|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 hub.
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
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
laid tracks all the way to Galveston. Criss-
crossing the southwest, it also 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
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 System.
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.
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.
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
|The 1909 KATY truss bridge, Colbert OK.
|Telegraph poles line the former Houston &
Central Texas tracks in Van Alstyne, Texas.
|The Burlington Northern Santa Fe depot is
still in use in Corsicana, Texas.
|Lone pillar of a toll bridge between Oklahoma
|Dexter, TX died when the railroad passed.
|A Cotton Belt Route bridge in Omaha, Texas.
|Abandoned KATY depot 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
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 areas.
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.
|Traveling down the tracks in Fort Worth
|Red River Railroads
Some of the major railroads
along the Red River Valley.
|Sheveport'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. Notice the old steamboat moorings on its southern side.