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BBC puts spotlight on Abilenes Jones clan

Living or dead, Abilene’s history-making Jones family just can’t avoid the spotlight these days, regardless of their legendary disdain for attention or accolades.

While this month saw former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and an overflow crowd at the Abilene Chamber of Commerce Banquet honor longtime philanthropist Judy Jones Matthews, October also saw Matthews’ great uncle, famed railroad builder Col. Morgan Jones, championed on the BBC airwaves.

Broadcast on BBC Radio Cymru, the Welsh-language version of BBC Radio Wales, as part of a series on Welsh natives who’ve made good, the radio segment on the Welshman who built railroads across much of Texas lasted only several minutes.

But Iwan Hughes, the Welsh schoolteacher who eagerly researched the segment, indicates a more in-depth treatment on the colonel is now being prepared with help from the Abilene Reporter-News and, far more importantly, Col. Jones’ great-nephew, former Texas Sen. Grant Jones.

“As a small nation, we have always been made to feel inferior by our neighbors, the English,” Hughes wrote to Jones, “and so an item like this shows us that, though we are but a few, we have left a mark on this planet.

“Your great uncle is a wonderful example of this,” Hughes continued, “and there is nothing we Welsh like better than hearing about a good Welshman with a good Welsh name like Morgan Jones in order to give us the ‘feel-good’ factor.”

Certainly, Col. Jones is the stuff of legends, all built on accomplishment, not self-promotion. In fact, the lifelong bachelor never released a photograph of himself for publication in life and only granted one interview — and that came when he was 83 and retired in Abilene.

But while he put down rails in both Wales and the United States, he made his biggest splash in Texas in 1876, coordinating the frantic construction of Texas & Pacific Railway tracks from 16 miles east of Fort Worth right into Cowtown itself.

In making tracks (literally) to Fort Worth by July 19, 1876, Jones narrowly avoided a charter-busting deadline set by the Texas Legislature due to go into effect upon its adjournment.

Taking no chances, ailing Tarrant County legislator Nicholas H. Darnell arranged to be hauled into the Texas House each day on a stretcher to cast his vote against adjournment. When I asked Grant Jones how one lawmaker could keep colleagues from voting for adjournment, he smiled.

“Well,” Jones droned, drawing insight from his own career in the Texas House and Senate, “it was a very impassioned vote!”

Settling in Abilene, Col. Jones parlayed his solid reputation into building and running several short-line railroads and investing heavily in local business. The lifelong, notoriously tight-fisted bachelor spent many of his later years living in a small room at Hotel Grace.

Although Grant Jones was only 4 when the colonel died in 1926, stories about railroads remain preferred fodder at family dinners. For instance, Grant’s father, also Morgan Jones, was a conductor on his uncle’s Wichita Valley railway when he became quite taken with a pretty passenger.

Happily, the attention was reciprocated and the passenger, Jesse Wilder, later married the young conductor.

Grant Jones also had to straighten out the mass confusion that erupts because so many individuals in his family bear the famed railroad builder’s name.

“I am frequently asked if I am related to Morgan Jones,” the former lawmaker deadpanned. “My standard answer is, ‘Yes, he was my great uncle, my father, my brother and he is also my son.’”

Sure hope that remark doesn’t lose something in the translation from English to Welsh.

Contact associate editor Bill Whitaker at 676-6732 or [email protected] Check out Bill’s previous columns at www.brazosbill.com.

Abilene Reporter-News
Bill Whitaker