The Fight for the Commission
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The Farmers vs. the Railroads
Map of the Missouri, Kansas, & Texas Railway (nicknamed the "Katy") circa 1875
Although the Grange died as a force in Texas politics, the rage of the public towards the railroads only grew. Over the course of the 1880s, railroads became the primary political issue in the state.
Texas was undergoing a process of transformation. In 1870, half of the state was wilderness, with only 5 percent of the population living in cities or towns. Over the next thirty years, the urban population tripled, and cotton and cattle created wealth for many and empire for a few. In large part, this growth was made possible by the railroads, which in turn fueled their expansion. In 1881, Texas had about 3000 miles of railroad. By 1900, the figure would stand at 10,000. Even with the rapid rate of construction, demand for shipping sometimes exceeded available rolling stock. Agriculture and ranching were irretrievably bound together with the transportation that took crops and animals to market.
As the railroads grew, rates fell. In 1879, the legislature set a rate of 50 cents per 100 pounds per hundred miles, about half the rate charged in the old ox-cart days. By the end of the century, that rate had fallen to a penny per ton mile, a decline of 95 percent from the ox carts.
Farmer riding a mechanized disk cultivator
Why, in a time of economic growth and falling rates, did the public demand that the railroad industry be regulated? The answer lies in the circumstances of the farmer. American farming was more productive than ever before, but the increase in productivity meant that farm prices had fallen steeply. For example, farmers made less money planting 24 million acres of cotton in 1894 than they had in 1873 when they planted 9 million acres. At the same time, to be efficient enough to make money at the lower prices, farmers had to mechanize their operations and purchase enough land to grow cash crops on a large scale. Those who succeeded in doing so found themselves heavily in debt; those who did not struggled to survive or lost their land altogether. In the South, more than one-third of all farms were operated by tenant farmers.
Caught up in circumstances that they could not understand or control, farmers blamed the railroads, along with other powerful forces such as banks and politicians. The corporate behavior of the railroads fueled the outrage among farmers and ranchers in Texas and elsewhere. Railroads were accused of various shady business practices such as discriminating among customers, granting rebates and drawbacks to some customers but not to others, and cutting out competition by pooling and monopoly. Ranchers had special concerns about careless handling of their animals and the slow movement of freight trains, which generally clocked in at only 12 miles per hour or less. Believing that the railroads had become so powerful that the individual could do nothing to make the companies change their behavior, Texans finally turned to government for help.
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