Hazardous Business
Industry, Regulation, and the Texas Railroad Commission
The Railroads Come to Texas
The Fight for the Commission
John H. Reagan and Early Regulation
The Oil Wars
The Power Years
Other Responsibilities
The Railroad Commission Today

The Railroads Come to Texas

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Impact of the Transportation Problem

The lack of reliable, affordable transportation was a major factor in the poverty and isolation in the lives of many Texans.

Before the Civil War, about 95 percent of Texans made their living in agriculture. The average farm was small, only about 30 acres. Most farm families lived in a handmade log or sod house, were uneducated and poor, and lacked either cash money or access to credit to make improvements to the farm or to buy mechanized equipment. The people operated on a subsistence level, raising pigs or chickens for their own use, growing their own sweet potatoes and corn, and perhaps raising a small amount of cotton or tobacco. Almost everything they owned they made themselves. A typical farm family used homemade chairs, tables, and beds, stuffed their own mattresses with feathers, corn shucks, or straw, and improvised cups and jugs out of gourds.

Manufactured items were very expensive because of the transportation costs. To buy things that they could not produce themselves, such as salt, sugar, coffee, gingham and calico, and farm implements, the farm families sold their small surpluses within the community. Even if it had occurred to the average farmer to raise and sell more crops to increase his standard of living, he had no profitable means of doing so.

Texas Railroads Before the Civil War

1850s locomotive and construction train

In 1830, Peter Cooper of Baltimore successfully tested the Tom Thumb, the first steam-driven locomotive to operate on a commercial railroad in the United States. Within a decade, over 2800 miles of track were in operation. However, the bulk of the construction was concentrated in the Northeast. Capitalists and entrepreneurs naturally concentrated their efforts on the areas of the country that were densely populated and had well-developed markets. As a result, in 1840 there were still no commercial railroads west of the Mississippi and only one operating in the South (in Charleston, South Carolina).

Texans were quick to grasp the possibilities that railroads offered to the frontier. To try to entice investment, individual cities and counties issued bonds to aid railroad construction, and the state offered loans and land grants. Texas optimistically chartered its first railroad shortly after winning independence in 1836, and construction began in the 1840s. The realities of the marketplace made failures of these early efforts.

Southern Pacific acceptance letter, 1857

Finally, in 1853, the Buffalo Bayou, Brazos, & Colorado Railway became the first operating railroad in Texas and only the second west of the Mississippi. The Buffalo Bayou, Brazos, & Colorado offered freight and passenger service along a 20-mile track between Harrisburg and Stafford. Other railroads soon followed. By the end of 1861, there were about 470 miles of track in Texas and nine railroad companies. Five of these companies were centered in the Houston area, and all but one served a seaport or river port.

Early Texas railroads were a perilous affair. When the Buffalo Bayou, Brazos, & Colorado arrived at its low bridge crossing at the Brazos, passengers were offered a chance to get off and take the ferry across rather than risk their lives on the train. The Southern Pacific, located near Marshall, had an engine nicknamed the “Bull of the Woods” for its habit of jumping the tracks and charging into the woods like an enraged bull.

In spite of their shortcomings, the railroads were a major improvement in Texas transportation. In 1854, the 35-mile trip by stagecoach from Houston to Hockley took a day and a half and included an overnight stop. In 1857, it took only an hour and forty minutes by rail. The railroad freight rates were about half of those charged by teamsters, and cotton farmers began to use the roads to ship their product out to market.

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Page last modified: April 3, 2024