the trade of the fertile valleys of the Brazos and Colorado Rivers and transport their products to seaboard at Galveston. Construction began on Buffalo Bayou, near Harrisburg, in 1851. By December, 1855, it had reached the Brazos River, opposite Richmond, thirty-two miles, when the serious problem of bridging the river presented itself. For a time a pontoon or floating bridge was used, which could be operated over during the low states of the river. The first engine for this road weighed only twelve tons and was put in service in the latter part of 1851.

In 1860 the B.B.B. & C. Railroad was completed to Alleytown on the Colorado River east of Columbus, eighty-one miles from Harrisburg. The Civil War came and stopped construction until 1874. It was the original plan of the builders of this road to extend same up the Colorado River to Austin, but in 1870 it was merged with the Columbus, San Antonio & Rio Grande Railroad, under its present name, and the extension west to the Rio Grande at Eagle Pass and El Paso projected. By March 1, 1877, it was completed to San Antonio and El Paso was closed in 1883. This road received 1,460,104 acres of land donation from the State.

The Houston & Texas Central Railroad was chartered March 11, 1848, as the Galveston & Red River Railroad, to build from Galveston to Red River. It began work at Houston in 1853, and by January, 1856 had completed two miles when the first locomotive was put on its track. In 1860 it was completed to Millican, eighty miles, when the Civil War stopped construction. Construction began immediately thereafter, and the road was completed to Denison by Jan. 1, 1873. The Austin Branch began work at Hempstead in 1857 as the Washington County Railroad, and was built to Brenham, twenty-five miles, by 1860. It was completed to Austin in 1872. The State land donations for this road aggregated 5,553,780 acres.

The Galveston, Houston & Henderson Railroad was chartered by act approved Feb. 7, 1853, and construction began at Virginia Point March 1, 1854. The city of Galveston donated $100,000 toward the construction of the bay bridge. In 1857 it was completed to Harrisburg, forty miles, and the entire line between Houston and Galveston was opened for business in 1860. This road received 610,560 acres of land from the State.

The Gulf, Western Texas & Pacific Railway was chartered Sept. 5, 1850, as the San Antonio & Mexican Gulf Railroad, and projected from Port Lavaca to San Antonio. Work began in 1856, and it was completed to Victoria in April, 1861. The Indianola Railroad chartered from the rival port of Indianola Jan. 21, 1858, and five miles built by 1860. In 1870 both of these roads were merged under their present title, and the line extended to Cuero by May 31, 1874. Here rested one of the oldest railroad enterprises ever projected in the State, viz. the connecting of San Antonio by rail with a Gulf port, and with the completion of the San Antonio & Gulf Railroad, now under construction from Stockdale to Cuero, will be consummated this project more than fifty-five years after its first inspection. The S.A. & M.G. Railway has quite a history, having been destroyed by General Magruder in 1863, and rebuilt by the Federals in 1865-66, and sold by these to the present company in 1870. It received 735,938 acres of land from ! the State.

On the northeast construction began on the Memphis, El Paso & Pacific Railway out of Texarkana, and the Southern Pacific Railway from Caddo Lake near Jefferson, almost simultaneously in 1856. Five miles were built on the former and 27.5 miles on the latter before construction was stopped by the Civil War. In 1871 both of these roads were consolidated under a Federal charter as the Texas & Pacific Railway, and extension westward began on both. Fort Worth was reached in 1880 and by Jan. 1, 1882, connection had been made with the Southern Pacific Railway at Sierra Blanca. This road received 5,732,237 acres of land from the State.

The Texas & New Orleans Railroad began construction at Houston in 1858, as the Sabine & Galveston Bay Railroad, and was completed to the Sabine River at Orange by January 1, 1861. It was destroyed by the Confederates in 1865 and was not rebuilt until 1876. It received 1,226,880 acres of land as donation from the State.

The Houston Tap Railroad was built in 1856 from Houston to Pierce Junction by the citizens of Houston to connect with the Buffalo Bayou, Brazos & Colorado Railroad. It was sold to the Houston Tap & Brazoria Railroad Company, which was organized under act approved Sept. 1, 1856, and extended to Columbia, on the Brazos River, fifty miles from Houston, by 1861. In 1871 it was sold under foreclosure and consolidated with the International & Great Northern Railroad in 1873.

The foregoing were the pioneer railroads of Texas whose construction was begun prior to the Civil War. The Texas Almanac for 1860 gives the following list of railroads constructed and in operation on October 1, 1859:

Galveston & Red River (now Houston & Texas Central)
Buffalo Bayou, Brazos & Colorado (now Galveston, Harrisburg & San Antonio Railway)
San Antonio & Mexican Gulf (now Gulf, West Texas & Pacific Railway)
Galveston, Houston & Henderson
Southern Pacific (now Texas & Pacific)
Washington County (now Houston & Texas Central Railroad)
Sabine & Galveston Bay (now Texas & New Orleans " )
Houston Tap & Brazoria (now International & Great Northern Railroad)

The blighting effects of the Civil War were felt by the railroads perhaps more than by any other kind of enterprise, and during the financial depression extending particularly from 1862 to 1869, building practically ceased. The mileage increased from 307 at the end of 1860 to 511 on Dec. 31. 1870, or 204 miles in ten years.

After the close of the war the greater necessity for these factors in the rehabilitation and development of the State was apparent from every standpoint, and every inducement that could be given was offered by the people on the most liberal basis. Land donations by the State were increased and private bonuses of land, money and property in addition were subscribed by the towns and communities.

Up to 1876, when the general incorporation act was passed, railroads were chartered by special acts of the Legislature. These acts specified, in addition to other features, the amount of State land to be donated, the length of line required to be built each year, etc., but almost without exception these charter requirements, when not complied with, were waived or extended by the next Legislature, in order that further building might be encouraged. The statute books of the State are covered with acts of relief and special charter favors for railroads. As a rule, especially in the earlier days, those laws pertaining to railroads were framed by the promoters of projects themselves and passed by a willing, even anxious, Legislature, without a semblance of restrictive features, and even with all of these favors shown, the difficulties of these early constructors, were serious and many, and numerous were the trials encountered before the contiguous country was developed sufficiently to afford a traffic that put t! he roads on a paying basis.

State and Other Aid to Railroads

In 1850, when railroad building was seriously undertaken in Texas, broad, thinly populated and but little developed areas confronted the promoters, and the investment of capital in such enterprises gave little prospect of substantial returns for some years at least. Hence it was absolutely necessary that it be stimulated by special offers of aid and the hope of profits from construction above the ordinary.

The first charters carried with them donations of public land to the amount of eight sections of 640 acres each for each mile of completed road. In addition, a right of way 200 feet in width across the public lands was granted, with such additional grounds for depots and terminals as were considered necessary. In 1854 a general act was passed "to encourage the construction of railroads in Texas by donations of public lands", granting to each company sixteen sections, or 10,240 acres, for every mile of completed road. This act remained in effect until 1882 when it was repealed on account of the public domain being exhausted. Special acts granted the Texas & Pacific Railroad and the International & Great Northern Railroad twenty sections of land per mile.

Under the provisions of these acts the State passed title to the railroads the enormous area of 34,179,055 acres, or about 53,405 square miles. This land was about one-fifth of the total area of the State, and would form a territory as large as the State of Arkansas, and larger than the States of Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware combined.

Under an act of 1856 $1,816,000 of the public school fund was loaned to certain railroads, limited to $6,000 per mile, as follows:

Buffalo Bayou, Brazos & Colorado (G.H.& S.A.)
Houston & Texas Central
Houston Tap & Brazoria (I.& G.N.)
Southern Pacific (T.& P.)
Texas & New Orleans
Washington County (H.& T.C.)

This act was soon repealed on account of difficulty of collecting even the interest, and for the same reason a number of the roads were foreclosed upon and sold. Acts of relief were passed from time to time extending the payments of principal and interest as they were assumed by the new companies organized after sale. The school fund still carries a balance of some $1,726,663 still due it, principal and interest, on account of these loans.

At the end of 1882 there were in operation in Texas some 6,000 miles of railroad which had received the public domain approximately 5,700 acres of land per mile. But this donation, though apparently large, was exceeded in value by the gifts of land, money, franchises and other property from counties, towns and individuals. Some of these lands and franchises, particularly street franchises and terminals in cities, are of great value. Until very recently railroads received all of their right of way, depot and terminal grounds as donations from communities and individuals along their lines, often with money in addition, and at this day for a company to have to purchase its real estate is the exception rather than the rule.

Counties and incorporated towns were legally authorized to issue bonds for the benefit of railroads until 1876, when the practice was forbidden by the State Constitution.

The Present Railroad Systems

Stimulated by liberal public and private aid, and disturbed by few statutory restrictions and regulations, railroad building went forward after 1870 with renewed vigor. On Dec. 31, 1880, there were 3,244 miles in operation, an increase of 2,733 miles in ten years. The "banner" year for railroad construction in Texas was 1881, when 1,669 miles were built. In 1882 1,096 miles were built, and in 1883 only sixty-six miles. The reason for the extraordinary activity in 1881 and 1882, as well as the subsequent falling off in 1883, was the exhaustion of the public domain and the repeal in 1882 of the "public land donation" act.

On Dec. 31, 1890, there were 8,710 miles of railroad in operation, an increase of 5,466 miles in ten years, and on Dec. 31, 1900, there were 10,022 miles, a further increase of 1,312 miles. The approximate mileage in operation on Dec. 31, 1905, is 11,931 miles, an increase of 1,909 miles during the past five years.

The following table gives the railroad in Texas at the end of each five-year period, beginning Dec. 31, 1855, and extending to the present time, with the increase for each period, to-wit:

End of year
Miles in operation
- -

From Galveston News

Saturday, December 30, 1905

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