“The passengers got the full benefit of the sparks, cinders and smoke”
On another forum we’ve been discussing the logistical challenges faced by the South during the war relating to railroads. My colleague David Bright argued — correctly, I think — that the fundamental problem was not just in the relatively limited amount of rail transport extant in the Confederacy at the beginning, but in the inability to expand or even properly maintain what they had at the start:
In my opinion, more serious were: insufficient rolling stock, lack of manpower in the CSA such that the railroads (and their supporting infrastructure — mines, foundries, etc) could not get the manpower they needed, and the inability to replace anything that was lost (rails, rolling stock, depots, etc).
Dave’s observation reminded me of a passage in a history of Houston by S. O. Young (1848-1926), who was a teenager during the war and who later wrote extensively on local history:
There were many difficulties to be overcome in the way of transportation and equally as great ones in obtaining money or credit to pay for construction. Just as the Harrisburg road got under good headway; the Houston and Texas Central got into the game. The first shovel of dirt for this road was thrown by that great railroad genius, Paul Bremond, in 1853. When he threw up that dirt he turned up more trouble for himself than generally falls to the lot of one man. Of course, he did not know this, but I am convinced that had he done so it would have made not the slightest change in his plans. His faith in himself and his confidence in his ability to accomplish whatever he started out to do, was something sublime. When it came to energy he had any engine on his road faded to a standstill. He was a wonderful man, and he did not hesitate, at times, to attempt the apparently impossible. When his first contractor got cold feet and threw up his job, Mr. Bremond promptly undertook to carry out the contract to build the road himself. There is where his troubles began.
The company had money enough to build two miles of road and to buy an engine. Then the unlooked-for and unprovided-for element of credit bobbed up and scared all the other stock-holders, except Mr. Bremond, off the track. He stayed and went straight ahead just as if he had millions behind him. He had faith, the kind that is spelled with a big F, but the difficulty was to pay off several hundred clamoring Irishmen with some of his faith. He did not actually perform that miracle, but he came as near doing so as anybody could. He was a very honest and square man himself and the Irishmen, while they cursed and hunted for him everywhere, knew that they would be paid sometime. They made life a burden for him, however. Of course, he hid out as much as possible and was not given to parading up and down Main Street in those days, but while this modesty on his part saved him some trouble, it did not save him all the time and he had some remarkable experiences. On one occasion several hundred of the Irishmen went in a body to his residence. They yelled and hooted and made lots of noise, but finally contented themselves with tearing down his fence and carrying away the pieces. Finally they got tired of making demonstrations against him and, entering into the spirit of the game, they backed him up and went to work. Mr. Bremond knew that when the road reached Hempstead it would begin to earn money, so he turned all his great energy towards constructing it to that point as rapidly as possible. It took him five years of the hardest work any man ever had, but he accomplished it in 1858, and at once entered on a period of comparative ease. It was a wonderful performance and not one man in 10,000 could have done it. In two years more the road was completed to Millican and, the war coming on, it stuck there. In the meantime the Buffalo Bayou and Brazos Railroad had built into Houston. It used to come down San Jacinto Street and had an engine house and turntable at the foot of that street, right where the bridge is now. It had a long wooden depot at Polk Avenue and San Jacinto Street, where all the cars stopped, but the locomotive would come down to San Jacinto to turn round and go into the engine house. A lot of New Yorkers backed Abe Gentry up and he began the construction of the road to New Orleans. This road had money and credit too, and while it began construction later than the Houston and Texas Central and the Buffalo Bayou and Brazos roads, when the war broke out it had as much line constructed as either of them, and had trains running to Orange. I don’t suppose there ever were such railroads as those leading out of Houston became by the second and third years of the war. Schedules and time-tables became farces. The trains came and went as they could, and spent almost as much time off the tracks as they did on them. I remember on one occasion pulling out of Columbia on the Buffalo Bayou and Brazos road, at the same time that a company of cavalry left there for Houston. During the whole day we were never out of sight of that company. Sometimes we would be ahead and sometimes they would lead. It was see-saw all day, for it took from early in the morning until dark to make the trip of 50 miles. Finally, just at dark, we reached Brays Bayou and lost sight of the company there. They had entered the woods, ahead of us, however. Before the close of the war all the railroads except the Houston and Texas Central and the Galveston, Houston and Henderson had gone out of commission and had ceased to run at all. In some way these two roads were kept in such condition that they could be used, but that was all. Using them was not a safe thing by any means. They crept along so slowly that while wrecks were so frequent as to attract no attention, it was a rare thing for any one to get killed or even hurt. If full justice were done the name of Mr. Bremond would be perpetuated by the Houston and Texas Central road. It is true there is one of the principal towns on the line named after him. It is true he received loyal support and assistance from W. R. Baker, M. M. Rice, William Van Alstyne, William J. Hutchins, Cornelius Ennis and others, but theirs was money help and soon gave out. The real credit for building the road belongs to Paul Bremond, for he did what others could or would not do, pulled off his coat and went in the trenches and, figuratively, on the firing line of railroad construction in Texas. I do not know what the reason for doing so was, but in those days the builders of locomotives always put immense smokestacks on them. The smokestacks were funnel-shape and several feet in circumference at the top. The locomotives burned wood and every few miles there were big stacks of cordwood piled alongside the track. There was no such thing as spark-arresters and every time the fireman put fresh wood in the box the passengers got the full benefit of the sparks, cinders and smoke. It beat traveling by stage, however, and as the people knew nothing of oil-burners, spark-arresters and Pullman cars, everybody was content. The old-time fireman earned every dollar that was coming to him, for he had to keep busy all the time. It was not child’s play to have to keep steam up with only wood for fuel. Then too, it took more steam to keep an engine going at that time, for the engineer was using his whistle 10 times as often as he uses it now. There were no fences along the right of way and as there were thousands of cattle on the prairies and woods where the road ran, the track was generally filled with them every few miles. As soon as the trains would get out of the city limits, the whistle would begin tooting and this was kept up almost without cessation. Of course, a great many cattle were killed and this led to bitter warfare between the cattlemen and the railroads. Wrecks and attempted wrecks were frequent, for there were not wanting men, who, to get revenge on the railroad company by destroying its property, were willing to run the risk of destroying the lives of innocent passengers. The first wreck of this kind that ever occurred in Texas, was on the Houston and Texas Central, near where the water tank is, about 12 miles from Houston. Some scoundrel drove spikes between the ends of the rails and wrecked the train. No one was killed, but Mr. Bremond, who was on the train, received quite serious injuries and was laid up for repairs for several days. It is a pity some historian of that day did not keep a record of the ups and downs of the life of the early railroad builders. It would make interesting reading today. It would show, as the Frenchman said, “more downs as ups,” for their progress was marked by more temporary failures than by successes.
In the blockade running book I mention how, in 1864, the Confederate commander in Texas, Major General Walker, was alternately cajoling and threatening planters with military impressment of their slaves, to provide labor for maintaining the railroads, that were at least nominally private commercial ventures. Last March on the blog I also mentioned John Thomas Browne, the teenage Irish immigrant in Houston who enlisted in the Confederate army, but was soon sent off on detached service to work as a fireman on the Houston & Texas Central; he was making a bigger contribution to the war effort helping to run locomotives between Houston and Millican than he would likely have doing garrison duty on the coast. Browne went on to be mayor of Houston, and at the time of his death in 1941 was reputed to be the last living Confederate veteran in Texas.
___________Image: Texas cotton train, early 1870s.