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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Early Railroad Regulation

In the early years of railroading, Texans were more concerned about getting railroads built than in regulating any abuses. The railroad charters fixed maximum rates for freight and fares for passengers. These charters often gave specifications for the cars, rails, and other equipment that the railroad was to use. They also sometimes spelled out safety measures, such as requiring trains to be equipped with rear brakes and bells or whistles to sound at crossings. The Texas Legislature passed its first railroad law in 1853, which codified many of these early charter provisions. Other measures passed before the Civil War included requirements for cattle guards and for the construction of depots.

Side TripTo view the 1853 act to regulate railroads, visit this link at Gammel's Laws of Texas and go to page 55 in the document.

Inspection report for the Houston & Great Northern, 1871

Annual report for the Galveston, Houston, and Henderson, 1880

In 1857 and 1860, in a sign of controversies to come, the Legislature attempted to combat fraud and speculation in the industry by requiring railroad companies to keep their books open for inspection. They also passed a stock watering law, the first of its kind in the United States.

The Civil War and Texas Railroads

Civil War era map of Texas

The Civil War was ruinous for the railroads in Texas and other Southern states. By the end of the war in 1865, all but two Texas railroads had collapsed, been destroyed, fell to ruin, or had the tracks taken to be used elsewhere. The two that survived, the Houston & Texas Central and the Galveston, Houston, & Henderson, were unsafe and unreliable. Moreover, both freight and passenger traffic had dried up. The railroads had no income, no management, and no ability to pay any employees, let alone invest in repair or new construction.

Texas Railroads After the Civil War

After a decade of economic hardship in Texas, investment and new railroad construction resumed in the mid-1870s. To entice construction, the state of Texas gave out millions of acres in land grants to the railroads. The land grants consisted of 16 sections of 640 acres each on every mile of completed road. In addition, a 200-foot right-of-way was granted on either side of the track. These land grants remained Texas policy until 1882, when the public domain was exhausted.

Texas New Yorker's Railroad Map

The story of a few lines gives a picture of the accelerating rate of construction. The Houston & Texas Central Railway branched out from the coast to Corsicana, Dallas, and Red River City. The Texas & Pacific Railway began work on a transcontinental line from Marshall to San Diego, California. The Missouri, Kansas, & Texas Railroad Company became the first to enter Texas from the north, offering service to and from Dallas, Fort Worth, Waco, San Antonio, Houston, Galveston, and Wichita Falls. The Houston & Great Northern Railroad constructed lines from Houston to East Texas towns like New Waverly, Crockett, Palestine, and Mineola.

Texas & Pacific robbery, 1878

The growth of the railroads had a major impact on the lives of ordinary Texans. By 1879, the cotton business, already fueled by the removal of the Indians, the slaughter of the buffalo, and the introduction of barbed wire, had doubled from its pre-Civil War levels.

The rise of cotton was the beginning of the end of the old subsistence way of life. From now on, agriculture would become more and more commercialized. It now paid to specialize in one crop. Once poor but independent, the farmer now found he had new opportunities but a more complicated life. He now depended on the market, on credit from banks, and on the cheap and reliable transportation of the railroad—and they in turn depended on the farmer.

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Page last modified: April 3, 2024