Trains of East Texas


Railroads, in their heydays, changed the way people lived in East Texas, and continue to play an important role in creating better lives. Never as flashy as the oil boom, railroads nevertheless were both pervasive and vital to East Texas’ legacy. It is said that towns were “born, nurtured, or killed at the whim of railroad planners.”

A few river towns developed as commercial centers before the railroads came along; many more developed directly along rail lines – around railroad sidings every five miles or so. In northern Van Zandt County, for example, there were Silver Lake, Grand Saline, Fruitvale, Edgewood, Wills Point, and, further west along the same line, Cobb, Elmo, Terrell, Lawrence, Forney, etc. Some are memories; some survive and even thrive today.

Almost a hundred years ago, cars and flat-bed trucks reduced day-long wagon trips to 15-minute diversions, and eventually airports turned the nation, and the world, into “smaller” places.

But before that and in between, from about 1870 to after World War II, the railroads created steel ribbons of rivers that moved people and goods into, through, and out of the area. From 1900 to 1932, the number of railroad miles in the state doubled to more than 17,000 miles. While rail diminished in the 1960s and 1970s, local historian and author Elvis Allen notes that railroads have become indispensable again in moving freight around the nation.

“The railroads have had different eras of importance,” Elvis said. “The first period was moving passengers because there were no interstate roadway systems. Then during World Wars I and II they were important for troop deployment and the rapid transport of munitions and machinery to be shipped to the warfront.

“Planes kinda knocked the railroads out, but rail is important again because without them – without their ability to move materials quickly and inexpensively – we couldn’t live in this instant gratification age,” he said.

Elvis, whose third, new book, Building a County, is a history from county commissioners’ perspective of the development of Van Zandt County, said that in the late 1870s the Texas and Pacific Railroad connected the river port of Shreveport with the prairie town of Dallas, and places in between. As late as 1850, settled areas were mostly along the river bottoms and the Gulf Coast.

“The railroad became popular right away because of the settlement patterns coming up through here,” he said. “They increased immigration and allowed goods to be transported to market, which up until that time had been done mostly by ox wagons.”

Soldiers home from World War II began to build the interstate highway system during the Eisenhower presidency; the German autobahns he’d seen during the war had impressed Eisenhower.

While the fall of the passenger trains across East Texas gave way to most everybody using their own vehicles for transportation on the highways, many in this region continue to honor the era by preserving their train depots and use them today as offices, visitors centers, museums and others still stand unused but call back those days of old.

Several railroad towns also hold annual celebrations around their depots recreating the romance and excitement of passenger trains especially during the holiday season. 

There are numerous freight railways through East Texas, most of them belonging to Union Pacific running from Dallas to Shreveport, Texarkana to Corsicana and Marshall, Longview to Palestine, Lindale to Troup and a few other short lines. Kansas City Southern railroad runs from Dallas through Greenville, Sulphur Springs, Winnsboro, and on to Jefferson and beyond. There are a few smaller railroads as well.

In the mid 1970s a rail company called Amtrak brought back the passenger train through East Texas in the form of the Texas Eagle. It shares the Union Pacific tracks, going from Los Angeles to Chicago with stops along the way including Dallas and Shreveport. It now also stops in Northeast Texas in Mineola, Marshall, Longview and Nacogdoches. The Texas Eagle offers a complete train travel experience with coaches, sleepers, lounge and dining car. ( ) People can take the train from Mineola, for example, at 5:15 p.m. and arrive in Marshall at 7:31 p.m. any day of the week. Enjoy a night or two then leave Marshall at 8:15 a.m. arriving back in Mineola at 9:50 a.m. Cost is about $12 each way with discounts available for two or more, children, military, students, seniors, and veterans.

Schedule delays can be a problem on the Texas Eagle so it has not caught on for business travelers needing to commute from small towns to major metroplexes for income. However, there are rail advocates in this region, including the East Texas Corridor Council, that are trying to bring back reliable passenger trains to East Texas. They say people all over Europe continue to use trains as their primary transportation and Texas can too. It saves on the need for gas, reduces pollution and highway congestion (and road rage), provides an opportunity to make larger city wages while living in rural areas, and should a need for emergency evacuation ever be needed it could move the masses.

The council meets regularly with transportation officials to coordinate public provisions and plan for transportation systems that connect commuters with urban transportation systems. They are discussing “high speed rail service” along the Interstate 20 corridor from the Dallas/Fort Worth area to Shreveport.

Celia Boswell, chairman of the East Texas Corridor Council said, “It is inevitable that passenger rail has to return. We can never build enough highways. They are too crowded before we’re even finished with them.  We’re going to go back to better, more efficient transportation. We’re on the forefront of an old movement.”

Celia said the council is making progress and believes one day efficient high speed rail service will be available.

While trains in East Texas may not yet be convenient for business they are certainly here for pleasure. From leisurely trips on the Texas Eagle to renovated train depots, to small town festivities, the spirit of the passenger train is alive and well in this region.

Mineola has lit up much of downtown during December for the holidays.

“It’s kinda a winter wonderland scene,” said Mineola’s Main Street director Mercy Rushing.

Local residents worked for the better part of a month to decorate downtown with lights, flags, and banners and with sculptures along the depot’s fence.

The Mineola depot museum features cotton industry memorabilia, a restored caboose, and more.

In November, Mineola’s Iron Horse Festa featured a chili cook-off, pie contest, entertainment, vendor booths, food, family fun, classic cars, vintage tractors, horseshoe contests, 42 tournament, and more.

The Mineola museum is one of several depot museums in the Upper East Side of Texas; residents converted other old depots to a number of practical uses.

The Cotton Belt Depot museum in Tiler is a National Historic Landmark that commemorates rail’s impact on the region’s economy. The Texas & St. Louis Railway (later known as the Cotton Belt) helped transform Tiler and Smith County from a local agricultural economy to one that shipped fruit, vegetables, and other goods throughout the midwestern part of the United States. Many other businesses including hotels and restaurants opened around the depot. The depot was finally abandoned in 1987, more than 30 years after the last passenger train’s arrival.

Cotton Belt eventually donated the building to Tiler, which turned it into the city’s public transportation headquarters that now houses an exhibit of rail-related memorabilia, much of it linked to Tiler early years when the steam locomotive was king.

The Depot Museum in Wills Point is a repository for city, county, and railroad history, stuffed with vintage clothing, agricultural artifacts, and railroad memorabilia. The early presence of the railroad lured residents from the nearby Cedar Grove community.

Edgewood’s original depot collapsed but they found one in Murchison that was built very similarly and moved into the Edgewood Heritage Park Museum many years ago. It is renovated and looks today like the railroad station it once was with luggage cart, wheel barrows, and ticket office. The museum also has a running model train.

Grand Saline’s train memorabilia includes the caboose and history of the old Texas Short Line Railway and their train depot that now holds the community library and a meeting room.

The Depot Museum and Children’s Discovery Center in Henderson features regional buildings and artifacts dating back to the 1840s, and a hands-on learning center for children ages 3 to 11.

The Mount Vernon Railroad Depot features working telegraph and railroad exhibits, model train exhibit, 1902 Studebaker covered wagon, syrup press, mill, blacksmith shop, log cabin, and more.

The Texas & Pacific Railway Museum in Marshall covers the history of the region’s rail network. In addition to a restored caboose, a replica of a railroad agent’s office and equipment are on display and model trains recreate the old Texas & Pacific route.

Winnsboro recently renovated and rededicated its depot as offices for the city and the Chamber of Commerce. The December 14 “Victorian Christmas” parade celebrates the depot’s first hundred years.

Through December 30, Greenville hosts its third annual “Holiday Express” at its Historic MKT Railroad Depot with a 300-square-foot interactive Lionel train display and Christmas village.

Terrell hosts the Midland Rail Car once owned by Col. E.H.R. Green, who was president of the Texas Midland Railroad and the son of Hetty “Witch of Wall Street” Green.

Jefferson offers a Christmas train experience on the “Rail of Lights.” An old-fashioned steam train departs each Thursday through Sunday evening from Thanksgiving through December 23. Passengers see millions of lights on an eight mile, figure eight track along the Big Cypress Bayou. Included are many originally decorated Christmas trees from the Appalachian to an 1885 tree, and others representing the cultures of Alaska, San Francisco, Hawaii and the Arizona Hop Indian nation. Also included in the tour is a replica of the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree, which was first decorated during the Great Depression in 1931. Enjoy an authentic life-sized 90-year old Christmas card as well as the post card sent by soldiers during World War II. Santa Claus will be on board in the railroad depot.

Jefferson will also ring in the new year with a New Year’s Train running December 23-31 complete with a fireworks show.

One of the nation’s largest and most unique steam train operations in the United States is the Texas State Railroad which tours the 50-mile round trip between Rusk and Palestine. This historic train travels through the scenic piney woods and hardwood creek bottoms of East Texas where rolling hills, nature and wildlife abound.

The Texas State Railroad offers both steam and diesel train excursions reminiscent of days gone by. Passengers may board excursion trains at either the Rusk or Palestine depots. These depots were built with an eye for detail and the elegance of Victorian charm. They are surrounded by beautiful parks with lakes and streams offering visitors full-service campground facilities, picnic areas, and concessions.

They normally operate round-trip weekend excursions year-round with expanded spring, summer and fall service but torrential rainfall in July caused several washouts along the line and they have been under repair. Their weekend round-trip excursions will begin again December 1. The Polar Express will be presented on one train departing from Palestine throughout December.

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