Blog Single
Texas & Pacific Railway Map

The Texas and Pacific Railway, Before Arlington

The railroad came first, building its track from just west of Dallas through farms on the prairie and the post oak forest of the Cross Timbers into Fort Worth in the summer of 1876. What took it so long?

Texas had been a destination and source of new land as a Mexican province, an independent republic, and as a state after 1846. During the US-Mexican War, U.S. military units had occupied the lower Rio Grande Valley, occupied El Paso, and from near there had marched to California, finding no mountain barrier serious enough to hinder the building of a railroad. Soon after that some '49ers passed this way rushing across Texas and the desert territories to the West Coast.

Thomas J. Rusk, while a U.S. senator from Texas, took an interest in promoting what was called the Southern Pacific route to California. To counter criticism that much of West Texas was poorly explored, he formed a party to travel a portion of the route and prove that it had favorable terrain. Organizing a group near Nacogdoches, his home, they left on August 29, 1853, and came directly to Johnson Station, where Middleton Tate Johnson joined them for the western tour. They traveled west along the Clear Fork of the Trinity River via Fort Belknap, past Fort Phantom Hill and on to Oak Creek in the Colorado River drainage southwest of present Abilene. Turning south, they went to Fort Croghan (near Burnet), another of the western line of forts built to counter Indian incursions to the settled parts of Texas. From there the Rusk party went on to Austin and gave a report to a large gathering there to gain the most publicity that they could get, while Johnson returned home. While this excursion did not go all the way to El Paso, some US Army engineers did so at about the same time, giving less glowing but favorable reports. The result was that what was called the 32nd Parallel Railroad, which would pass through North Texas to El Paso and on to San Diego. This route became the front runner in the race for a transcontinental railroad.

But sectional politics, then civil war, and financial mismanagement delayed western railroad development for years. The U.S. Congress required other routes to be explored by the army engineers, who found three practical northern routes, creating a deadlock from which no one route could be chosen. During the Civil War, the Confederacy was barely able to maintain its meager rail transportation system, while the Union had the resources to begin construction of the Union Pacific-Central Pacific Route which completed the first transcontinental railroad when the construction crews met at Promontory Summit, Utah, on May 10, 1869.

However, before then, with the encouragement of the state government, some private companies were chartered to lay rails in Texas. They were generally undercapitalized and failed to lay enough track to collect the payment in land which was granted to fund their building. The first of these plans offered 16 sections of land per mile of operating track, and reserved a strip of land extending eight miles either side of the right of way from which the company could select alternating sections of land. This, when finished, would produce a checkerboard of surveyed land tracts from which the so-called black sections could be sold by the railroad and the white sections by the State of Texas. Both would benefit by the settlement that followed the railroad.

One of these chartered companies, briefly called the Southern Pacific Railroad Company, began laying track from Marshall, Texas north to Swanson's Landing on Caddo Lake in 1857, which provided access to water transportation, connecting with the Red River and down it to the Mississippi River. This marginal operation primarily carried cotton bales for export and brought back manufactured goods for sale in the settlements. It had only built track westward from Marshall to Longview by the time of the Civil War, but this led to Marshall becoming an important hub for Confederate military operations during that war. After the war ended and the hard times of the post-war reconstruction period passed, in May of 1872, several different railroad interests which owned rights in East Texas, whether or not they were operating railroads, combined to form the Texas and Pacific Railway Company. It had a federal charter, though it would continue to get its compensation in land from the State of Texas. By October, 1873, the T & P had completed its line and was operating through Dallas and eight miles further west, to Eagle Ford on the West Fork of the Trinity River just below the Chalk Hill bluffs. That small community boomed for a time at the end of track, but the financial panic of 1873 stopped further building due to lack of funds nationally.

Out of patience, the Texas Legislature declared that if the T & P failed to complete the line to Fort Worth by the time that it adjourned its 1876 session, the railroad's land grants would be forfeited. That started a race to grade roadbed, build trestles over Johnson Creek, Village Creek, and Sycamore Creek, and lay crossties and track. Arlington farmers turned entrepreneurs, turning out with shovels, cutting timbers and hauling them to the railway, and hiring out to lay track. State representatives from the area did their part to delay adjournment of the legislature just long enough to allow the first train from Dallas to pass through what would become Arlington about 9 o'clock in the morning on July 19, 1876, carefully chugging up the unstable track to Fort Worth.

Lest you think that the story is over, consider the further difficulties of the T & P. Its federal charter anticipated construction all the way to San Diego, California. It had crossed the populous area of Texas and faced a long passage through a drier region with few people and little industry, mostly ranching. Railroads had learned that they could not make a profit on shipping from one of its terminals to the other end. They had to do business all along the way. So recruiting settlers to buy and occupy the land it had to offer became an essential part of railroading. The maps that the railroad used to promote settlement showed the wide strip of land on which its grants lay, which in this case were even wider in West Texas in order to include land with water available. The surveyed 1874 route marked the center line, which became for a time a trail followed by travelers through the region, the other option being the Butterfield Stagecoach Trail. The Center Line Trail was not a road, but just the shortest route across a great space. You wouldn't get lost and there were few natural barriers to horse-powered transportation.

The railroad ended in Fort Worth from 1876 until citizens of Weatherford, anxious for rail transportation, got involved in building the line to there. The first train reached Weatherford on May 27, 1880 after a four-and-a-half-hour trip from Dallas. They had anticipated the extra business that would come to them at the end of the line, but the situation had changed. Capitalist Jay Gould had gotten control of the T & P and was in a race with the 'real' Southern Pacific owned by California interests, which were building eastward from San Diego. Whichever line built the first track through a region would get the land reward there. Thus the race to meet was a reenactment of the earlier competition to build the Union Pacific. When the Southern Pacific passed El Paso, it began taking away a potential reward that the T & P had anticipated should be its own. The two lines met at Sierra Blanca, 92 miles east of El Paso, on December 1, 1881.

This completed the third transcontinental railroad, which passed through the town of Arlington and offered some choices of route to the east of Dallas, the major one being connection to New Orleans. However, the Southern Pacific continued building its line eastward from Sierra Blanca via San Antonio, Houston, and on to New Orleans, a shorter route to that city. The Texas and Pacific added other lines to its system, but its long passage across Texas to El Paso, where it later operated diesel powered streamlined passenger service, was its strength. Your writer had the pleasure of travelling via this service from Fort Worth to El Paso in 1957, at government expense, to engage in nine weeks of basic training at Fort Bliss.

The T & P merged with the Missouri Pacific in 1976, and their system was in turn swallowed by the Union Pacific, which now serves Arlington as well as the whole western half of the United States.

The T & P was an important part of Arlington life, for example by delivery of a package by Railway Express, to drop off a car loaded with lumber to the side track along Front Street or to collect a carload of cotton bales grown and ginned here. It was also the parent of the town of Arlington in 1878, but that is another story.

Sources: (1) The Franco-Texan Land Company, Virginia H. Taylor, The University of Texas Press, 1969, (2) Microfilm newspapers, The Clarksville Standard and Texas State Gazette, for 1853, available through the Amon Carter Museum Library, (3) Perry-Castaneda Library Map Collection of the The University of Texas at Austin, and (4) Handbook of Texas Online, the Texas State Historical Association.