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  Texas : Features : Columns : "Letters from Central Texas"

Texas Railroads

The Old Bartlett Western Railroad
and Marie Cronin

by Clay Coppedge
BARTLETT - What the old Bartlett Western Railroad lacked in revenue, it more than made up for in local color, history and folklore.

History texts note that the Bartlett Western was popularly called the Four Gospels Railroad but locals sometimes had more derisive names. They called it the Bullfrog Line, because trains jumped the tracks so often. The initials BW were said to stand for Better Walk.

The kinder and gentler Four Gospels appellation came from Ida Cronin Branagan, oldest daughter of owner Thomas Cronin; she named the line's four flag stations St. Matthew (Schwertner,) St. Mark (Jarrell,) St. Luke (Atkinson community,) and St. John (Armstrong community.) Passengers departing at any of these stops were invited to read a framed copy of select verses from a corresponding gospel.

The Four Gospels is just as well known for its last president, Thomas Cronin's talented and flamboyant daughter, Marie. She came to Bartlett in 1916 when Thomas Cronin purcahsed the railroad. Marie breezed into Bartlett, a parade of one. With her came an international reputation as a portrait and expressionist painter along with the latest Paris fashions, a well-stocked makeup kit and a certain, you know, attitude.

"She always dressed like she was going to see the queen," one resident is quoted as saying in Murry Hammond's excellent history of the short-lived Bartlett Western. His history was published in a 1997 edition of "Journal of Texas Shortline Railroads."

Thomas Cronin died of cancer in August of 1927. Her sister Ida had died a year previous from, ironically, injuries she sustained getting off a train. That left the struggling railroad in the soft, artistic hands of Marie Cronin, who never, even after decades in Bartlett, dressed the part of a typical railroad president.

"Miss Cronin had a very dramatic bearing," Bell County historian E.A. Limmer says. "She dressed differently than most people in Bartlett. She never lost that aristocratic air."

She was, by all accounts and despite appearances, an industrious and determined president. By sheer determination she kept the railroad running long after less resilient executives would have thrown in the towel.

Her niece, Virginia Cronin Lawson, said her Aunt Marie was somewhat vain and loved the idea of being a woman president.

"For that reason, more than anything, she did what was necessary to stave off abandonment," Mrs. Lawson said. Marie's nephew, Ed Cronin, told Hammond that Marie was what today would be called a "Type A Personality." "There was a certain dynamism in her," he said. "She wasn't bothered by being a woman; she didn't have any hesitancy about taking the reins. She had a strong voice and when she spoke she dominated the room."

According to Handbook of Texas, the BW in 1912 carried 53,750 tons of cotton to market. In 1916, the company earned $3,817 in passenger revenue and $30,327 in freight revenue.

The good times would not last. Torreential rains from 1920-22 continually washed out bridges and trestles. Passengers who continued to brave the line were sometimes pressed into service to help push the train up the grade from Bartlett to Jarrell.

"Better walk," they said, "unless you want to push the train up a hill."

Dire circumstance continued unabated. The price of cotton dropped to 45 cents a bale from $1.59. The railroad's office burned in 1936, destroying most of the railroad's records.

After Marie Cronin sold the railroad and made one last trip to Pairs her eyesight began to fail, eventually to the point where she could no longer paint. She sold the rails and managed to consolidate enough money to live out the rest of her days, not necessarily in the manner to which she was accustomed but not in poverty. She died in Bartlett on June 29, 1951.

Marie Cronin's legacy includes more than a failed railroad. She left a handful of paintings, including two that hang in the state capital in Austin.

"She will likely not be forgotten for her lovable character and unique place in history," Hammond wrote. "She was, very simply, a great lady, and ahead of her time."

Clay Coppedge
"Letters from Central Texas" - April 27, 2006 column

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