hard-core railroad romanticists like Johnny Cash and Jimmie Rodgers
never penned a stirring ballad about the Doodlebug trains of yore.
Passengers called them Doodlebugs (no one knows exactly why) but the
people on the business end of things called them gas-electric motorcars
because they ran with a gas powered engine turned by a generator.
Doodlebugs were popular from the early 1900s through the 1940s, mostly
along routes that provided service between smaller towns. The idea
traces back to 1904 when engineers at General Electric decided there
might be a market for a self-propelled rail car. Not a street car,
which runs on electricity, but a car with a motor that could handle
traffic on the little-used lines between small towns. It worked out
just that way and to that purpose.
The Doodlebug trains didn't require a fireman, which saved railroads
the expense of a steam locomotive pulling half-empty cars across vacant
miles on the lesser-used lines. People in small towns had a special
affection for the Doodlebugs, mainly because they were there and the
big steam locomotives weren't.
The typical Doodlebug was divided into four compartments: motor, mail,
baggage and passenger. The passenger compartment typically seated
a couple dozen people in big, three-place wide seats that allowed
passengers to watch in relative comfort, watching the scenery whiz
past the windows at 30-35 miles per hour.
Writer A.C. Greene rode a Doodlebug, the Wichita Valley Motor Car,
from Abilene to Wichita
Falls in January of 1949 and wrote about it for the Abilene
"People along the line love it like a family pet," Greene wrote "Women,
holding babies in their arms, wave from the front porch as the car
trundles by, dogs run out barking joyously when the motorcar rolls
into town it's that kind of railroad."
had dozens of such lines in the first half of the 20th century. A
Doodlebug route that ran from Estelline
on the Fort Worth and Denver South Plains Railway tracks is now part
of the Caprock Canyons Trailway, a series of scenic hiking and biking
trails in Caprock
Canyons State Park.
A "particularly strenuous route" ran from Temple
Angelo, through Brownwood,
over the western section of what was originally the main line of the
Gulf, Colorado and Santa Fe. It was popular with local riders, even
if the ride was described as "not unlike a wild ride in an unsprung
The heyday of the Doodlebug trains on the Santa Fe line was 1934,
when the railroad had 39 different schedules and 45 cars. Another
kind of motorcar the automobile hastened the Doodlebug's
The Wichita Valley Motor Car that Greene rode, which came to the valley
in 1931, made its last run from Wichita
Falls to Abilene
in October of 1949, but not without some drama. The motorcar's cow
catcher caught its last cow somewhere between Haskell
resulting in a 20-minute delay and one dead cow. Between Anson
and Abilene the motorcar
collided with an automobile, resulting in two injuries and an hour
When engineer Z.A. Jeter stepped down from his from his Doodlebug
for the last time, an hour and 40 minutes late, he talked to reporters
about a more distant past.
"This is a great country we're giving up," he said. "This line blazed
a trail through this country. No railroad ever served a richer country
Jeter, a 44-year railroad veteran, talked about the railroad before
the introduction of the Doodlebug line, when "immigrant cars" packed
with home seekers and boxcars packed with their horses, cows and belongings
rode into the country and settled it.
Jeter recalled how the route between Abilene
and Haskell was
"nothing but thicket and mesquite" when he first hired on with the
Wichita Valley Railway. "Now you see as many pretty farms as you'd
like to count."
A passenger on that last Doodlebug to Abilene,
Bob Dickinson of Seymour,
recalled how he had operated a livery stable and a stage coach from
Dickens to Seymour
and from Seymour to
Spring Creek until the railroad came along.
"The railroad put me out of business," he said. "But I gave $25 to
help get it here."
Why wouldn't he? It was that kind of railroad.