All Aboard for Virginia Point, Texas City Junction, LaMarque, Dickinson, Shell Siding, League City, Webster, Genoa, Dumont, Harrisburg and all points west on the Sunset Limited


Plank Road on Old Spanish Trail

There is a story about an old farmer who is asked for directions from point (a) to point (b). He starts out with an elaborate series of landmarks and pauses and says, “No”, he points in another direction – generally the opposite from which the traveler was going – goes into even greater detail, pauses and says, “No”, with the fervency of a preacher he begins anew describing not only landmarks but talking about the people who live near them, their relationship to his family, possibly a little insight into their moral flaws and then,  he pauses for the last time and says, “No”, again. Gazing wistfully into a middle distance that only he can see he finally says, “You cant get there from here.”

If you liven in the Texas of 1908, despite the fact that there were roads over two centuries old, more often than not that story may have been more truth than poetry. With over 268,000 square miles of territory and almost in spite  the fact that the Republic of Texas had approved a Central National Road almost as soon as independence was wrenched from Mexico most of the roads would have fallen into one of the following categories:

  • First class roads were forty foot wide cleared paths  with stumps less than eight inches in diameter sawed off at the ground and large stumps rounded off so that wagon wheels could easily roll over them.
  • Second class roads were thirty feet wide.
  • Third class roads twenty-two feet wide.
  • Other.

There was no TxDot and all able-bodied men aged eighteen to forty-five were required to volunteer several days a year for roadwork. As we became more “civilized” volunteers were replaced by the chain gang and many found themselves learning civil engineering the hard way as a punishment for crimes or misdemeanors. The automobile would change the character of the roads but no where near as rapidly as you might think. By 1903 there were “good roads” associations and a call for a bureau of highways which eventually led to the creation of TxDor in 1917 after it was found that we already had nearly 195,000 automobiles registered. As late as  1927,  by which time the highway system covered 17,960 miles, their composition was 96 miles concrete, 1,060 miles asphalt, 5,000 miles gravel, shell or stone, and 10,000 miles clay or dirt.

General Sidney Sherman

Facts like these might convince the timid to stay home. Texans have never been timid. If they couldn’t get there on a horse, in a wagon or by boat there was always the train and this will be an episode in the life of Galveston’s trains.

Any discussion of railroads and Galveston must begin with General Sydney Sherman. His pedigree goes all the way back to leading his regiment at the Battle of San Jacinto where they are credited as being the first to yell, “Remember the Alamo!, Remember Goliad!” during that glorious rout of Santa Anna and his Mexican troops. After serving with distinction in the early Republic of Texas governments he went on to help found the Buffalo Bayou, Brazos, and Colorado Railway which was chartered in 1850 and was the first railroad to operate in Texas and was honored by being the namesake of the engine the General Sherman, the first railroad locomotive in Texas. He is also credited with being the originator of the name “Sunset Limited” which has gone from being the name of a short intrastate route to one of the fabled names in American railroad lore and is still used for an Amtrak train that goes coast to coast. The largest bridge crossing the Houston Ship Channel is named in his honor although it is an irony that it handles no rail traffic.

There were several railroads operating between Galveston and Houston including the Galveston, LaPorte & Houston, the Galveston, Houston & Northern and the Galveston& Houston Junction which was owned by John Sealy and J. H. Hutchins. Our story will start with the Galveston, Houston & Henderson which was for a time owned by the notorious carpetbagger and robber baron Jay Gould. Fortunately we will be looking at a happier time – the first decade of the 20th century when they operated the Seawall Special, an excursion train, that left Houston at 1:30 on Sunday afternoons, got you to Galveston by 2:50 and returned you between 10:20 and 11:40 PM on the Katy Flyer all for the princely sum of $1.00 ROUND TRIP.

The Galveston, Houston & Henderson was no mere excursion car operated but a full service railroad deriving over 80% of its revenue from freight operations. In addition to the weekly Seawall Special it operated daily train departures as follows:

Northbound for Virginia Point

  • No. 10 Galveston News Special
  • No. 8 Local Express connects at Houston with Southern Pacific for San Antonio and intermediate points and for all points north on H & T C
  • No. 4 Texas & Great Northern Through Train
  • No. 2 The Galveston, Houston and Henderson local [making the stops outlined in the title connecting at Houston with T & N O for New Orleans and points east

Galveston had a 19th century Union Station four-stories high and built of  red brick that was the pride of Galveston when it opened in 1887. It had seven tracks for passenger trains with rails extending three blocks out to 28th Street where they converged into two main-line tracks, joining other railroads leading to the trestle bridge that connected to the mainland. Eventually through a combination of rennovation, addition, repairs from storm damage and the needs for expansion it would be replaced by the current structure, a 1932 art-deco project, faced with terra cotta and a tall central tower added to join and match the original office buildings that housed Santa Fe Railway operations. Passenger service ended in April of 1967 and the author was on the last regularily scheduled passenger train to arrive in Galveston. The building is now the used for the Galveston Railroad Museum which is attempting to rebuild a wonderful collection in the wake of  hurricane Ike with the upper floors used as office space.

But we are getting a little bit ahead of ourselves because this is where the narrative starts.

The Post Cards and notes from the Album of Margaret Edythe Young start with the picture of the plank road along the Old Spanish Trail at the head of this post. Oddly enough this Old Spanish Trail did not conform to any old trading routes laid out by the Spaniards. It was the brain child of a group from Mobile who wanted a southern transcontinental highway to match the Lincoln Highway [US 80] in the north. It ran from San Augustine, Florida to San Diego, California with the Texas portion passing through Orange, Beaumont, Houston, San Antonio and El Paso. Difficult though it may be to believe this picture was actually meant to advertise the advantages of the road. The old dirt roadbed had been leveled and planks – like railroad ties only bigger – had been laid giving a constant surface that was supposed to be more impervious to weather. The closest comparison I can think of is an oilfield road and if you have never ridden on one of those let me promise you it will rearrange your dentistry and leave you in need of a chiropractor.

The North bound for Virginia Point Post Card is addressed to her at The Convent of Mercy in Chicago and there is a message on the back that reads as follows:

My Dear Edythe, got your letter. Will write as soon as I can. Had an operation performed on my foot yesterday and I have been feeling very bad. Was under chloroform for two hours. Don’t know how long I will have to stay in bed. With a heartful of love, Helen – Sure miss you.

This was the age of correspondence, before email, even before affordable long distance – the cost of long distance phone call was based on the cost of a train ticket so they were made only for emergency or business purposes – even when I was a boy you did not get a long distance phone call during the day, they waited for night rates, and you could be pretty sure it was to notify you of a serious illness (come very quickly!) or a death (come in time for the funeral!).

While Houston may have been, and often was, your destination when you left Galveston on the train it may have also been merely a place to change trains – there wasn’t much to recommend the town then and there is even less today. A very popular destination was San Antonio de Bexar. In order to get there you might have changed trains from the Galveston, Houston & Henderson and boarded the Galveston, Harrisburg and San Antonio Railroad. On a train that had arrived from New Orleans and would make its way to San Francisco at about 11:15 in the morning you would here the station master call out:

All aboard for Stella, Stafford, Walker, Richmond, Rosenberg, Randon, East Bernard, New Philadelphia, Eagle Lake, Ramsey, Alleyton, Columbus, Glidden, Borden, Weimer, Schulenburg, Engle, Flatonia, Pierson, Waelder, Sandy Fork, Harwood, Luling, Kingsbury, Seguin, Marion, Converse, San Antonio and points West

Having left Houston in time to get your lunch on board you would arrive just after having had your breakfast at 9:00 the following morning.

Bexar County Courthouse

San Antonio was then, as it is today, an oasis in a desert of boosterism and self promotion that are the new capitols of new capital – an affliction that has been with us since Stephen F. Austin was called the Empressario of Texas. When you enter Alamo into google you get 46,800,000 choices and as much as I love that old mission that has become the Shrine of everything great about Texas I am not going to put a picture of it in this post.

Instead we have a Post Card showing the Bexar County Courthouse and in ink that has almost faded, in a copperplate that could only be her father’s we have the message, “Will be in El Paso tomorrow.” In fact it would be late in the evening before they arrived and crossing nearly 1,000 miles of Texas in a steel cocoon that would have only had chilled air – basically a fan blowing across ice – in the first class compartment it is something of a question of why anyone would say it was better to travel than to arrive.

This huge old pile of a building was designed by James Riely Gordon and completed in 1892 making it the oldest courthouse in continuous use in the state. It is constructed of native Texan granite and red sandstone, roofed in distinctive green and red tiles. Of special interest is the fact that it was the fifth seat of government in Bexar County, the first four having been ruled by a succession of governments and political entities including Spain, Mexico, The Republic of Texas, The Confederate States of America, and the United States – the only of the Six Flags not represented is France. Each of the four predecessor buildings were located within two blocks of the existing historic courthouse, in the heart of downtown San Antonio.

On this trip our traveler is going to stop in San Antonio. Because of the exodus caused by the 1900 Storm it has become the biggest city in Texas. It is certainly one of the oldest. In a Post Card dated February 22, 1909 that shows one of the mission San Juan de Capistran, the poorest of the five missions that made up Bexar, and asks, “How are you today? Feeling better, I hope. I am one my way to Quero. Will be there until the 27th.” As a caveat to not believe every press release from a chamber of commerce or every picture that you see the bell tower in this picture has been shifted to put it at the end of the nave rather than on the side of the nave. A small detail but it reminds me of my grandmother’s advice to, “Believe none of what you read and only half of what you see.”

The missions are the heart and soul of San Antonio. There are five in all Mission Nuestra Señora de la Purísima Concepción de Acuña[Mission Conception], Mission San José y San Miguel de Aguayo[Mission San José], Mission San Francisco de la Espada , [Mission San Espada], La Misión de San Juan Capistrano [Mission San Juan Capistrano] and  Mission San Antonio de Valero [the Alamo]. And although Spain has not been in charge for nearly two centuries San Antonio remains a Spanish city with the evidence of their architecture, their faith and the attitude best described by the leading citizen of La Mancha when he said, “Liberty, Sancho my friend, is one of the most precious gifts that Heaven has bestowed on mankind. The bow cannot always stand bent, nor can human frailty subsist without some lawful recreation.”

San Pedro Springs

While San Antonio is rich in history it is also rich in the civilized virtues. Second only to the Boston Common in age and far superior in every other aspect is San Pedro Park. San Pedro Park was created in 1729 when King Philip V of Spain declared the land surrounding the Springs to be an ejido, or public land and it served as the first settlement site [non mission] of San Antonio. Over the centuries it has served as a site for early rodeos involving the Texians, the caballeros and the Comanches, as a garrison post for troops in transit and even as a prison during the War of Northern Agression. In 1864 Jacob J. Duerler began the transformation of the springs into the preeminent park of San Antonio. It would eventually include a baseball diamond with bleachers where the 1903 San Antonio Mustangs won the South Texas League crown and – as there must be in San Antonio – someplace to cool off with the springs and lake first converted to use as swimming pools and later with permanent pools built. The Post Card to the left was from a friend in 1908 who had enjoyed the “girls” pool. The park is still there today During the off-season the park features a beautiful lake. During the summer months the lake is enclosed and serves as a swimming pool. The park is also home to San Pedro Playhouse, the San Pedro branch library, McFarlin Tennis Center and Koger Stokes Softball Complex.

 

The old joke is that a vacation was 2 weeks that left you 2 tired and 2 broke 2 do anything other than go back 2 work. These travelers were not quite on a vacation but they

South Bound from Virginia Point

did eventually return home to Galveston – almost every message includes a statement about when they’ll be back – even from San Antonio. Just as they got there by train they got home by train and although some of the fast freights were clocked at 70 mph over short stretches most of the passenger trains rolled along at about 35 mph – it took 22 hours to cover 200 miles from Houston to San Antonio – with frequent stops. As an indication of Galveston’s importance there was a “express” passenger train for business men that could get them to New York in 55 hours but that was very much the exception for rail travel. The October 1907 Post Card from her sister, Florence, of the southbound train crossing the trestle bridge says, “Doesn’t this look like home. We have had miserable weather the last few days. John is still in the country. Papa says Maud is perfectly contented up there.” Just a little gossipy note between sisters with one headed home and the other stuck in Chicago.

This post started out to be about trains and San Antonio and travel and parks but the message on this last post card between two sisters over one hundred years ago has brought it back with an immediacy to the artist and her family. They were a large, close, happy group of people and their love of life and each other was evident in their smallest messages and largest actions. I was in Galveston yesterday taking some pictures for the blog – General Sidney Sherman near the top of this entry many not be a prize winner but several of them have been added to previous entries that show a little more hope – and the place still brings back memories of the people and places that I grew up with and that both inspire and guide this blog. I am going to close this entry by including a copy of a charcoal by Margaret Edythe Young of her sister Florence Young Richardson.

Florence Young Richardson

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