wasn’t the longest railroad in East
Texas. And it certainly wasn’t the most profitable.
But it taught its builders, the good people of Rusk,
how not to run a railroad.
The Rusk Tramway was born from Rusk’s
disappointment over losing a railroad connection in the 1870s.
The Houston and Great Northern, headed by Dr. C.G. Young of Rusk,
had planned a route through Rusk,
but when Dr. Young died unexpectedly, H&GN officials curved the
line westward to Palestine
to connect with the International Railroad Company.
It was a serious blow to Rusk.
While other communities in East
Texas were growing from railroad commerce, Rusk
was still depending on slow-moving, horse-drawn wagons and coaches
to carry its goods and travelers.
In an effort to save its economy, Rusk
in 1874 organized the Rusk Transportation Company and, despite inadequate
funds, took steps to give the town a railroad
link with the outside world.
By its own admission, the company was inexperienced, but it purchased
$22,000 in rolling stock, borrowed additional funds, and awarded
a construction contract for the line using convict laborers from
the state prison.
Instead of iron, which was too costly, the builder put down rails
of native pine.
It was a decision that meant disaster. On April 29, 1875, using
a small locomotive named the Cherokee, the railroad made its maiden
voyage from Jacksonville
south to Rusk. Pandemonium
broke out at the Rusk
station when the little engine arrived two and a half hours late.
The president of the Rusk Tramway, a local minister, reported enthusiastically
to the crowd: “We rejoice over deliverance from the grave..the old
hulk that was floundering has been righted, the leaks have been
corked, and with steady helm and full-bent sail, she is riding into
port. Your town is safe.”
But the nautical assurances were a little early.
Spring rains soaked East
Texas, a merciless sun baked Cherokee
County, and in five months the wooden rails were so warped and
buckled that a trip over the line became an exercise in futility.
Passengers rarely made the trip without disembarking to help train
crews to put the engine and its cars back on the wooden rails. Freight
was thrown from the open cars by the jolts and bumps. The train
was so slow that even mule-drawn cotton
wagons beat it over the route.
The tramway’s directors met in emergency session to raise money
to install iron rails, but failed. The line was finally sold at
public auction for $90.50.
For a while the line was leased to a freight-hauler who used mules
to pull the flatcars from Rusk
but the route was eventually abandoned and its right-of-way sold.
Today, only a ridge of red clay, almost obscured by forest growth,
is all that’s left of the Rusk Tramway.
The little wooden-tracked railroad left Rusk’s
citizens with a bitter memory, and it was little wonder that a local
historian made this observation:
“We cannot but believe we would be happier and more prosperous if
there were not a single railroad west of the Mississippi.”
Bob Bowman's East Texas
September 27, 2009 Column
A weekly column syndicated in 109 East Texas newspapers
Copyright Bob Bowman