the Galveston, Harrisburg, & San Antonio Railroad built its last 23.5+ miles from
Marion to San Antonio in 1877,
the International & Great Northern completed its Austin Laredo line in 1881, passing
through San Antonio, and the San
Antonio & Aransas Pass completed its line from the Alamo
City to the coast in 1886, the area to the north and west of San
Antonio was without rail connection to the great hub of south Texas for several
years. Prior to the War Between the States, it could take as much as ten days
for wagon freight to reach such remote outposts as Fredericksburg
or Kerrville from San
Antonio and that was "barring mishap" (Indians). Even after the War, with
much improved roads and a much lessened Indian problem, it still took freight
wagons the better part of a week to travel from San
Antonio to Fredericksburg.
The San Antonio Fredericksburg stagecoach took two days-"barring mishap" (in this
case, bandits) and there were few runs in which a "mishap" did not occur. The
people north and west of San Antonio
wanted and needed a railroad.|
Unlike today, when railroads are being
consolidated and tracks are being abandoned almost on a daily basis, from the
1870s until the 1940s railroads were the transportation lifeblood of the nation,
both for passengers and freight. For a town to be missed by the rails was a death
sentence. The list of towns, in Texas
and elsewhere, that died because they had no railroad would fill a sizable book.
As early as 1880 a preliminary survey was made to find the most practicable
rail line from San Antonio into
the hill country to the northwest, and it was quickly discovered that there was
a smooth, easy route to Kerrville
but a very rough one to Fredericksburg.
When the San Antonio & Aransas Pass announced, in 1886, that it would build a
hill country branch, both Kerrville
put in bids and Kerrville,
having the triple advantages of easy grades, no high hills to cross, and Charles
Schreiner; founder of the great YO ranch, on the railroad acquisition committee,
won. The rails were laid into Comfort
and then made an abrupt bend to the northwest. The first train rolled into Kerrville
on October 6, 1887.
This disappointed not to say infuriated the good
burghers of Fredericksburg.
They sent a delegation to the San Antonio office of Uriah Lott, president of the
SA&AP, to demand an explanation. Lott explained that the much rougher country
and the current financial condition of the SA&AP did not make it possible to build
| || |
Photo courtesy The Kenedy Museum, Sarita, Texas
1886 Temple D. Smith, a Virginian and a banker by profession, came to Fredericksburg
and organized the Bank of Fredericksburg. He immediately decided that the town
needed, above all else, a railroad and he would devote most of the rest of his
life to getting it one. |
The first stab came in 1889 when a Llano lawyer,
W. A. H. Miller, proposed to Smith and others in Fredericksburg that the towns
and Llano, with
the help of San Antonio, jointly finance the building of a grade from Comfort
The SA&AP would then lay track over the line and operate it as a branch. Fredericksburg
actually financed and built 17 miles of graded roadbed going south, but it stopped
at "the big hill" the range of hills that forms a sort of divide about one third
of the way from Comfort
just north of the ghost town of Hillingdon. This divide is between the Guadalupe
and Pedernales rivers.
There simply was not enough money to complete the project, and it was dropped
after $85,000 had been spent. (Pronounce that 'perd'n'alice' and you'll be understood
in the Hill Country. Texans had a lot of fun out of Yankee newsmen trying to pronounce
'Pedernales' during the Lyndon Johnson presidency.)
The Fort Worth &
Rio Grande, when it reached Brownwood
in 1891, announced its intention to extend the line on to Brady
and Menard and
to add a southward branch to Fredericksburg.
This raised hopes in the German city, but except for a little over a mile and
a half of connecting track the FW&RG laid in Fort
Worth itself in 1891--the company didn't build another mile of track until
1903, when it finally built into Brady.
It would not reach Menard
until 1911, at which point building farther south was a moot point.
June of 1909 J. P. Nelson, a former director of the SA&AP, proposed to build the
line from Comfort
using the 17 miles of grade previously completed. Though he did begin energetically,
by the end of September he'd run completely out of money and had to ask to be
released from the contract.
It was R. A. Love who finally got construction
underway. He initially planned a route that would take the new road up easy grades
to within eight miles of Kerrville
before turning back to the northwest towards Fredericksburg.
The city of Kerrville
ably led by Charles Schriener, who had no love for Fredericksburg effectively
blocked the use of this route, and a shorter but much rougher and much more expensive
to construct route from Fredericksburg Junction, on the SA&AP tracks about four
miles east of Comfort, almost due north through some very rough country, was finally
chosen. The road was chartered as the San Antonio, Fredericksburg, & Northern
Railroad on January 3, 1913. Chief construction engineer was Foster Crane, who
had just come off the completion of the Medina Lake dam project, the first large
artificial lake to be built in Texas.
problem was "the hill." The watershed between the Guadalupe and the Pedernales
is high and rugged, and the train, which couldn't be expected to climb a grade
of more than about 2% a rise of 2 feet in every hundred feet couldn't make 'tanglefoot
curve' type switchbacks to climb the range of hills because of right of way limitations.
There were two choices, and both of them were bad: build the most ambitious railroad
fill in the history of the world, or dig a hole.
of the Fredericksburg and Northern Railway Marker|
Photo courtesy Sarah Reveley,
hole became the only railroad tunnel ever dug in Texas east of the Pecos
River and south of the Panhandle.
It was 920 feet long, dug and blasted through solid rock with only manpower, mule
power, and dynamite. Today, if you follow FM 1376 from San
Antonio to Sisterdale,
then take FM 473 west and go beyond the road to Waring,
you'll find where an old but still paved road forms (or used to form) a T intersection
with 473. If you turn north and follow the road and the bed of Black Creek, you
will be paralleling the route of the F&N, and just about the time you reach the
ghost town of Hillingdon you'll see, crossing the creek, the remains of the F&N's
longest trestle. Just north of that the road crosses almost directly over the
top of it and there is an historical marker you'll find the hill country's only
railroad tunnel. |
The tunnel is still there, all 920 feet of it inhabited,
in the fall, winter, and spring, by millions of bats. The bat flight from the
tunnel at dusk resembles rising smoke. During late spring, summer, and early fall,
it's home to more rattlesnakes than you'll ever want to meet in one place again.
The light at the end of
the tunnel...and about a million bats!|
Photo courtesy Terry
Jeanson, November 2007
Fredericksburg and Northern Railway Tunnel|
"I took this picture on
one of our Sunday drives when I was a kid... My grandmother (standing at the entrance)
told us kids there were bats in the tunnel, I high-tailed it out. The photo was
taken about 1955, the tracks were removed in 1942." - Sarah
Reveley, October 2007
"See I TOLD you my brother hightailed it outta thar when my grandfather told
him there were bats in that tunnel!! He was 8 years old. p.s. Remember when little
boys had big cuffs on their bluejeans because they grew so fast? Mamma wrote on
the back "Sunday March 22, 1952 - tunnel at Bankersmith"" - Sarah
Fredericksburg and Northern Railway tunnel today.|
Photo courtesy Terry
|The initial estimate
which proved fairly accurate was that 14,222 cubic yards of stone would have to
be removed. Work began in April of 1913, and on July 15 the last foot of rock
was blasted away. On August 26 the first train a construction train loaded with
rails to lay the last few miles into Fredericksburg
passed through. On October 28 the last rail was spiked down. Fredericksburg
at last had a railroad. |
immediately the first of the real estate shapers who continue to plague the hill
country moved in. The Mountain Townsite Company announced the acquisition of a
large tract of land atop the hill through which the tunnel passed, and published
plans for a "planned resort community" on a 300 acre tract with "possible expansion
to as much as 1500 acres." Promised were an electric generating plant, a waterworks,
and a sewer plant. A huge clubhouse containing 75 hotel rooms, each of which would
have a private bathroom and sleeping porch, was to be built, as was an 18 hole
golf course on a separate but adjacent 100 acre tract. Streets and boulevards
the main street was to be called Berlin Boulevard were laid out, staked and superficially
graded. Special excursion trains brought visitors to San
Antonio to examine the "ideal place for your summer home." Mount Alamo, as
the planned community was dubbed, was ballyhooed as the "Saratoga of Texas," a
reference to the famous watering hole of the northeast, Saratoga Springs, New
York. How many suckers bit the hook is not recorded, but the only work ever done
at the "planned resort community" was grading some streets. Nothing, today, remains
of Mount Alamo except the bare rocks of the hilltop and the cedars and liveoaks
that grow there.
map showing Cain City, Bankersmith,
Mt. Alamo, Hillingdon |
Courtesy Texas General Land Office
| The road originally
passed through Cain City, about six miles from Fredericksburg.
It was named for Charles Cain, a San Antonian who raised more money for the F&N
than any other single person. South of Cain City it passed through Grapetown
on Grape Creek, then through a community renamed Bankersmith
after banker Temple Smith, whose unrelenting effort finally brought in the rails.
It then passed Mount Alamo which never got off the ground and Hillingdon Station,
a flagstop for the convenience of San Antonio architect Alfred
Giles, whose summer home was at Hillingdon Ranch, to join the SA&AP tracks
at Fredericksburg Junction, about a mile east of Comfort.
Later a flagstop was added at Nichols Ranch, where what was probably the first
dude ranch in the hill country was established. |
A year later the road
was in receivership. The reason, largely, was the tunnel, which had added $134,000
to the cost of building the road in a day when an ounce of gold sold for $12.50.
During the rest of its existence, whether as the San Antonio, Fredericksburg,
& Northern or later as the Fredericksburg & Northern, the railroad never made
a penny for its investors.
the F&N could be an adventure, and timetables were often something of a joke.
During the winter icicles as much as a foot in diameter and six to ten feet long
would form inside the tunnel from seeps in the rock, and the train crews had to
stop and walk through the bore with axes to knock them down. Since there was no
wooden shoring inside, no train proceeded directly through the tunnel, despite
the old hill country story about the German farmer who watched daily as the train
steamed up the grade from Black Creek and into the tunnel's mouth. Finally his
sons gave way to curiosity and said "Papa, how come you alvays vatch dot train
go in dot tunnel?" "Vell, poys," the old German replied, "Vun uf dese days it's
boundt to happen. Dot t'ing's gonna miss dot hole."
In fact every train,
northbound or southbound, stopped outside the tunnel. While the brakeman and flagman
walked the length of the tunnel with pistols in their hands because of the rattlesnakes
to check and see if large chunks of tunnel had fallen on the tracks, the conductor
had all the windows in the coaches closed so the dense coal (later oil) smoke
wouldn't get inside while the train went through the tunnel. Even at that, the
pounding chug of a steam engine invariably brought a steady rain of small rocks
down from the tunnel ceiling atop the coaches.
NOT the Fredericksburg and Northern Tunnel
"Other Railroad Tunnel" near Quitaque, Texas.
highlight of the "Rails to Trails" trail about 8-10 miles south of Quitaque.
Photo courtesy Eric Blackwell (left) November 2006
one of the earliest preserved timetables from 1916, after the line went into receivership
yet again the SAF&N listed seven trains a week; first class (passengers only)
on Sunday and second class (mixed train) the rest of the week. Nominal departure
time from Fredericksburg
for the second class train was 12:01 PM, for the first class, 2:00 PM. The second
class train was due to reach Fredericksburg Junction a 2:15 PM, the first class
to reach it at 4:10 PM. Departures from Fredericksburg Junction for the first
class run were scheduled at 6:50 PM to reach Fredericksburg
at 9:00 PM, and for the second class the same schedule. Not surprisingly, these
were intended to correspond with the arrival times of SA&AP passenger and mixed
trains going to and from San Antonio.|
It didn't often work out that way. The F&N was never an on time line. Not
only did the train have to stop to have the tunnel checked on every run, but the
crew including the conductor and porters kept shotguns aboard except during deer
season, when they kept rifles aboard. The sighting of rabbits, turkeys, doves,
ducks on the creeks, or deer in season (and on occasion out of season) on or anywhere
in range of the right of way usually resulted in an unscheduled stop while the
crew shot Sunday's dinner. On occasion, especially when the black bass were biting
in Grape or Black Creek, the locomotive crew would find it necessary to stop "to
oil the bearings" or something similar about the time the train crossed one of
the creeks. While the bearings got oiled fishing lines got wet, to cook some black
bass on the heat of the boiler backhead. The bass would be done to a turn about
the time the train pulled into Fredericksburg Junction.
and fishing didn't delay the train the condition of the roadbed often did. Since
the F&N spent most of its existence in receivership to one group of creditors
or another, roadbed maintenance was sporadic at best. Only parts of the line got
rock ballast immediately upon construction, and much of the line never was ballasted
with anything more firm than sand. Rains would wash out most of the ballast, leaving
the rails and ties lying on wet, often somewhat spongy ground. Speeds of 2 or
3 mph under such conditions were the rule, and it could take ten hours or more
to get to Fredericksburg
from Fredericksburg Junction after a hill country thunderstorm. Since most of
the early trestles on the line were of timber, washouts during rainy weather were
common, and it was not unusual for the train to find itself stranded between two
creeks, both trestles having been washed away in flash floods, the passengers
and crew facing a long and muddy hike to the next station.
In the early
1920s a problem other than water struck the timber trestles. The big trestle over
Black Creek just south of the tunnel caught fire and much of the center section
burned. It was eventually replaced by the stone pier trestle that still stands
today, one of the two remaining relics of the F&N.
F&N had one good thing going for it if there was going to be a direct rail connection
between San Antonio
and the Panhandle, and a great
many railroad men (and San
Panhandle businessmen as well) wanted one, the F&N had already bridged the greatest
obstacle, the Guadalupe Pedernales divide. Until the rails reached the Cap Rock
there was virtually nothing a train couldn't go around. A number of schemes were
advanced to continue the F&N north into Menard,
Eden, and San
Angelo, to connect with roads already built into the Panhandle.
While nothing ever came of the Menard
connection, much of the rest of the planned line was eventually built.
The F&N issued its final timetable on September 3, 1929, advertising one northbound
and one southbound train a day from Fredericksburg to the junction. By the late
'30s the line's sole stockholder was Dr. O. H. Judkins of San
On July 25, 1942, the official documents that enabled Dr. Judkins to declare the
road abandoned and offer it for scrap were approved by the War Production Board.
In spite of last ditch efforts to save it, the hill country railroad was no more.
Portions of the steel rail were sold to the US Army to build sidings at military
encampments across the country, and six carloads of rail eventually found their
way to Australia to help build badly needed railroads there. Some of the timbers
from the trestles were bought by Uncle Sam and became piers and abutments along
the strategically important Alcan Highway.
Since the road was abandoned
Harbor, it didn't share the shame of companies like the Austin Transit Company,
which sold much of its street rail to Japan in the 1930s, when it made the transition
from streetcars to buses. American soldiers found, as reinforcements in the roofs
of Japanese pillboxes and machine-gun and artillery bunkers on Guadalcanal and
other Pacific islands, sections of light steel rail still bearing the mark "Austin
Transit Co. Austin, Texas."
Only two real relics remain of the old F&N
the Black Creek trestle and the tunnel. They are the last remnants of a dead era
a time when the presence of a railroad brought life to a town and the lack of
one killed it. Fredericksburg
survived, thanks to roads built during the 1930s, but Cain City and Bankersmith
are ghost towns, Grapetown
isn't much better, and not even the graded streets are left at Mount Alamo.
© C. F. Eckhardt
"Charley Eckhardt's Texas"
15, 2006 column
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