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West Texas towns lived and died by the railroad

More than 100 years ago, the railroad was virtually the only way of transporting commercial goods from one area to another.

In West Texas, as the need for the railroad became more and more pronounced, towns — most notably Abilene — sprang up along the main rail lines, while others were born from the creation of branch lines.

“The pattern of West Texas was determined by how the railroad stretched west, and most towns in this area owe their genesis to the railroad,” said McMurry University associate professor of history Dr. Donald Frazier. “When the Texas & Pacific, or the Southern Transcontinental Railroad, got its main trunk line in the late 1800s, towns such as Cisco, Tye and Roscoe sprang up. Also, as the line branched out between the 1880s and 1920s, West Texas saw the creation of smaller towns, such as Roby.”

A town is born

Through his development and promotion the early-day Abilene and Southern Railroad in West Texas, Welsh immigrant Morgan Jones’ contribution played a major role in the economic livelihood of the area. The citizens of towns such as Winters, Ballinger were supportive of this expansion, because they were aware of the far-reaching benefits, both tangible and intangible, to the communities.

Perhaps the best example of the railroad’s effect on a town is the relationship between the Texas & Pacific Railway and the creation of the city of Abilene.

Representatives of the T&P wanted to extend their tracks westward from Fort Worth and needed towns along its route to create business for the line. Some towns along the line, such as Weatherford, were already serviced by the railroad, but officials wanted more communities to increase the line’s economic viability. So in its desire to push the line further west, the T&P Railway was responsible for “opening” West Texas and creating several towns between Fort Worth and El Paso — its most successful venture being Abilene.

In a promotion worthy of any launched by Madison Avenue, Texas & Pacific Railway officials announced that Abilene would be the “Future Great City of West Texas,” and on March 14, 1881, prospectors in Fort Worth purchased $6.45 round-trip tickets on the T&P to find out what this future great city was all about. The following day, the sale of town lots officially began.

The T&P’s monopoly on Abilene ended in 1906, when the Abilene and Northern came to town.

The great potential

When the first official steam locomotive chugged into a town, spectators and vendors alike crowded alongside the tracks to await the arrival of a machine that would change their community’s future.

“There is definitely a festival atmosphere when a railroad comes to a town,” Frazier said. “This is an important event — it means your town is connected to the outside world. The town is loaded with economic promise and its citizens are connected with their families — it’s the great potential that people are celebrating.”

From the number of people who turned out to see the Abilene and Southern make its way into Winters, one would think President Theodore Roosevelt himself was on board. When the first official train was scheduled to arrive, a celebration was planned and people from across the region joined the historic event. On July 23, 1909, the day after the train arrived, the Runnels County Ledger recorded this description: “Winters people are clever entertainers, but couldn’t control the throng.” The paper went on to say, however, that “Many prominent speakers were present and spoke on behalf of the future of Winters and surrounding country.”

The railroads ushered in commerce of all kinds and on both large and small scales. In Winters, when the railroad was completed, a small building was built near the town’s hotel, so that salesmen, or “drummers,” could ply their goods to travelers and spectators alike.

No access to commerce

For many small towns whose genesis was fostered by the railroad, the eventual abandonment meant certain economic disaster for these communities.

“The railroad is the catalyst that forms towns and it is the reason that towns fail,” Frazier said.

Steve Roop, director of rail research for the Texas Transportation Institute, agreed that rail abandonment has destroyed the economic livelihood of many communities, but added that enough commerce must exist to justify supporting a line.

“Railroads are not subsidized by the government and so they must operate like businesses,” Roop said. “Prior to 1980, railroads were regulated, but because of the Staggers Act, constraints governing their behavior were reduced. This act saved the industry by allowing the railroads to spin off unprofitable, marginal branch lines. However, industries in towns affected by this had no choice but to shut down or relocate.”

While the Staggers Act may have saved the rail industry, it clearly was detrimental to many small area towns.

“A lot of the little towns around the area were finite in their concept and, as a result, had no industrial base without the railroad. They could have struggled along with access to larger markets, but without the railroad, they had no such access,” Frazier said. “Without the railroad, there is a disincentive for businesses to stay in the small towns, so places such as Mineral Wells, Gordon and Mingus experienced a population decline and have died slowly.”

Many towns affected by railroad abandonment waged a courageous battle to save their industrial base.

When the Texas and Oklahoma Railroad Co., owner of the Orient line, filed with the Interstate Commerce Commission to abandon 156.49 miles of line from near Sweetwater to the Oklahoma border, people affected by the possible closure banded together in protest.

Industry representatives in Jones County expressed concern that the abandonment would adversely affect their profits, but representatives of the Texas and Oklahoma claimed to have lost almost $1 million in the three years it operated the line. Opponents of the closure disagreed, however, and cited the wear on highways as a result of increased truck traffic. Despite several protests, the line was eventually abandoned in the early 1990s.

In the late 1970s, residents of Winters successfully fought the proposed abandonment of more than 30 miles of track owned by Abilene & Southern Railway Co., a subsidiary of Missouri Pacific Railway Co., which favored abandonment on the grounds that the line did not generate enough business to realize a profit.

However, more than 10 years later, when abandonment was imminent, citizens did not rally around their railroad.

In a 1988 article in the Abilene Reporter-News, Kerry Craig, editor of the Winters Enterprise, was quoted as saying, “If it goes, we’re going to lose part of our history and part of our heritage here,” but added that local shippers had become less dependent on the railroad than they were in years’ past.

Highways effect

Experts cite the interstate highway system as a primary reason railroads are not the presence they were early in the century.

“In the 1950s the United States wanted to build an ‘Autobahn for the United States,’ so the Eisenhower Interstate System was created,” Frazier said. “Naturally, the interstate provided competition for the railroad in terms of how effectively it was able to ship freight, since goods go straight from their distribution point to the consumer point. With the railroad, if goods were to go to a point with no spur line, they would have to be trucked to their destination, which would affect the fixed cost of the product.”

Roop agreed, but added that with increased technology, railroads will remain a viable and cost-effective way of shipping large amounts of goods.

“The interstate system has clearly reduced the niche the railroad was able to fill,” he said. “However, rail is a convenient way to move freight, and railroad freight traffic has increased as major multi-state railroads are allowed to focus on more heavily traveled routes. Also, railroads are able to accommodate intermodal traffic, anything from beachballs to lawn chairs, and are useful for moving coal and chemicals to the Gulf Coast.”

Passenger rail revival

Passenger rail service was enjoyed between the late 1800s until the 1960s, when it was supplanted by air and freeway transportation. In West Texas, the days when passengers reached their destination by way of rail are the stuff of hazy, nostalgic recollections.

However, experts say the revival of passenger rail would be a positive step for the transportation industry, both from a practical and a nostalgic perspective.

“I see a good future for the passenger rail,” Frazier said. “There are a finite number of cars you can put on the freeway and also, the railroad gets people moved in an efficient manner.”

Frazier added that the aesthetics issue associated with rail travel must not be ignored.

“There is a shift back to the nostalgia of railroads,” he said. “Air travel is not as glamorous as it used to be and people want the nostalgia of with rail travel — they also want to be able to look out the window and see the landscape,” he said.

Frazier added that the nostalgic aspect of the railroad could go hand-in-hand with the revitalization and consequently, the tourist appeal many cities’ downtowns are experiencing.

“For example, if we could develop a tourist base around downtowns, there would be a reason to take a steam engine railway, such as the Tarantula, from Abilene to Fort Worth,” he said.

Roop also sees intrinsic benefits of passenger rail travel, but said the railroad faces challenges in terms of making it cost-effective for the industry.

“Amtrak is asked to fill a difficult role,” he said. “In order to be effective, rail will have to compete with air travel by finding enough passengers.”

Next century

Frazier sees the railroad filling a niche, as the next millennium presents challenges of the expanding population.

“The population boom will be the story of the 21st century and we will have to come up with innovative solutions for dealing with the issues this presents,” he said.

“Rail will have to be used to address issues the population expansion will pose. It will be able to get people to places faster than air, without the hassle of changing planes and waiting. It will also be competitive in terms of price, since rail travel will be considerably less expensive than air travel.”

Frazier added that since the information age has resulted in many industries no longer dependent on a specific location, “it is conceivable to have passenger rail commuters who locate in smaller towns.”

“With many individuals and companies not having to rely on a specific, physical location from which to conduct business, and therefore choosing to locate away from metropolitan areas, it is possible that there will be a need to accommodate passenger rail commuters. This is where the smaller towns might have an advantage, because if we have passenger rail, it is conceivable to have passenger rail commuters,” he said.

Abilene Reporter-News
Molly Hill