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Texas | Columns | "Texas Tales"

Frontier Travel

by Mike Cox
Mike Cox

What with tight security, computer glitches, unruly passengers and fees for what used to be free, airline travel is more trying these days than it used to be.

But anyone facing a long trip can at least be thankful that public transportation has advanced considerably since the 19th century.

Amazingly, not until the Missouri, Kansas and Texas Railroad (fondly known for decades as The Katy) hit Denison on Dec. 25, 1872 was it even possible to take a train from another state to Texas. As late as 1870, the only rail service in the state extended from Galveston to Houston to Calvert. That amounted to only 181 miles of track.

From Calvert to Houston, the Houston and Texas Central Railway operated along 130 miles of rail. The Galveston, Houston and Henderson Railway ran trains from the island city to Houston and back, a total of 51 miles one-way.

That was fine for folks living in Galveston or Houston or other points along the line, but it was an enclosed system. Visitors from another state who wished to travel by rail in Texas first had to get to Houston by stagecoach or Galveston by water. Someone boarding a train in New Orleans could travel only 80 miles to Brashear, La. before reaching the figurative end of the line. There, the journey continued aboard a steamship operated by the Morgan Line. The steamship company sent one of its vessels to Galveston three times a week.

Until people could board a train for the Lone Star State, the only way to reach Texas was by foot, horse, wagon or stagecoach. Train travelers wishing to come to Austin got off the iron horse at Brenham to catch the stagecoach that would take them the rest of the way.

Travelers wishing to go from Texas to California faced and even longer and more difficult journey. In 1858, an Austin newspaper marveled that a stagecoach trip from Texas westward to the Golden State had been made in a mere 18 days.

The State Gazette, a newspaper published in Austin back then, reported that "the great enterprise of connecting the Atlantic and Pacific by rapid overland mail communication has been crowned with success."

The first east-bound through trip of the Butterfield Overland stage arrived at Fort Belknap in Young County on the morning of October 4, two weeks and four days into its anticipated 24-day journey from San Francisco to St. Louis.

In reaching Fort Belknap when it did, the newspaper reported, the stage was running "a little under schedule time."

A year before, Congress had approved a $600,000 annual contract for twice weekly overland mail service between California and St. Louis. The agreement stipulated that the 2,795 mile distance should be covered within 25 days. The stage, pulled by four horses, carried six passengers in addition to mail.

"Everything so far, owing to the superior organization of the line, has gone on with complete success," the newspaper report continued. "This is entirely owing to the energy of the Superintendents and their assistants."

Once the stage passed Sherman, "arrangements have been made to illuminate all the towns through which the line passes" with "a grand jubilee" scheduled at each stop and at St. Louis.

"Bring out your big gun, rooster, or something that will make a noise," the newspaper's enthusiastic correspondent gushed. "Next to the Atlantic Cable, this is the greatest triumph of the present day."

To send a letter half-way across the continent cost 10 cents per half ounce.

With Sherman as the mail distribution point for Texas, service along the Overland route continued until March 1861, when the it was moved farther north. Not long after that, the Civil War ended the transportation system.

The glorious news from Fort Belknap about the first stage trip had taken its own sweet time reaching the capital city. The story reporting the stage coach's October 4 arrival in Northwest Texas did not appear until October 16, nearly two weeks after the fact.


© Mike Cox
"Texas Tales" June 28, 2017 column


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