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Texas | Columns | "Texas Tales"

"The Boll Weevil"
The Trinity and Brazos Valley Railway

by Mike Cox
Mike Cox

It would be hard to overstate the importance of railroads in Texas during the last quarter of the 19th century and into the early 20th century.

The locomotives that pulled long freight trains or swift (at least for the time) passenger trains amounted to economic engines both literally and figuratively. Not only did they haul goods and move people, railroads fed local economies directly and indirectly. They employed thousands of people in Texas and decisions on the location of their tracks made towns or killed towns.

Consequently, almost anything involving the railroads or its workers was of interest to the newspapers. Compared to other industries today, railroads received near saturation coverage back then.

One of many long and short lines serving Texas was the Trinity and Brazos Valley Railway, better known in the early 1900s as "The Boll Weevil." With headquarters in Houston, it ran from Cleburne to Beaumont. Chartered in 1902, and later operated for years in receivership, the line became part of the Burlington-Rock Island in 1930.

In 2015, the Freestone County Historical Museum went through back issues of the Teague Chronicle and transcribed any article dealing with the railroad or railroads in general. The effort filled a 228-page publication, not counting an un-paginated index.

Here are a few news summaries:

Where was HR?

These enlightened days, corporate and governmental work place managers deal with personnel issues by involving the folks from HR -- you know, Human Resources.

But before the touchy-feely days of handling on-the-job issues with team meetings, performance reviews, coaching and counseling, employees occasionally worked out their issues without professional intervention, except perhaps on the part of a law enforcement officer. That certainly was the case when conductor Floyd Herring and brakeman Henry Owens "became involved in a difficulty" as the southbound Trinity & Brazos passenger train neared Iola.

Those five words are antiquated newspaper speak for "got into a fight."

Most of the passengers did not become aware of the "difficulty" until startled by a series of gunshots. One of the bullets whizzing around the train caught Owens in the jaw.

"The men are said to have...fired simultaneously," the Chronicle reported. "Herring was not injured, except that it is understood he received a blow from Owens' fist."

Reading between the lines, it seems likely that Owens developed a grievance over something Herring said and punched him in the face. Not opting to turn the other cheek or write a memo for file, the conductor pulled a pistol and began shooting at Owens. Also armed, Owens opened up on the train boss.

The newspaper said that Owens left the train at Iola, presumably for medical attention, but that the conductor stayed with his train to Houston and continued on the run back to Teague. The outcome of the incident was not reported, but it is relatively safe to assume the "difficulty" concluded Owens' employment with the "Boll Weevil."

Railroading was Dangerous.

In the span of only a few months in 1911-1912, the "Boil Weevil" lost 10 employees in four train accidents.

A freight train running near Normangee struck a cow on the track and derailed, killing the engineer, fireman and brakeman. A few days later the steam locomotive pulling a freight train exploded, killing three crew members. Another boiler explosion killed two more employees in a subsequent mishap. The following year, yet another locomotive boiler exploded, killing the engineer. That summer, a wreck near Galveston killed another engineer.

In addition to the fatal derailments and boiler explosions, brakemen frequently died or suffered injuries when thrown from trains or being accidentally run over.

Back then, the only watchdogs over railroad safety were the unions. The federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) would not be created until 1970.

Why the Fake Name?

The July 5, 1911 issue of the Chronicle ran a headline saying that brakeman J.H. Lee had been killed in an accident at one of the "Boll Weevil's" yards.

"It appears that he was endeavoring to make what is known as a running angle switch and in some way stumbled and fell, three loaded lumber cars passing over his right leg, breaking in two places, also his right arm," the newspaper said. "He was terribly mangled, and while everything that could be done to relieve his suffering he died two hours after the accident."

The newspaper said the bachelor brakeman "enjoyed a good name among his co-laborers and the Valley road [the Trinity & Brazos' other nickname] for which he had been working nearly a year." The 22-year-old had come to East Texas from Amarillo, where he had worked for the Santa Fe Railroad. Up in the Panhandle, the newspaper noted with no curiosity, he had been known as J.H. Lee. His real name, the story continued, was J.H. Gillespie.

Why J.H. had found it expedient to use a different name was not explained.

© Mike Cox
"Texas Tales" September 18 , 2017 column

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