Dead Confederates, A Civil War Era Blog

Memo to the Union Pacific: You Didn’t Build That

Posted in Memory, Technology by Andy Hall on September 19, 2012

Tuesday’s Houston Chronicle has a story about Navasota, a small town northwest of Houston, being listed in Union Pacific’s Train Town USA Registry. From the railroad:

Navasota will receive an official Train Town USA resolution signed by Union Pacific Chairman Jim Young, and Navasota’s historical connection with Union Pacific will be featured at www.up150.com.
 
“We are proud to recognize Navasota as we commemorate our railroad’s sesquicentennial celebration and growing up together,” said Joe Adams, Union Pacific vice president – Public Affairs. “The bond between our railroad and early settlements continues to strengthen and grow. Today, Union Pacific serves nearly 7,300 communities where we live, our children grow up together and in which we recruit employees.
 
“Our shared heritage with Navasota is a source of pride as we remember our past while serving and connecting our nation for years to come.”
 
The railroad was essential to the birth of Navasota, which brought in major trade and market centers for cotton and livestock. Union Pacific laid 44 miles of track in 1902 to connect Navasota and Madisonville, Texas, and the town declared it a holiday when the first train departed to Madisonville. The line runs through historic downtown on Railroad Street and was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1982.
 
Today, Union Pacific works with the City of Navasota to create and maintain a landscaped area along Railroad Street, which brings heavy tourism, economic development and future infrastructure projects to the area.
 

Navasota absolutely is a railroad town, and I’m happy they were awarded this distinction. I hope Navasota Mayor Bert Miller, the city administration and the local chamber of commerce play this for all it’s worth, and can bring in a few extra tourist dollars as a result. That’s all to the good.

But contrary to the narrative suggested by the UP press release, that railroad had precious little to do with either Navasota’s creation or its establishment as a railroad town. Navasota was founded as a settlement in 1854, and in September 1859 was reached by the Houston & Texas Central, which extended just a few miles farther to Millican by the outbreak of the Civil War. The H&TC expanded rapidly after the war, north to the edge of Indian Territory and west to Austin. In 1876-77 the Morgan Line bought controlling interest in the H&TC, only to be itself absorbed into the Southern Pacific in the 1880s. The H&TC continued to operate under its own name until 1927, though — almost seventy years after it first put down rails in Navasota, and a full quarter-century after the UP completed its spur line to Navasota from Madisonville. The UP didn’t take over the Southern Pacific until 1998, fourteen years ago — less than one-tenth the time that Navasota has been a railroad town.


Houston & Texas Central locomotive W. R. Baker, c. 1868. Lawrence T. Jones III Collection of Texas Photographs, Southern Methodist University.

To be sure, I’m not a disinterested observer in this. My grandparents lived in Navasota for 40 years, and my father grew up there. When I was little, we lived nearby, and I spent a lot of time in Navasota. Even though I’ve never lived there myself, it’s a town I feel like I know, and feel a certain ownership in it. And on the other side of my family, I have a relative — a Confederate veteran, in fact — whose home was at Navasota during the war, and who took a job in 1865 as a brakeman on the H&TC. He eventually rose to be Superintendent of one of the railroad’s divisions, and finally, was General Agent for Transportation for the H&TC.

So it’s not for no reason that I find this award, ostensibly celebrating the rail history of Navasota, that doesn’t actually acknowledge the rail history of Navasota, just a little irksome.


Navasota mayor Bert Miller holds a sign announcing the city’s recent membership into Union Pacific’s Train Town USA Registry. Photo By Michael Paulsen/Houston Chronicle.

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8 Responses

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  1. Brad said, on September 20, 2012 at 4:42 am

    As a long time veteran of mergers and acquisitions, it’s normal to refer to the current surviving corporate parent — in this case, UP — as the founder, especially with your corporate speak press releases. Annoying, but normal.

    • Andy Hall said, on September 20, 2012 at 7:21 am

      Yes, although they don’t actually claim the specific accomplishments of the previous lines — they just ignore them altogether. You’d think the town started with the 1902 UP spur line.

  2. Jeff Bell said, on September 21, 2012 at 12:03 pm

    Perhaps Mayor Miller could use this distinction as an opportunity to educate folks about Navasota’s varied and interesting history – fill in the blanks you might say.

    • Andy Hall said, on September 21, 2012 at 12:29 pm

      That would be good. To be clear, I’ve got nothing against UP, but the first H&TC locomotive pulled into Navasota nearly three years before the UP was even incorporated. I don’t think it takes anything away from UP’s image to acknowledge that.

  3. Jack Fuller said, on September 21, 2012 at 2:16 pm

    The “Union Pacific” has never operated in Texas, except thru mergers and acquisitions. But as Brad indicated above, it is typical for the surviving company to be referred to, rather than the predecessors. Withal, Navasota has along and rich railroad history, which is being properly praised here.

  4. Cotton Boll Conspiracy said, on September 23, 2012 at 9:43 pm

    You’re right, it would be nice if acquiring companies would take a little time to acknowledge predecessors. It would also be an easy way to build some goodwill in those communities.

    In the neck of the woods you speak of, Union Pacific has little history, but by tying itself to the prior rail lines, it could legitimately become a part of the area’s history. Instead, it takes the easy way and writes its own history.

  5. kblooms said, on January 4, 2013 at 1:39 pm

    So – as you noted, this 44 mile line was built in 1902, abandoned in 1944. And the UP has a shakey claim, but nonetheless I agree with what others have offered – you acquire the assets and liabilities and you get to take credit (but not blame?) for both…. What surprises me in UP’s 150 year press release is that they don’t cite the UP line that is still in use as being important and the genesis for Navasota being a RR town; why did they choose to showcase the now abandoned line? If you know and don’t mind providing, I’d like to understand the legacy of the BNSF presence in Navasota as well.

    • Andy Hall said, on January 4, 2013 at 2:06 pm

      What surprises me in UP’s 150 year press release is that they don’t cite the UP line that is still in use as being important and the genesis for Navasota being a RR town. . . .

      Of course, that wasn’t a UP line until recently. But the 1902 line, which was a UP right-of-way, is not the genesis of Navasota being a railroad town; it became a railroad town prior to the CW with the 1859 arrival of the Houston & Texas Central, which continued up toward Millican, a few miles north by the time of the war, and afterward up to Denison, where it met the MKT. The 1859 line gave Navasota a rail connection to Houston, and from there (by rail or water) to the seaport of Galveston, and points beyond. Navasota was a railroad town for more than forty years before the 1902 line was completed. Navasota was a railroad town for almost three years before the Union Pacific was incorporated.

      I don’t buy the argument that the entity that owns a given thing or property necessarily gets credit for creating it, especially when (as in this case) we’re supposedly talking about the historyof said thing or property. We’re just going to disagree on this point. Recall what the UP actually says:

      The railroad was essential to the birth of Navasota, which brought in major trade and market centers for cotton and livestock. Union Pacific laid 44 miles of track in 1902 to connect Navasota and Madisonville, Texas, and the town declared it a holiday when the first train departed to Madisonville.

      Taken individually, those two sentences are true enough. Read together, they convey a different and completely misleading historical narrative, for no good reason that I can see. I’m glad that UP is highlighting Navasota, and (as I said in the post) I hope it brings some tangible benefits to the community, but the conflation of the birth of Navasota and the construction of the 1902 line from Madisonville is simply wrong.


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