|Riding the Red River Rails
Early transportation attempts in the Red River mirrored those in the more "settled" areas of the North and South, namely - ferries. Lots
and lots of ferry crossings dotted the rivers, with operators charging up to $1 per person. Some ferry operators, like Benjamin Colbert,
whose ferry shunted travelers,stage coaches, and cattle drivers from Texas to Indian Territory just north of Denison, were instrumental
in the development of the region. Colbert operated one of the earliest hotels in Indian Territory, and those who stayed at his inn didn't
have to pay to cross the Red River. The existence of Colbert's ferry also brought about businesses catering to the area north and south
of the river, like the saloon on the Texas side, that sold whiskey to the people in Indian Territory, as liquor sales were illegal over there.
With better engineering methods and higher traffic volumes, toll bridges eventually replaced the ferry crossings. Many of the ferries
were also supplanted by the railroads.
The first railroad to link any city along the Red River was the Texas and Pacific Railroad reached from Shreveport, Louisiana to Marshall,
Texas in the 1850s. While building tracks became more important than ever, construction halted for the duration of the war, as
confederates used the iron to clad gun boats instead.
That wasn't really supposed to be so, however. Railroad charters in Texas, Arkansas, and Louisiana had already been proposed and
accepted, and maps were published of the Red River Valley with the imagined railroad tracks already visible. But politics had a different
agenda. In the 1850s, the United States Congress was contemplating where to place the transcontinental railroad. Stephen A. Douglas, a
senator from Illinois, proposed the rail to go from Omaha, Nebraska, to San Francisco, California. Jefferson Davis, at the time the
Secretary of War under Franklin Pierce, preferred the rail to reach from Houston, Texas to Los Angeles, California. James Gadsden, the
ambassador to Mexico, actually bought a large swath of land from Mexico to facilitate the building of a southern, transcontinental railroad.
Both North and South wanted to expand west as far as possible. The South wanted to extend slavery, and with a transcontinental railroad
in its region, it could do so. The North wanted to expand its industrial power base, and it could do that with a transcontinental railroad.
Both regions also wanted to eliminate the Indian threat - "depredations" by Indians was one of the reasons Texans cited in their
Declaration of Secession - and building a transcontinental railroad could do that, too.
History tells what happened to these plans. After the South ceded from the Union, they didn't have any more say in Congress, leaving
expansion of the railroads in predominantly Republican hands. Guess where the transcontinental railroad was built?
The Railroad Cometh
After the Civil War, railroad building recommenced. The Texas & Pacific would eventually reach Dallas from the east in 1873. A year
earlier, the Houston & Texas Central Railroad had come to Dallas from the south. Suddenly, Dallas went from a small village to a railroad
But the real event that turned the Red River Valley into a major railroading center was the arrival of the Missouri-Kansas-Texas Railroad,
or KATY. Headquartered in Sedalia, Missouri, the KATY entered in a race, sponsored by the Federal government, with two other railroads:
whichever railroad reached Indian Territory first, that company would obtain exclusive rights to build a line to Texas, AND would receive
generous land grants as well. The KATY won. It then built its line right alongside the Texas (or Shawnee) Trail, which parallels today's US
69, and entered Denison in 1872. The KATY then met up with the Houston & Central Texas tracks in Sherman, Texas, in 1873, creating the
first major north/south line in the central plains, linking Galveston, Texas, to St. Louis, Missouri, and points beyond.
The entry of the railroads was not always seen as a boon, however. The federal land give-a-ways for the KATY was mirrored in other deals
in both Texas and Indian Territory, where upwards to 20 million acres were eventually granted to railroad companies. Many farmers would
rebel against these corporate land grabs, which became the beginnings of the Farmer's Alliance Movement (the Populist Party) and the
Agrarian Socialists. Coincidentally, the KATY never received its land grant, as the Cherokees, whose lands were going to be given away
without their permission, successfully fought this theft in court.
A Boom on Rails
The arrival of the railroads changed many aspects of life in the Red River Valley. Cities would fight each other to obtain right-of-ways by
raising money for bonds that would finance depot construction and taps. Taps were privately built tracks that connected to the main
lines, thus enticing the railroads to route their trains to the cities that funded the tracks.
Cities became quite wealthy, too, with an influx of new goods, new immigrants, and new technologies. Telegraph lines were erected next
to the tracks, allowing for an instant communication revolution. Joseph McCoy, founder of the Chisholm Trail, financed and promoted the
use of refrigerated cars, thus supplanting the cattle drives he had helped to create. People could move farther away and still have
access to larger markets. New jobs opened up with the establishment of a major machine shop in Cleburne, Texas, and in the coal mines
of McAlester, Indian Territory and Thurber, Texas.
Change, of course, always has a downside. Many towns, like Boggy Depot, Doaksville, Dexter, and Spanish Fort, died when the railroad
bypassed them. The citizens of Indian Territory who belonged to the tribal nations had to fight against government- sponsored land grabs
and against white settlers who ignored tribal sovereignty (the Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaw, Seminole, and Creek nations had lost
much autonomy, anyway, when they were forced to agree to the 1866 Treaties, which effectively dismantled their nations). In the western
portions of the Red River Valley, the Southern Plains tribes witnessed the destruction of their ways as the railroad brought speculators,
armies, and opportunistic settlers.
Politically, the railroad was viewed with suspicion. While not profitable in the least, the railroads maintained Jim Crow laws. One of the
first challenges to segregation occurred on a train in Missouri, when Ida B. Wells insisted on sitting in the comfortable, non-smoking car
reserved for whites. Tossed out of the train, she eventually lost her lawsuit against the railroad and became an outspoken critic of
lynching and racism.
The Texas Constitution of 1876 (what historians call the Reconstruction Constitution)called for all railroads that wanted to do business in
Texas to be chartered and headquartered in Texas so that Texans could assert more control.
Some of the earliest unions in Texas and Indian Territory were formed by railroad employees and workers in ancillary industries, such as
the United Coal Miners Union. These unions would help to write the Oklahoma Constitution of 1907.
End of the Line
Railroads were never local concerns - they were always corporate entities whose sole mission was to make money for their
shareholders. For some reason, however misplaced, people (including me) become pretty nostalgic about them. Maybe it's because of
the sense of adventure and freedom the rails represent, even if that idea is actually faulty. There was hardly any freedom or adventure
for many groups of people, including tenant farmers and traditional Plains Indians.
Though the rail hasn't gone away, it has lost some of its steam. Amtrak is the only long distance passenger train in the United States, and
in the Red River Valley, only a handful of freight operators still use the tracks. In fact, many rail beds have been converted to hiking and
biking trails, or have been sold for scrap.
Apparently, trains are actually making a comeback. Transporting freight by rail is much more economical than by truck, and can be
quicker, too. Passenger traffic is up due to high gas prices and environmental concerns.
While the Red River Valley has seen its railroad heyday long gone, the train is still important, both historically and economically. The
tracks have left an indelible print on the landscape.
|A historic look at the impact of the railroads along the Red River
|Cairo and Fulton Railroad
Chartered in 1853 to run from Cairo, Illinois to Fulton, Arkansas. It would reorganize in 1872 as
the St. Louis, Iron Mountain, and Southern Railroad, and stretched to Texarkana.
Houston & Texas Central Railroad
The H&TC was based out of Houston and came to Dallas in 1872, then met up with the
Missouri-Kansas-Texas tracks in Sherman in 1873. The H&TC was the first to replace coal with
oil fuel; it was the first to offer Pullman service; and it was the first company whose employees
attempted unionization. Most of the H&TC tracks have been torn up or are now used by Union
As the first rail line in Indian Territory, the KATY was instrumental in the industrial
development of what would eventually become Oklahoma. The KATY entered Denison, Texas
in 1872 and eventually laid tracks all the way to Galveston. Criss- crossing the southwest, it
offered streamliner service through the Bluebonnet Special and the Katy Flyer. The KATY was
eventually taken over by MoPac.
Texas & Pacific Railroad
One of the earliest railroads in Texas, the T&P eventually hooked up with the Southern Pacific
in Sierra Blanca, Texas, making it the first east-west line in the Southwest. The T&P merged
with MoPac in 1976.
Missouri Pacific Railroad
The MoPac was owned by Jay Gould, a railroad "robber baron" who would eventually own
controlling interest in the KATY and the T&P. MoPac didn't really build its own tracks in the
Red River Valley, preferring to buy up trackage that was already there. Eventually, MoPac
owned over 3,000 miles of track in Texas. Today, MoPac tracks are part of the Union Pacific
Chicago, Rock Island, and Pacific Railroad
Coming through Oklahoma Territory, the Rock Island Railroad would supplant the Chisholm
Trail when its tracks came through in the 1890s. The company concentrated on short runs, and
would later merge with the KATY.
|This 1909 truss bridge that links Texas to Colbert Oklahoma, replaced the original MKT truss that was built in 1872 (see below).
|A Cotton Belt Route bridge in Omaha, Texas.
|Abandoned KATY depot along the remains of the Shawnee Trail on US 69 in Oklahoma.
In the early days of rail, the British gauge (the distance between the rails) was 5' 6". At first, all American railroads were built using this
gauge because Americans railroads used British equipment. Soon, northern railroads converted to standard gauge, which is 4' 8.5". In the
South, however, the British gauge continued in use, and a 5' gauge was introduced as well. Southern railroads had to rebuild their tracks
to be linked to the north. In Texas, the Houston &Texas Central and the Texas & Pacific had to accommodate the new track standard.
Many believe narrow gauge to have been used only in isolated areas in the United States, but Texas and Louisiana actually had a
considerable number of narrow gauge lines. Narrow gauge was used to haul freight between towns, or to ferry timber or coal in mining
Another interesting part of rail history concerns underground tracks. In Dallas, the Santa Fe connected to its three main buildings with an
underground railroad that used fire-less steam locomotives. Some of the underground tracks are still visible in the basements of
downtown Dallas apartment buildings.
|Red River Railroads
Some of the major railroads along the Red River Valley.
|Shreveport's famous Triangle Truss of the Texas & Pacific route
|The truss bridge over the Red River at Garland, built by the Cottonbelt, now carries Union Pacific traffic. On the far side of the bank are some
erosion control measures, placed there in the 1930s. Beneath the bridge are pillars for steamboat moorings.
|1926 concrete railroad bridge at Bennington, Oklahoma.
|Abandoned Chicago,Rock Island and Pacific truss at Calvin, Oklahoma.
|In 1850, Jefferson Davis, Secretary of War, ordered surveys of a possible transcontinental route through Fulton and Conway, Arkansas. (LOC)
|Train and mail delivery schedule from The
Standard (Clarksville, Texas) in 1885.
Cotton Belt Route (St. Louis Southwestern)
Evidence of the Cotton Belt Route, which was actually the St. Louis Southwestern Railway, exists all over the Red River Region. Its
purpose was to ferry cotton to market, but it also had a number of passenger routes as well. The Southern Pacific took over the route in
1992, which then went on to merge with the Santa Fe and eventually, Burlington Northern.
St. Louis-San Francisco
Known to most as simply the "Frisco," this was a short line rail company that concentrated in Missouri, Oklahoma, and north Texas. The
Frisco merged with Burlington Northern in 1980.
Aitchiston, Topeka, and Santa Fe
The Santa Fe, originally based out of Kansas, arrived in Texas from New Mexico and continued to expand. Cleburne, Texas became its
main repair hub. In the 1950s, the Santa Fe built the last passenger depot of the old era in Denton. Today, the Santa Fe is still going strong
after the 1997 merger with Burlington Northern. In North Texas, the Santa Fe ran as the Gulf, Colorado & Santa Fe Railroad.
Louisiana Railway and Navigation Company
This line ran alongside the Red River through central Louisiana and into Shreveport beginning at the turn of the century. It carried cotton,
passengers and timber.
Southern Pacific Railroad
The Southern Pacific connected Shreveport to Marshall, TX in the late 1860s. Another railroad was chartered under the same name and
acquired several smaller companies over its years of existence, including the Texas & New Orleans line, which was one of the oldest
railroad companies in Texas and Louisiana.
Kansas City Southern Railway
Chartered in Missouri in 1900 with the acquisition of bankrupt lines, this class-one railroad took over the routes of the Texarkana and Fort
Smith railroad and the Louisiana and Arkansas Railway, among several others. KCS is still going strong.
|A steam engine at the Santa Fe Depot in Gainesville, Texas. The depot is now a museum. It used to have a Harvey House Restaurant (MAR).
|The Texas & Pacific, Denison Surburban Railroad, and the Missouri Kansas Texas Railroad all met in Bells, Texas. Today, the crossing for all of
these tracks is full of relics and ruins, such as the base of the tower (SPL).
|The Santa Fe depot at Dougherty, Oklahoma was moved to the highway between Sulphur and Davis, Oklahoma and is now a restaurant (OHS).
|The Texas & Pacific Railroad had some of the more beautiful depots in the Red River Valley, such as this one in Shreveport (SPL).