Here are continued excerpts from James Powell’s fine history of the Cotton Belt Railroad. Come to Coryell Museum and enjoy our photographs of Coryell County’s historic trains and depots or purchase the Coryell County Scrapbook by Mears with photos of those days.
With the completion of the Gatesville depot on Highway 36 (now our Gatesville Chamber of Commerce building), it became a second center of business activity, after the downtown square. A Cotton Belt timetable of 1912 lists two Cotton Belt passenger trains each way daily between Waco and Gatesville. The same timetable lists a daily passenger train on the S. N. & S. T. to and from Comanche. And there were a number of freight trains in and out on both railroads daily. Since the depot is located more than a mile east of the Gatesville town square, some enterprising men provided logistics services for the people and businesses of downtown. Billie Elps operated a horse-drawn cab service for railroad passengers to and from the depot to meet the trains. Mr. A. Kelly (and probably others) operated a dray wagon service to move the freight from the freight house to customers in the downtown area ( Coryell County Scrapbook, Mears, photo section). A photographer recorded a company of soldiers ready to board a train at Gatesville during WWI. Other photos show large gatherings of people at the depot and freight house. In another photo, a brass band is present for a celebration of some sort. The Cotton Palace, an entertainment and amusement park in Waco, drew many by rail from Gatesville and Coryell County. Even as late as early WWII, the depot and freight house was the scene of much activity with the arrival of troop trains and trains of military equipment to be unloaded for movement to the newly created Camp Hood. A short while later, a spur line from the main line north of Mound was built across the Leon River and into North Camp Hood so the troops and equipment could be delivered directly to the training areas.
The Cotton Belt Railway, always a frugally managed company, bought eight gas-electric passenger motorcars to replace some steam-powered passenger runs. They were built by General Electric and delivered in 1914. They were to be used on the lightly trafficked branch lines in Texas, and were to be much less expensive to operate than the steam-powered passenger trains. The cars were commonly known as “the doodlebug”, “the motor” or “the jitney”. The eight cars lasted a generation on the Cotton Belt and all were removed from service by 1937 and scrapped by 1942 (email Gary D. Powell to James L. Powell, Nov. 11, 2007). One of those cars was put in service on the Waco to Comanche run though Gatesville. But the motorcar service was discontinued on the Waco to Hamilton and Stephenville run by August 1931. An August 1931 Cotton Belt timetable shows the service had reverted to one steam-powered mixed train (freight and passenger) daily from Waco to Hamilton. Motorcar service continued north and west of Hamilton for another eleven months (E-mail-Gary D. Powell to James L. Powell, Nov. 11, 2007).
Disaster struck the freight house portion of the depot in August 1923. Johnny Washburn and another man that worked for the Ford dealership in Gatesville, Coryell Motor Company, were sent to the freight house to unload new Model T cars from a boxcar. The cars had to be assembled in the boxcar, fueled, and driven onto the dock. Somehow, a spark from a battery ignited gasoline fumes while fueling the last Model T to be unloaded. The fire spread from the car to the freight house and it was completely consumed (Johnny Washburn to Lalla Rookh Ward, 1977)
A Waco newspaper reported the incident as an explosion in a boxcar that spread fire to the warehouse and two other boxcars. The newspaper also reported that an estimated $10,000 in damage was done to the boxcars and their contents, the automobile, and the freight warehouse (The Waco Times-Herald, August 26, 1923, reporting on the fire of August 25). One man, Frank L. Wilson of the Ames community, was burned so badly in the fire that he died eight days later. (Inventory of Graves-Weaver Chapel Cemetery, Coryell County Genealogical Society, and date of death of Frank. L. Wilson: September 2, 1923) A replacement freight house was built in 1924.
Come to the museum to see our wonderful historic photographs in the Cotton Belt Railroad Exhibit, near the Soda Fountain.
By Jann Dworsky and Property of The Gatesville Messenger 2014