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Hundreds of railroad lines chugged off into history

TEXAS SKETCHES

The state of Texas has chartered hundreds of railroads since the Buffalo Bayou, Brazos and Colorado chugged off in 1853, the first railroad in Texas and the third west of the Mississippi. Some of the charter names are wondrous to behold: Altus, Roswell, Lubbock & El Paso or Air Line-Railroad (1868) of Hempstead. A good many of the lines chartered were never built (as above). However, among the hundreds of lines constructed, some of the more interesting were also the biggest failures (who in the world thought a railroad was needed HERE?).

Three short lines were constructed in the Trans-Pecos region - that rugged area westward from the Pecos River that includes some of Texas' highest mountains and its hottest deserts. The first rail line into the Trans-Pecos was the eastward-building Southern Pacific. Using mainly Chinese workers, it reached El Paso in May 1881. It met the west-building line from San Antonio in 1883 and a silver spike joined the two at the Pecos River. The Texas & Pacific Railway, building west from Abilene, had reached Sierra Blanca late in 1861 and shared track with the SP from there into El Paso. (Both SP and T&P are now Union Pacific.)

But two small lines were built to connect with the SP along its most isolated miles. One, the Rio Grande Northern, was completed in November 1895 and ran 26 miles and 600 feet from Chispa to coal mines at the village of San Carlos - using one of the six railroad tunnels ever built in Texas. But the coal mine wasn't at all what engineers had projected. In the RGN's short life little of anything was shipped, and in 1897 the sheriff of Presidio County sold the line from the courthouse steps for $50,000. Today, San Carlos and Chispa are gone, but the roadbed through the tunnel is part of a ranch road still in use.

A second short line, the Rio Grande Micolithic & Northern, began operation May 2, 1927, from Mica (on the SP) seven miles south to Micolithic, where the mica mines were located. It used a Vulcan gasoline-powered locomotive, but there wasn't much for the Vulcan to do; in 1927, only 15 cars were hauled, in '28 only 21 and only five cars in 1929. It did not operate from 1930 to '38 and was abandoned in 1939.

The third Trans-Pecos railroad has had a happier history. It is the Pecos Valley Southern. It originally ran to Toyahvale, but the 11 miles from Saragosa to Toyahvale were cut off in 1971. Locally controlled, it still runs from Pecos southward to Hoban pit and carries about 3,000 cars per year, mainly gravel where it once hauled produce and people.

(These stories were compiled by Fred Springer of Salado and George Werner of Houston for presentation at the October 1999 meeting of the Lexington Group in Transportation History, in Houston. That presentation was enhanced by 55 slides of sites and rolling stock on the three lines.)

A.C. Greene is an author and Texas historian who lives in Salado.

The Dallas Morning News
A.C. Greene