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Texarkana’s Amazing Railroads

             While hardy settlers had come to the Bowie County region of northeast Texas long before the railroads came, the establishment of Texarkana, Arkansas and Texas, was more the result of national railroad expansion than it was the actions of these earliest settlers.  Railroad officials determined that the best route to access the greater United States Southwest was a direct route through Memphis, Little Rock, and Texarkana to the larger cities of the Texas interior.

            Railroad construction, in the form of the El Paso and Pacific Railroad, actually reached the Texarkana area in 1857, but was not completed until 1872, after the Civil War had ended and the El Paso and Pacific Railroad had become a part of the sprawling Texas and Pacific Railroad System.  This was but one of the numerous railroad companies building an important rail network across the vast United States between 1850 and 1880.  The establishment of Texarkana as a railroad town, was a story repeated across the nation in other towns by the hundreds, if not thousands.  The actual process of creating a town had become routine to railroad authorities.  They knew that some of their creations would fail, lacking some important ingredient for success; while others would rise to metropolitan status like Dallas and Houston, because all the right factors came together in an unpredictable synergy.  Once in a great while, geography, culture, and whimsy would produce uniqueness written large, as in the case of Texarkana.  Neither large nor small, this city was loud, boisterous, and fun, with a bit of a split personality. 

            Selection of the site for Texarkana was explained in the Gate City News of January 2, 1875.

            Texarkana, the Gate City of Texas !

            Situated at the junction of the Cairo and Fulton Railroad and the Texas and

            Pacific Railway, on the northeastern boundary of Texas, at the Southwest

            corner of Arkansas, and near the northwest corner of Louisiana, on the Great

            Trunk Line into Texas, direct from St. Louis, Memphis and Little Rock.  This

            being the shortest route from the North and East into Texas, Texarkana is the

            natural inlet for trade and commerce, and offers inducements that are

            unsurpassed for business houses of all branches of trade.  Located here, with

            facilities for shipment to all points of Texas and Louisiana, merchants will

            control the trade of a very large section of country.

The townsite was described as being high and healthy, with good, natural drainage and an abundance of cheap building materials available from the dense East Texas pine forests.  Plentiful soft water was available from wells dug fifteen to twenty feet into the ground, the soil of which was fertile and easily worked.

            In the fall of 1873 news leaked out that a town would be constructed where the Texas & Pacific and the Cairo & Fulton railroads met on the state line between Texas and Arkansas.  In early December, enterprising men from all over the region rode onto the site and camped out, in order to be there on December 8th when the sale of town lots began.  It was important to get there early and claim the choicest lots, if these men would make a profit from their speculative land purchases.  Gus Knobel, surveying engineer, and Major H.L. Montrose, special agent of the Texas & Pacific Railroad Company opened the sale that day by announcing lot prices: $350 for corner lots and $300 for inside lots on Front and Broad streets, between the state line and Oak Street.  The first men to purchase lots were J.W. Davis, who bought the lot where Hotel McCartney was later built; and Walter Harris, who bought the lot directly west of Davis’s lot.  A later newspaper article identified Harris’s lot as being one of those further up on Pine Street, where the current Gazette Building now stands.  Antonio L. Ghio rode a horse from his home in Jefferson, Texas, to purchase several prominent city lots, both commercial and residential.  One of these lots was located at the corner of W. Broad Street and State Street (later renamed Main Street), where Ghio built his famous Opera House.

            Col. Rollin W. Rodgers was one of the men present at the land sale and he recognized the trouble an “imaginary” line dividing the two cities, counties, and states would cause in the future.  Thus, he traveled to Marshall, Texas, to consult with Gen. G.M. Dodge of the Texas & Pacific Railroad.  Dodge granted Rodgers a fifty-foot-wide strip of land running on the Texas side of the state line from the railroad up to where the post office was later built in the center of State Line Avenue.  Rodgers then traveled to Little Rock where he got a similar grant from Col. Joseph A. Longborough, of the St. Louis, Iron Mountain and Southern Railroad Company for a fifty-foot-wide strip on the Arkansas side of the state line.  With his foresight, Col. Rodgers gave Texarkana its State Line Avenue, a one-hundred-foot wide road from the railroad tracks up to Ninth Street, which later became U.S. Highway 71.

            In its early years, all aspects of life in Texarkana revolved around the railroads.  The city’s geographic footprint mirrored the bend of the railroad tracks through town.  The state line runs north-south while the residential and business streets run in a more northwesterly-southeasterly direction.  Streets were designated “East” or “West” determined by which side of the state line they were on.  Numbered streets did not match up along the state line with West 24th Street being some four blocks north of East 24th Street at the state line.  Street numbering of lots was also unique.  “Even” addresses were located on the south side of Broad Street on the Arkansas side of town, but were on the north side of the same street on the Texas side of town.  Texarkana had numerous triangle-shaped buildings and blocks, along with “short” and “long” streets such as 21st Street on the Arkansas side of town.  These anomalies were the result of the discrepancy between the direction of the state line and the direction of the city streets.

            Texarkana’s early newspapers document the city’s attraction for railroad companies.  The earliest named were the Cairo & Fulton Railroad on the Arkansas side of town and the Texas & Pacific Railroad that brought people and goods into Texarkana from the west.  In the earliest days, railroads could not cross state lines due to the gauge of the roadbed, or to state laws that required goods to be transferred to a “local” train.  The International and Great Northern Railroad, Texas and St. Louis Railroad, the Transcontinental Railroad, Texarkana and Northern Railroad, Texarkana and Daingerfield Railroad, and St. Louis, Iron Mountain and Southern Railroads were also early rail companies with connections in Texarkana.  In time, smaller railroad companies merged with huge companies such as Jay Gould’s Texas & Pacific Railroad Company, and Col. Samuel Wesley Fordyce’s Texas & St. Louis Railroad Company.  However, Texarkana’s early citizens were not content with the nine railroad companies that were already here – they also wanted connections with the Memphis and Little Rock Railroad and the Houston and Texas Central Railroad.

            Some interesting statistics from the early newspapers document the scope and importance of these railroads to the development of the Texarkana region.  The Daily Texarkana Independent of July 17, 1885, noted that in Bowie County alone, the valuation of railroad and telegraph property was $587,600.00, in a time period when a five-room house could be purchased for $850.00.  On October 30, 1885, the Independent wrote that the Missouri-Pacific and Texas and Pacific railroads had paid $1,983.00 in passenger taxes to the state of Texas, so far that year.  On November 23, 1885, Editor E.A. Warren of the Independent wrote that a total of 34 trains left the city of Texarkana every day.  The next day he wrote that more than 600 carloads of freight had been sent out of Texarkana in one week’s time.  And, probably the most staggering statistic of all, on December 16, 1885, the Independent noted that seventy trains arrived and departed from Texarkana every day!  Even if a certain degree of bragging was included in these statistics, it is clear to see that Texarkana was an important railroad crossroads during the last quarter of the nineteenth century.

            The location of Texarkana’s railroad depot was an on-going problem throughout the city’s history.  In the early days, Texas trains and Arkansas trains had to stop at the state line.  Thus, Texarkana started out with a Texas side depot and an Arkansas side depot.  The earliest locations for these two depots were noted in the Gate City News of January 2, 1875, one year after the city was founded.  The Lyon Hotel, at the corner of Front Street and State Street (Main Street), on the Texas side of town, was the “official eating house of the Texas & Pacific Railroad, located across the street from the passenger depot.”  The Marquand House Hotel, located some 2,000 feet east of the 1930 Union Depot on Front Street, was the official depot and eating house for the Cairo & Fulton, which later merged with the St. Louis, Iron Mountain, and Southern Railroad. (St. L. I. M. & S.)

            In 1886, after a lengthy dispute with Col. Joseph Huckins, manager of the Marquand House Hotel, the St. Louis, Iron Mountain, and Southern Railroad abandoned the Marquand House and made plans to construct a new depot and official railroad eating house.  Not too long after that the Marquand House burned, making the railroad’s plans easier to accomplish.

            In the late 1880s, as the St. L.I.M. & S. began plans for their new depot on the Arkansas side of town, Texas side residents became concerned that the “new” depot would cause the abandonment of the T. & P. depot on their side of town.  Eventually, railroad authorities decided to build Texarkana’s first Union Station at the foot of State Line Avenue, where the franchise rights of both the T. & P. and the St. L. I. M. & S. railroads ended.  This building, sometimes called the “red depot,” was completed in 1890.

            The old state line issues came up again in 1905 when the Cotton Belt Railroad, successor to the St. L. I. M. & S., decided to rebuild a frame structure on the Arkansas side of the line to use as their own depot.  An agreement was finally reached whereby Cotton Belt would continue to use the larger Union Station.  Kansas City Southern Railroad, successor to the Texarkana and Fort Smith Railroad, built its depot at the foot of Oak Street, near the Texas Viaduct.  However, by 1910, K.C.S. had also been convinced to use Union Station.  Thus, Union Station became the “heart” of Texarkana, a geographical point from which all other sites and events were measured.

            During World War I, downtown life pulsed as passenger, freight and troop trains spilled into the depot at all hours of the day and night.  Soldiers and their supplies stressed transportation facilities to their limits, while local residents responded with a Red Cross Canteen to provide soldiers with foot, drink, and encouragement as they traveled to their posts around the country and overseas.  Downtown streets were jammed with horses, wagons, and a few automobiles, and cash registers in downtown stores merrily rang with the sounds of a booming economy.

            In 1929, railroad traffic was immense and talks began of building a massive new Union Depot in Texarkana.  Public sentiment had galvanized by that time and citizens of both sides of town demanded that this new depot be placed right on the state line.  They wanted a unique depot to match their unique town, with architecture that paid homage to both the state line and the city.  “A tile path tracing the exact course of the state line through the entire building,” was suggested.  Legal requirements, contested jurisdictions, and plain old bull-headedness slowed progress on the depot until, finally, a gala opening was held for the new depot on May 12, 1930.  The Renaissance style building was the creation of A.B. Butterworth and E.M. Tucker, and was replete with brass and glass chandeliers, terrazzo tile floors, and highly polished passenger benches that seemed to stretch out across the vast interior spaces of the depot.  Efficient offices for railroad officials, ticket sales, and railway express package services were included.  However, upon completion of the depot, Texarkana residents were disappointed to find that no tile pathway marked the location of the state line through the building; they were, however, intrigued by the expansion joint running diagonally through the building which allowed the structure to grow up to eight inches in warm weather.

            Life in Texarkana centered around the railroads from 1875 to the late 1950s.  The population of Texarkana grew from 2,500 in 1880, to 10,918 in 1887.  By 1900, the twin cities had a population of 18,054 and by 1950 had reached 52,000.  Most of this early growth was directly attributable to the railroad and lumber industries.  As part of their railroad and town building of the late 1800s, the major railroad trunk lines sponsored “immigrant trains” and “booster trains” that criss-crossed newly settled areas bringing prospective settlers into town for their first look at the area.  The Gate City News of January 2, 1875, told riders on the immigrant trains that “Texarkana is today the liveliest city in Texas, and is growing with astonishing rapidity.  Now is the time to buy while prices are low and benefit by enhanced valuation.”  In 1880, local newspapers noted, “There is plenty of work for laborers on the railroad extensions now being made in Texas . . .Men’s wages are $1.50 per day; teams $2.74 to $3.00 per day; board per week $4.00.”

            The future arrival of immigrant and booster trains was telegraphed ahead to the towns on the tour, so that local residents could put out the welcome mat.  In November of 1884, the Daily Texarkana Independent announced, “Commencing yesterday, regular, semi-monthly excursions through Arkansas and Texas will be run on the Texas & St. Louis Railroad, so as to give land seekers an opportunity to see the country.”

            At times, Texarkana residents were swept up on the excursion trains to see other parts of the great American West.  In December of 1884, an advertisement in the local newspaper told residents that “The Missouri-Pacific Railway has made arrangements to run an excursion train of Palace Pullman cars to San Francisco and return.  The train will leave St. Louis on the 17th of the month and reaching this point, will make special rates from here to ’Frisco and return, the tickets to be good in returning anytime within six months.”  Quickly, it became normal for the newspapers to write of excursion trains that had come through town the previous day, or during the night.

            Texarkana had competition from all around for the excursionists who came its way.  In 1885, E.A. Warren, editor of the Daily Texarkana Independent, warned citizens, “Hope will give the five-hundred excursionists coming over the Iron Mountain road a grand reception.  They will be there May 29.  What will Texarkana do?  Remember that the excursion will consist principally of capitalists and manufacturers seeking places for investment and those are just the sort of people we need to make our city grow.”  However, excursion trains did not stop at every town along the rail line; they went to those communities that invited them to stop.  On the occasion of this train in late May of 1885, Texarkana citizens could not be roused to host the excursionists and so, the city lost an opportunity for growth and good community relations.  After its early growth spurt, it seemed that city leaders felt there was no longer a need to entice people to come to Texarkana to live - that they would come on their own, and many did.

            Because the Texarkana economy was intertwined with the health and well-being of the railroads, the community’s heart skipped a beat every time tragedy came.  Train wrecks and mishaps fed the local rumor mill because nearly every other home in town contained at least one person who worked for the railroads.  Safety standards on the rails were lax, at best, but all railroad hands knew their jobs were dangerous.  An article in the Gate City News of August 22, 1878, described Dan Kegan’s accident on the Iron Mountain Railroad.  Kegan, a brakeman for the railroad, fell through the trestle near Fulton, Arkansas, giving him a concussion and a broken leg.  What made the article more disturbing was that Kegan claimed that he had been pushed off the train while it was over the trestle.  The same day’s paper noted that the Texas & Pacific Train No. 1, was wrecked that day at the Hoxie Woodyards, derailing every coach car on the train.  The engine was the only car that remained on the track.  Amazingly, only the negro porter was hurt in that accident.

            Railroad officials on each line were well-known up and down their routes.  In January of 1885, Texarkana residents learned that Conductor Frazier of one of the local passenger trains had been shot and killed when he tried to evict some tramps from his train near Overton, Texas.  In August of 1884, an attempt was made to wreck the east-bound train between Texarkana and Malvern, Arkansas.  Obstructions were placed on the track, but were discovered in time.  Those responsible were never caught and local citizens were outraged.  In October of 1884, a Texas & Pacific freight train was wrecked by running over a horse that would not get off the track.  In this accident Fireman Kercheval was scalded to death and the engineer was slightly injured.  In November, a brakeman named “Shorty” McDonald had his hand badly mangled when he caught it between two cars in the rail yards of the Texas & St. Louis Railroad in Texarkana.  In November of 1885, the conductor on the Transcontinental train coming into Texarkana from New Boston was injured when he stopped the train to evict a passenger who could not produce a ticket.  Marshal George Edwards of Texarkana happened to be on the train and was instrumental in ending the dispute, taking the passenger into custody.  During the same month, Engineer Jo Poole of the narrow gauge railroad here was inured in a train wreck and died on November 11 of his injuries.  The newspaper noted, “He was one of the best men and most popular engineers on the road, and his death is much deplored.”

            At times, drinking at Texarkana’s wide-open saloons caused accidents on the railroads.  In December of 1884, Jim Pate was run over and mangled by the train as it entered the Iron Mountain roundhouse.  He had been a track cleaner for this road and had gotten drunk and laid down to sleep, apparently too close to the tracks.  On another occasion a man had spent the evening drinking in Texarkana’s barrooms and walked home via the railroad track.  At some point he passed out on the tracks and was beheaded by the train coming into town.  A coroner’s inquest was held and everyone agreed as to the cause of death.

            Texarkana became the main repair station for some of the railroads, and its citizens frequently saw the results of train wrecks first-hand.  In February of 1885, wrecked cars came in on the Transcontinental Road for repair here.  The newspaper noted that “Deputy U.S. Marshal Goslen of Texas, was en route to Detroit with a lot of prisoners, when the train was boarded by friends of some of the prisoners.  A gun battle ensued in which Goslen, his deputy, and one of the female passengers were killed.  The train cars were full of bullet holes, some were smashed, and there were many wounded passengers who were later treated by Texarkana’s physicians.”

            Railroad strikes caused economic hardship and hard feelings when they occurred in Texarkana. Rumors of the first such strike occurred in November of 1884 and were reported in the local newspaper.  Laborers were going to strike the Gulf, Colorado & Santa Fe Railroad because the railroad company had cut down their workforce and reduced the salaries of remaining workers from forty to sixty percent.  By February of 1885, newspapers commented on local conductors and engineers who had been laid off by Texas & Pacific and Texas & St Louis railroads.  In March of 1885, Texarkana citizens learned that all along the rail lines, strikers were preventing freight trains from moving.  The reason given was that these railroads had implemented large reductions to wages three times in five months, and that efforts to negotiate with the railroad owners had failed.  A local meeting of railroad men was held at Ghio’s Opera House on the evening of March 9th, to discuss the situations and what their response should be.

            In spite of the turmoil, things were relatively quiet in Texarkana on March 12, when the newspaper reported that all employees of the Gould System would be discharged if they took part in the strike.  Texas Governor Ireland sent a proclamation regarding the strike to be exhibited at the New Orleans Exposition – Editor Warren of the Daily Texarkana Independent said that Ireland’s Proclamation “would take the premium in the contest for the best production of Executive Jackassness.”  Thereafter, Warren encouraged local businessmen to ship their goods over the Texas & St. Louis (narrow gauge) railroad until the strike on the Texas & Pacific System was settled.  He also noted how quiet and expectant the city felt, waiting for the nationwide strike to hit home in Texarkana.  This railroad strike paralyzed Texarkana’s economy for two months, and at the end of it, the strikers had been fired, the local economy was in shambles, and there was great bitterness towards the railroad owners.

            In the ensuing years, other railroad strikes caused problems for Texarkana, but city fathers learned to cope and to diversify by enticing other businesses to locate in the city.  In 1915 Texas & Pacific Railroad officials visited Texarkana and toured the city as the guests of Texarkana’s Board of Trade.  The railroad men were surprised by the city’s charm and beauty.  N.M. Leach, General Traffic Manager for the Texas & Pacific said that his railroad had “always felt a sort of fatherly interest in your city.  We can’t do without Texarkana, we need the city, we need the people, and we need the business here.”  However, by this time Texarkana residents had become wary of railroad praise and knew that what the railroads giveth, the railroads could also quickly taketh away.

            In 1920 the use of trucks to haul freight had begun and had taken off in earnest.  Truck freight rates were competitive with the railroads’ freight rates and the highway system across the United States was being improved.  Automobile traffic grew, as well, from 1920 through the 1950s.  This was the first serious competition the railroads had faced since their nationwide rail system was completed.  Traffic at Union Station in Texarkana began to decline; shopping in our downtown also declined.  In the late 1950s, President Dwight Eisenhower inaugurated the Interstate Road System across the United States and the golden era of the railroads came to an end.  The last passenger train to pull out of Texarkana did so on May 1, 1971.  The “Texas Eagle” had Engineer G.R. Rothermel at the controls and was headed to St. Louis, Missouri.  Freight traffic continues at the Texarkana yards with the Kansas City Southern, Cotton Belt, Missouri Pacific, and Texas & Pacific railroads through 2011.

            In October of 1972, Amtrak passenger service was proposed and $4.1 million dollars was earmarked by Congress to develop this new form of train service for the United States.  President Richard Nixon impounded these funds, ending Amtrak dreams for a time.  In 2011, Texarkana has Amtrak service twice daily, though the rail service is a pale shadow of its former glory.  Today, Union Depot on Front Street sits empty and vacant.  No longer can the excitement of railroad’s golden era be seen and heard in Texarkana.