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Texas | Columns | "Charley Eckhardt's Texas"

HELLAGAIN HILL -
How Elgin Got Its Name

by C. F. Eckhardt

In Elgin they’ll tell you the town was named for a Mister Elgin. I’ve heard he was Robert and Thomas and something else, and that he worked for the railroad, the telegraph company, or a bank. At any rate, there seems to have been, over the years, some confusion about exactly who Mr. Elgin was and why the town was named for him.

Now, Elgin, Texas is different from the other Elgins in the US. Most of them are pronounced with a soft G—Eljin. Not Elgin, Texas. Elgin, Texas is pronounced with a hard G—like in ‘gun.’

If you ask the members of the Shadetree Historical Society, they’ll give you a version of Elgin’s naming that has nothing to do with a Mr. Elgin. They’ll tell you the original name of the place was Helgin—derived from ‘Hell again.’

Before there was a town, there was a railroad. The railroad ran alongside a ranch. The man who owned the ranch was not a fan of the railroad. He didn’t keep his fences up too well if indeed he had fences at all. His cattle wandered. Some of them wandered onto the railroad. An engine going 40 mph, pulling a string of, say, 50 loaded freight cars—a reasonable freight in the 19th Century—has trouble stopping if a cow wanders onto the tracks. Mostly, the cow becomes buzzard chow if it doesn’t get out of the way on its own.

The rancher disliked this. He decided he’d chase the railroad off. Alongside the tracks, in a thicket of postoaks, was a sandy rise. The rancher stationed two cowboys atop that rise. He armed them with Henry repeaters and all the ammo they could shoot. Then he gave them their instructions. “Ever’ time one a them snortin’, puffin’, stinkin’ things comes down that-air track, I want you boys to shoot out ever’ winder-light an’ piece a glass on ‘er. That’ll learn ‘em to run over my cows.”

Apparently the cowboys did just that. As a passenger train approached the sandy rise, or so the story goes, the conductor would run back through the cars yelling “Ever’body get down on the floor. We fixin’ to have Hell again.”

From this the sandy rise got a name—‘Hellagain Hill.’

Finally a town grew up around a water stop not far from Hellagain Hill. Names were suggested for the town. Folks knew the Post Office would never accept Hellagain Hill, or even just Hellagain. Maybe the Post Office would accept Helgin. The Post Office did—sort of. The name of the town came back approved as ‘Elgin.’ The people of Elgin retained the hard G pronunciation to differentiate their town from the other Elgins across the country.

At least that’s the tale the Shadetree Historical Society tells. The Ladies’ Garden Club, of course, insists on ‘Mr. Elgin.’ But maybe there’s a little more to it.

There is a sandy rise alongside the railroad track outside Elgin. When I was a kid—and that’s been a while back—I once climbed to the top of what I was told was Hellagain Hill. It took me about five minutes to fill the crown of a size 6 7/8 pima straw cowboy hat completely full of big .44 rimfire cases, each one with the distinctive double firing pin indentations that are the hallmark of both the Henry and the Winchester Model 1866. Now, if there never really was a Hellagain Hill and there never was a war between a cowman and the railroad, what were all those empty shells doing atop that sandy rise alongside the tracks?

Henry David Thoreau, of Walden Pond fame, once opined that ‘There are times when circumstantial evidence is very strong—such as when you find a trout in the milk.” There’s a story in San Antonio about the time Roy Bean ran a dairy out of Beanville. Apparently he stopped at the San Antonio River to ‘stretch’ his milk supply, for one day one of his regulars confronted him with an 8-inch catfish he’d found in the milk. “Wul, I swan,” said Bean. “I’m a-gonna haveta quit waterin’ them cows in the river. Looky thar—one of ‘em done swallered a catfish.” Those shell casings got atop that sandy rise somehow—and I don’t think a cow swallowed them and deposited them there, any more than I believe Roy Bean’s cow ‘swallered a catfish.’


© C. F. Eckhardt
"Charley Eckhardt's Texas" April 7 , 2008 column

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