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The Electric Interurban Railway Systems of North Texas

Updated: May 28

A system map, dated between 1917 and 1934, depicts the electrified, interurban railway systems that started in 1901 in Denison and lasted until 1948, a full half century of rail transporation in North Texas (UT Arlington).

In the first half of the twentieth century, the Red River Valley was home to the most extensive electric railway west of the Mississippi River. The electric, interurban railway system connected cities all along the region and helped to spawn the geographic designation of "North Texas."

And like all good railway stories, it began in Denison, Grayson County, Texas.

In 1899, a group of investors convinced land owners and the cities of Sherman and Denison to connect the towns with an electrified interurban railway system, that, according to the Honey Grove Signal upon the system's opening in 1901, "practically makes one city of Sherman and Denison, as the trains will run every twenty minutes and the trip from one place to the other can be made in less than half an hour." The very next year, Dallas and Fort Worth also reached out to touch one another via the electric train. Within a very short time frame, these electric railway systems expanded to create a star-burst pattern that allowed people to cross the region in trolley cars powered by DC substations.

Train car
A daring photograph of what may be the inaugural voyage of the Denison to Sherman Interurban train, which occurred in 1901. I write "may be" because this picture postcard has a date of 1905. This interurban line would become the Texas Electric Railway and was the forerunner to a 250 mile, interconnected train system for North Texas (DeGolyer, SMU).

Under various corporate entities —the Texas Traction Company, the Dallas Southern Traction Company, the Texas Electric Railway Company, etc —this network eventually stretched 250-plus miles to towns like Terrell (Kaufman County), Denton (Denton County), Waxahachie (Ellis County), Corsicana (Navarro County), Cleburne (Johnson County) and even as far as Waco (McLennan County). Its existence helped to develop suburbs, as shiny new subdivisions were built along the stops and advertised their geographic convenience. Downtown businesses boomed with the increased connections; a hardware store owner in Sherman said he'd "give up $5000 in cash rather than give up the Interurban." Tickets were not expensive, although not all passengers received equal treatment: black passengers had to sit behind flags that indicated the segregation line, and these flags moved backwards based on the number of whites who boarded the cars.

For nearly fifty years, the electric railway system ferried people across the region, but that wasn't the real reason for the system's existence. Instead, federal contracts to deliver mail to the towns along the tracks kept the lines afloat. Like with all modes of public transportation operated by private entities, the U.S. mail subsidized the passenger systems, but only for a fixed amount of money. The companies, therefore, built tourist attractions like Lake Erie (between Handley and Arlington) and Woodlake (between Sherman and Dension) to reap more profits. The Fort Worth Star Telegram even joked that the Interurban systems were going to buy the right-of-way of the Trinity River to build more tracks. But politics dictated how far these profits could go. Gainesville (Cooke County), Greenville (Hunt County), and Weatherford (Parker County) lost their chance to connect to the network when city councils balked at the expected "donations" of right-of-ways to the corporations.

Lake and depot
Woodlake in Grayson County, a tourist attraction built by Texas Electric Railway investors, was a popular place for at least a decade in the early 20th century (DeGolyer, SMU).

Advertisement for the Texas Electric Railway in the Bonham Daily Favorite, 1924.
The Texas Electric Railway made it known that Oklahoma was reachable in this ad in the Waco Times, 1922.
A schedule for the Texas Interurban Railway between Denton and Dallas from 1931. Today, the DCTA and DART use this ROW.

The private nature of the system was its eventual undoing. At the same time the interurban network was growing, so was the "Good Roads" movement, which favored tax-payer subsidized road building that did not rely on the limitations of a corporation's profit margin. In 1934, the interurban line between Dallas and Fort Worth was closed in favor of the Pike, also called the "Airline Highway," that eventually became Interstate 30. By the end of World War II, the remaining network was considered antiquated, with its rigid car stock and bumpy tracks. Instead of investing in updates, the Texas Electric Railway Company purchased "sleek new buses [that] were to replace the bumpity-bump of the cars on part of the road" (Fort Worth Star Telegram, Jan 1, 1949). Interurban bus systems were abandoned fairly quickly, though, because mail contracts went to trucking. Regional passenger transport thus became a truly public interest matter, but without corporate investments, cities had a difficult time maintaining transportation methods solely on the tax-payer's dime.

The last Interurban from Denison to Dallas arrived at the Dallas terminal a bit after midnight on January 1, 1949. A few minutes prior to that, the final consist arrived at the Dallas terminal from Waco. The system's 26 passenger and 29 express cars were to be sold to private individuals for use as diners, homes, or whatever else. Within a year, most of the tracks were torn out to collect salvage revenue of over $1 million. The Interurbans were essentially erased from the landscape except for a few pockets of infrastructure, here and there, that were too costly or too bothersome to remove.

Downtown cars
Mail delivery cars in downtown Dallas on their way to Denison via the Texas Electric Railway in 1946 (UT Arlington).

Richard Montgomery, assistant to the superintendent of the Texas Traction Company, waxed nostalgic: "The more you're around Interurbans, the more you become attached to them. They have history and personality. I don't know much about ships, but I guess you'd say an interurban is like a ship - sort of human." The last Interurban operator, G. W. Bradford from Waxahachie, maintained that upon the system's retirement, he'd rather purchase a little business for himself because "I won't drive no bus." (Marshall News Messenger, Dec 31 1948).

Today, only two long-distance passenger trains cross the Red River: Amtrak's Texas Eagle and the Heartland Flyer. The DFW metro-mess fares a bit better, with commuter rail systems that connect Denton to Carrollton (DCTA), Plano, Garland, Grapevine and Carrollton to Dallas (DART), and Dallas to Fort Worth (TRE and TEXRail). Since none of these lines are used for mail delivery, however, certain politicians and their constituents are loathe to support them. They often claim that it is "socialistic" to develop public transportation infrastructure, but apparently aren't bothered that public funds are used to subsidize nebulous "non-governmental authorities" like airports and toll roads. This is the big difference between the public transportation systems in the rest of the world and the United States: in the U.S., the public good is not considered a viable political motive as there is no private money to advocate for it.

Transportation modes are always temporary (think about it... anyone taking a horse to the office right now?). That's why the solution to re-creating a network of public transportation that can be individualistic, while also ensuring profits for entities providing it, would be Maglev Auto Highways... just a thought.

The Texas Traction Company ferried people from Dallas to Sherman by 1908 (DeGolyer, SMU).
In 1946, a head-on collision on the interurban tracks south of Denison led to a foot amputation for a teenage girl (Waco Times Herald).

Cars and train cars
One of the wrecked cars from the 1946 head-on collision is ferried into Sherman (Denver Public Library).
A former Interurban depot in Oak Cliff along 718 Addison Road in 1980... it has since been demolished (THC).
Old pole
A pole is all that remains from the Texas Electric Railway between Denison and Sherman.
A lovely tribute to the Interurban that ran from Cleburne to Denton through Dallas.
Bridge remains
Along Clarendon Drive in Oak Cliff (Dallas County), the concrete remains of the elevated tracks for the interurban tower above the historic Tenth Street neighborhood.

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