The Old Bartlett
by Clay Coppedge
and Marie Cronin
- 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.
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
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."
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
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
"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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