Recently I had a conversation with Mr. James Powell and he mentioned he would like to see an article about the Cotton Belt Railway. Since I didn’t know enough about railroads to write a competent article, Mr. Powell went on to say that he had written a history of the Cotton Belt Railroad that he would be glad to share with the Gatesville Messenger readers. His article proved to be excellent and complete with footnotes. Below are excerpts from his fine history of The Cotton Belt Railroad and it will be continued in a second article. Come to Coryell Museum and enjoy our photographs of Gatesville’s historic trains and depots or purchase the Coryell County Scrapbook by Mears with photos of those days.
Many of the initial railroads in Texas were built in a piece-meal fashion with the ultimate goal being to have a connection back to St. Louis, Missouri. Local investors would get together and seek a charter from the state to build an extension to come to their town. Most of the track was first laid as narrow gauge, only three feet between rail centers. Many of these small railroad companies suffered financial failure and were re-organized by different groups or eventually purchased by a larger railroad line that had sufficient experience and equipment to make a profitable operation.
The first rail line to Gatesville from Waco was constructed in 1882 and had a terminus and a wooden frame construction depot on Lutterloh Street on the north side of town (Coryell County Scrapbook, by Mears, photo section). Twenty-nine years later, another railroad was constructed from Gatesville to Hamilton, and connected with lines to Comanche and Stephenville to the Northwest. The Cotton Belt eventually leased the new railroad, the Stephenville North & South Texas Railway, and operated it as a westward extension of its lines in Texas. The Cotton Belt considered this part of their goal to get to the Rio Grande River with a connection to Mexico and southwestern Texas.
An interesting and unusual event occurred while under the management of the St. Louis, Arkansas, and Texas Railroad. It became evident that if the railroad were to prosper without outside financial help, the railroad would have to change the gauge of the track to standard gauge (4’ 8 ½” rail spacing) and branch lines and line extensions would have to be built or bought. So, with a massive amount of preparation, the lines in Arkansas and Missouri were re-gauged. Traffic was suspended on October 18, 1886 and with reinforced section gangs of men, the work of changing the gauge of 419 miles of mainline track was completed in a twenty-four hour period. The lines in Texas also were re-gauged with that work being completed on January 12, 1887.(A History of the St. Louis Southwestern Railway,Tyler,p.32) The St. L. A. & T. also set about buying branch lines and building extensions. (Cotton Belt Locomotives, Joseph Strapac, p. 4) It was about this time the name “Cotton Belt Route” came into use, since the combined rails served the cotton producing areas of Missouri, Arkansas and Texas.
The brick Gatesville train depot located at 2307 South Highway 36 is currently the Gatesville Chamber of Commerce building. It has served the community for 100 years. It was built in 1913 by the St. Louis-Southwestern Railway Company (the Cottonbelt). Its exterior is of two colors of brick with cut limestone trim construction on concrete foundation and ceramic tile floors. Its dimensions are 24’ wide by 72’ long, or 1728 sq. ft, plus the area enclosed by the bay window. The freight depot was in addition to this building. The space for the passenger agent was inside a walled area that included the bay window. The bay window allowed the agent to see the trains as they made their arrival from either direction. In the inside wall of the agent’s office was built a ticket window that allowed the agent to conduct business with the traveling public.
On the north side of the building is a porte co-chere, a covered driveway that protected passengers from the weather in getting to and from their autos or buggies. Entrance was made through a door into the waiting room. Six matching brick columns support the roof of the porte co-chere. Surrounding the base of each of the columns is a concrete bench for passengers to sit while waiting for their train.
In early 1913, the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) organized a project to value the property of the nations railroads (The Waco Times-Herald, April 25, 1913). As a point of interest, one of the results of that project was a valuation that was made of the Gatesville Cotton Belt depot and several items associated with it. Field sheet no. 367 dated January 11, 1916 lists these features of the depot: Combination brick passenger and freight depot, 24’ X 295’, built in 1913, matched board ceiling and plaster walls, concrete foundation, heated by stoves vented through chimneys, tile roof, copper gutters and downspouts, plumbing that included water closets, lavatories and septic tank, electric wiring in conduit, and exterior lights. The valuation sheet even lists three signs, with the name “GATESVILLE”. One is of terra cotta and incorporated into the brickwork above the bay window. Two others signs, 14 ft. X 20 in. with the name “GATESVILLE” painted in black-on-white were placed on the north and south ends of the building. An impressively modern building for the time! The valuation placed on the building by the ICC (including the freight house) was $14,196. That valuation was revised to $16,800 in 1919. (Interstate Commerce Commission, Bureau of Valuation, National Archives, College Park, Md.)
As a testament to the quality of its construction, the beautifully historic depot building continues to serve the community well.
By Jann Dworsky and Property of The Gatesville Messenger 2014