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
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
|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
|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
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
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