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 Texas : Features : Columns : "Charley Eckhardt's Texas"

The Longest Train Ride

by C. F. Eckhardt
What’s the longest train ride in the world? There are a lot of answers, of course—the Red Express on the Trans-Siberian railway that goes from what used to be Leningrad and is now, mercifully, once more Petrograd or St. Petersburg, near the Baltic, to Port Arthur on the Pacific is probably the best one. The old Blue Train that once ran from Cairo, Egypt, to Capetown, South Africa, was certainly in the running, as was the world-reknowned Orient Express, that ran from London to Dover, then to Calais via boat, and from there to Istanbul, Turkey. For seeming to be long without actually being all that long, there’s a stretch of perfectly straight track that runs for almost 300 miles across Nullarbor (which means ‘no trees,’ and it ain’t kiddin’) Plain in Australia, will probably qualify. Another candidate has to be the original run of what is now Amtrak’s train #1, the Sunset Limited, when in the 1920s it ran from Chicago to San Francisco via St. Louis, Memphis, Jackson, New Orleans, Houston, San Antonio, El Paso, Tucson, Los Angeles, and Santa Barbara on the Illinois Central, Texas & New Orleans, Galveston, Harrisburg, & San Antonio; and Southern Pacific.

But what if ‘long’ has another meaning? What if ‘long’ means not ‘how far it went,’ but ‘how long it took to get there?’ If that’s the case, Train #1 of the Gulf & Interstate Railroad, which left Beaumont, Texas, at 7:00 AM on September 8, 1900, to make the run to Port Bolivar, about 85 miles away by modern highway, takes the prize hands down. #1 arrived at Port Bolivar at 11:10 AM, September 24, 1903—three years, sixteen days, and ten minutes late. Some of the original passengers were still aboard.

Now—before you start listening for that familiar de-DEE-de-de de-DEE-de-de theme and start looking around for Rod Serling, this isn’t a time pocket or UFO story, and it doesn’t belong on Twilight Zone. There’s a perfectly reasonable explanation for the delay. And for some of the original passengers still being aboard.

September 8, 1900, is a well-known date in the history of the southeast Texas coast. It was on that morning, about 10:30 or thereabouts, that the 1900 hurricane blew in. They didn’t name storms in those days, and they didn’t have much warning one was coming. They certainly didn’t have any idea how strong a storm would be before it hit. The tides started to rise and didn’t recede, then those ominous clouds turned up to the south, and coast folks knew they were in for a blow.

How much of a blow? There was no way to know before it hit, but the storm that blew ashore on September 8, 1900, was—as Tom Sawyer might have put it—a sockdolager. It virtually leveled Galveston Island, killed as many as 8,000 people—an accurate count was impossible in those days—and destroyed much of the southeast Texas coast from Orange to Matagorda Bay. It continued to blow inland for several days, drenching much of East and Central Texas and doing property damage and killing folks as far as 250 miles from the coast. 1900, thanks to that mighty storm, was one of the wettest years the weather bureau had yet recorded in the eastern half of Texas.

G&I #1 was on High Island, within 11 miles of Port Bolivar, when the storm surge came in. When it receded Engine #4 and her tender were buried to the domes in sand, the baggage car had been rolled and tumbled 500 feet across the flats, and the head-end revenue and passenger cars were scattered from Hell to breakfast across the salt marsh. Thirty miles of track had been swept away.

It wouldn’t have made much sense to go on to Port Bolivar that morning, because Port Bolivar wasn’t there any more. The ferry that took commuters from Port Bolivar to Galveston was scattered in little pieces up Buffalo Bayou halfway to Houston. Except for a few shattered hulls of buildings, Galveston wasn’t there either, and neither was much else. Beaumont was in ruins itself. The survivors of Train #1—and, surprisingly, most of the passengers and crew survived—didn’t have much left to go home to, no matter at which end of the line they lived.

As soon as the storm blew itself out the Texas coast began to dig out. Plans were laid and a huge seawall was constructed on the Gulfward side of Galveston, to break the force of another such massive storm surge. All up the coast, smaller seawalls were built to prevent disasters like that from sweeping inland again. Towns and buildings were rebuilt, bodies were recovered from the sand—some, years later—and identified if possible, then buried. Storm widows and widowers were a drug on the marriage market for about the next ten years. Storm orphans either went to relatives or to crowded orphanages all across the state. A good many of the storm-orphaned boys wound up in the Methodist Children’s Home in Corsicana and later went on to play football at SMU.

The Gulf & Interstate, as it turned out, was in just about the same shape as Train #1 after the blow—up to its neck. Instead of in sand, the little railroad was up to its neck in creditors. They wanted money and G&I, having lost 30 miles of highly-profitable track, didn’t have any. The little road had to mine its remaining resources to pay its debts. For almost three years Engine #4 and the rest of Train #1 stayed on High Island, buried to the domes in sand.

Eventually the debts were paid and G&I was in the black once more—but just barely so. The stretch of track to Port Bolivar was still washed out. Though the road was operating above break-even, it wasn’t far enough above it to think about rebuilding the washed-out Port Bolivar line.

The ‘port’ in Port Bolivar’s name wasn’t there for decoration. It was—or it had been—a thriving port. The G&I shipped inbound cargo out of Port Bolivar to Beaumont, and outbound cargo from Beaumont to Port Bolivar. The channel at Port Bolivar was deeper than the one into Beaumont then, so the little town could handle bigger, deeper-draft ships. Now outbound had to be shipped via the Texas & New Orleans to Houston, then transshipped to the Galveston, Harrisburg, & San Antonio to Galveston before it could be sent to sea. Inbound had to come in via Galveston, then ride the GH&SA and T&NO back to Beaumont. It made moving cargo destined for deep-sea ships a lot more expensive.

Port Bolivar was being strangled. To make matters worse, commuters and shoppers coming to Galveston from up the Bolivar Peninsula had to take the long way around as well. That was costing Galveston money.

Beaumont, Galveston, and Port Bolivar held a fund drive—bake sales, dances, concerts, the works—and raised $20,000 to reconstruct the 30 miles of track the hurricane wiped out. In the meantime the G&I pulled old Engine #4 and her coaches out of the sand, cleaned ‘em up, repainted and refurbished them, and got the old girl going once more.

At 7:00 AM on September 24, 1903, Train # 1, carrying much of the original consist, pulled out of Beaumont for Port Bolivar to complete the run it started three years earlier. G&I officials offered to honor any punched ticket from the 1900 run that hadn’t been collected. Surprisingly, about a dozen of the original passengers showed up, still carrying their 1900 tickets.

The September 24, 1903 run was completed in four hours and ten minutes, without notable incident. It’s said—and I can’t prove it but it’s worth repeating anyway--that a passenger who’d telegraphed ahead to his favorite restaurant on the morning of September 8, 1900 to have his favorite lunch—two three-minute eggs—ready when his train pulled in, stormed into the café three years later and roared “Where the Hell are my three-minute eggs?” Whether that’s true or not—and it just might be—the run of G&I #1, which began at 7:00 AM on September 8, 1900 at Beaumont and arrived at Port Bolivar three years, sixteen days, and ten minutes late, still stands as the longest train ride in history.
© C. F. Eckhardt
"Charley Eckhardt's Texas"

September 20, 2008 column

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