The History of Texas Railroads

By: S. G. REED

In 1821, Texas had been under the rule of Spain for three hundred years. When Mexico, of which Texas was than a part, revolted from her despotic rule there was nothing in Texas to show for the three hundred years of Spanish dominance except the old Missions. Spain made only one attempt to colonize Texas - it was an utter failure. She prohibited immigration from other countries. The New Mexico Government reversed this policy and encouraged immigration, particularly from the United States. The first of these settlers came with Austin in the closing days of 1821. They were mostly Southerners - some came overland in covered wagons; some came down the Mississippi and up the Red River to Natchitoches, Louisiana; others by water from New Orleans to the Brazos River, bringing their livestock and equipment with them. Those pioneers beheld a country of primeval forests along the rivers with vast prairies between them. There were only two towns, Bexar (later changed to San Antonio) and LaBahia (later changed to Goliad). In all the country between San Antonio and Nacogdoched there were only about 2500 white people. There were no roads worthy of the name and dependable lines of communication were almost all by water, and largely restricted to those settlements and towns which were situated on ports, either river or sea.

Six month after the battle of San Jacinto, in which Texas won her independence, the First Congress of the Republic met in Columbia on the Brazos to consider matters of great moment to the young state; and among the most pressing of these were improvements in the roads, rivers and seaports. Another method for supplying better systems of communications to the country was the granting of charters to the steam railroad, a new method of transportation just coming into prominence. Many settlers in Texas were from South Carolina where the Charston & Hamburg had been operating since 1831 - the first, operated by steam, on iron rails in the United States. At this First Congress, a charter was granted for a railroad, to be known as The Texas Railroad, Navigation and Banking Company - the first Charter granted for a railroad, not only in Texas, but west of the Mississippi.

However this Charter was abrogated, due largely to the opposition of Dr. Anson Jones, and although there were three more plans for building a railroad during the short life of the Republic none of these came to fruition and the Republic of Texas lived and died without hearing the whistle of a locomotive.

Texas joined the Union in January of 1845 and eight years afterward, the Galveston, Houston and Henderson Railroad was chartered. It was one of the most important constructed prior to the Civil War, and was of vast military importance during the war. It has the distinction of retaining its original charter name longer than any other railroad in Texas, and although it has often been in financial difficulties, there has been no change in, nor abandonment of any part of its line since its completion, except for a temporary extension on Galveston Island during the war.

Construction began on the Mainland at Virginia Point in 1856. By October 1859, the outskirts of Houston has been reached and there the work stopped because of a yellow-fever epidemic, but Texas had its first railroad reaching the seacoast.

Tri-weekly train service was inaugurated between the outskirts of Houston and Virginia Point. Passengers and freight were transferred between Virginia Point and Galveston across Galveston Bay by the Ferryboat, Texas. The trip took four hours and cost $2.00. While construction was in progress, Galveston was making plans for the first bridge across the Bay from Virginia Point to the island, and in 1859, it was finished.

By 1861, the G.H. & H.R.R. had two engines, the Perseverance and the Brazos, 66 cars, had doubled its tonnage and revenue and would probably soon have been profitable, but for the outbreak of the War in April 1861.

Due to the fact that Texas was not invaded during the War; her railroads, with a few exceptions, escaped the fate that befell those of the other Confederate States. They played a most important part in the four year struggle, being used effectively in defense of her coast and for the transportation of men and munitions to the battlefields of other states. The G.H. & H. was kept in running order for the prompt movement of troops and supplies, and was used effectively by Confederate General Magruder, in the surprise attack on the Federal fleet in Galveston. Before the war ended, many thousand soldiers and tons of war supplies had padded through the little settlement of Dickinson on their way to the Confederate Armies

After the war, Texas like all the South, was prostrate, bankrupt, denuded of men, its business at a virtual standstill; and hampered by the long and severe rule of Reconstruction Days, it was many years on a proverbial shoestring. Its rolling stock, used passed belief during the war, could be replaced only very slowly. In the 1850's a small frame structure called the Dickinson Railroad Depot was built to serve the local farmers, ranchers, and masses that flocked to the Dickinson area for its special events. The little depot served the public until 1900 when the station burned. From 1900 to 1902, the Dickinson station was a baggage car, which incidentally, was bought by Dr. Garner, after the new station was built.

With the beginning of the 20th Century, Texas had regained her strength, and was ready to take up again, that steady march toward a future undreamed of ever by men like Austin who had such high hopes for it.

In 1901, the G.H. & H. was ready to build real "station houses" at its towns between Houston and Galveston. Ten passenger trains a day were running over its tracks as well as many freight cars, some refrigerated, stopping at Dickinson to load the strawberries and garden produce grown around Dickinson and Webster.

Besides its freight and passenger business, Dickinson had a lovely park or picnic grounds on the Bayou across from the station, to which the railroad brought picnickers from Galveston - the Eagles, K.C.'s, Ball High, Elks, and many private picnics were held here as well as county fairs. For these reasons, perhaps the new 1902 Dickinson Station was more elaborate than the others along its route. The station was designed by prominent Galveston architect George B. Stowe and included two waiting rooms, double half-moon doors, an ornate cupola, and an open fireplace.

The Dickinson railroad depot is set to become part of a Historic Railroad Center, after a $1.08 million restoration project is completed. The restoration process will start in January of 2005 and is scheduled for completion in early 2006. The depot is now located at 218 FM 517 West and is part of a two-building historic center which includes the League City Depot. The Center is owned by the City of Dickinson and is maintained through the assistance of the Dickinson Historical Society.

To learn more about the Dickinson Historical Society and Dickinson visit the web site at www.ci.dickinson.tx.us or contact the Dickinson Historical Society office at (281) 337-6251.

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