The Railroads Come to Texas
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Land Transportation in Early Texas
Transportation was a challenge in Texas from the time of the earliest European settlement. Neither goods nor people could move easily around the vast, largely unpopulated frontier. During the days of Spanish colonization, the major road for trade and freight was the Old San Antonio Road, also known as the King’s Highway or the Camino Real. The Old San Antonio Road and other Spanish roads were not highways or even roads in the modern sense. Rather, they were a collection of unmarked trails. Most of these trails predated the Spanish and were first blazed by the Indians or by nomadic animals such as the buffalo.
Learn more about the King's Highway on our Texas Treasures site.
The situation did not improve during the time of the Republic of Texas or after statehood in 1846. As one member of the Texas Congress put it: “"Where is the money to come from. We have an Army, a Navy and all of the officers of the Government to pay, soldiers to clothe and feed, Mexicans and Indians to fight and to guard our frontiers; uses in fact for ten times as much money as we can raise."
The roads were difficult even under the best conditions and impassable in bad weather. A road with tree stumps no higher than six inches was considered first class.
It took a whole train of mules to move this boiler twenty miles
Prior to the Civil War, the main method of moving freight over these rough roads was by mule or ox team. At one time, at least 10,000 teams were in operation, serving the main population centers of East and South Central Texas, with routes extending as far west as Austin and the Colorado River and as far north as Waco. The rate charged by the teamsters was generally about 20 cents per ton per mile, though rates varied, depending on the weather, grazing conditions along the route, and the ability to secure return loads.
Learn about the Cart War on our Portraits of Texas Governors site.
The old stagecoach that stopped at Manchaca Springs
For passenger traffic, Texas was served by several stagecoach lines. The San Antonio & San Diego stage line was one of the largest and most successful in the United States. Overall, however, stage travel was unpredictable and unprofitable. Numerous lines came and went during the years leading up to the Civil War.
Efforts to improve the roads in Texas met with only limited success. Some communities built gravel turnpikes with milestone markers, and others laid down plank roads. But bridges would remain almost unknown until the 1880s, meaning ferries were required to move people and goods across rivers and streams. Many roads would not even be paved with gravel until after the Civil War. Texas roads would not be regularly maintained until the State Highway Commission was created in 1917.
Water Transportation in Early Texas
Ferry across the Comal River
The map of Texas reveals a long coastline and numerous rivers, but here too Texas faced transportation obstacles. Beginning around 1830, several entrepreneurs attempted to use steamboats to navigate Texas rivers. They found many rivers blocked by snags and rafts of logs and other debris, and other rendered impassable by sand bars that appeared and disappeared unpredictably. In addition, many Texas rivers were dry part of the year. In spite of these problems, steamboats are known to have traded on the Brazos, Trinity, Sabine, and Neches rivers and to have negotiated Buffalo Bayou between Galveston and Houston. Steamers played their most important role in ocean shipping, making regular runs from Galveston and Velasco to New Orleans. Smaller Texas ports offered additional commerce but also hazards to shipping, since the Gulf of Mexico was uncharted and sand bars and other obstructions, to say nothing of storms, could wreck a ship.
Eventually, entrepreneurs cleared some of the logjams, making river navigation a little more practical. The state also worked on improving water transportation, chartering a company to dig a canal between Galveston and the Brazos River.
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