Last revised: March 25, 2023
By: Adam Burns
Texas is big. Its 268,597 square miles ranks second among all 50 states (Alaska ranks first at 663,267 square miles) and first within the Lower 48.
Its vast size, abundance of natural resources, and coastal ports resulted in a booming economy that attracted a multitude of railroads, and even more people.
In his book "The Routledge Historical Atlas Of The American Railroads," author and historian John F. Stover notes its mileage peaked at 16,125 in 1920, another first.
In railroading's classic age, many famous flags served the Lonestar State including the Santa Fe; Chicago, Burlington & Quincy; Chicago, Rock Island & Pacific; Missouri Pacific; Southern Pacific; Missouri-Kansas-Texas; St. Louis-San Francisco Railway; and St. Louis Southwestern Railway ("Cotton Belt").
Today, there are a handful of great organizations offering scenic train rides throughout Texas thanks to its rich heritage.
Depending on your interest you can see historic steam and diesel locomotives as well as trolleys in operation.
The state's busiest and most popular is the Texas State Railroad, which hosts a multitude excursions and numerous special events throughout the year.
Due to a lack of eastern connections, railroads in Texas did not appear until the early 1850's.
This was typical in the states and territories west of the Mississippi River where such operations were largely only local in nature.
Texas's first is recognized as the Buffalo Bayou, Brazos, & Colorado Railway (BBB&C) chartered on February 11, 1850.
According to the Texas State Historical Association the project was led by General Sidney Sherman who wanted to link the Buffalo Bayou (a river passing through Houston which empties into Burnet Bay/Galveston Bay) with the Colorado River.
Also known as the Harrisburg Railroad, the BBB&C began construction from Harrisburg in 1851. By August of 1853, 21 miles was open to Stafford's Point.
Over the course of the next seven years work proceeded slowly westward until crews had reached Alleyton, along the east bank of the Colorado River, by 1860.
Due to the Civil War's outbreak no further construction took place for several years. Finally, in November, 1867 the BBB&C was able to reach Columbus, across the Colorado River, thanks to a 3 mile line built by the citizens of that town.
The railroad always struggled financially and was eventually sold at foreclosure on July 7, 1868. It was sold again on January 24, 1870 and renamed as the Galveston, Harrisburg, & San Antonio Railway.
Under its new title the GH&SA abandoned attempts to reach Austin and instead sought a due west approach into San Antonio.
In addition, as early as 1878, Collis P. Huntington, which led the Southern Pacific extending eastward from California, sought acquisition of the GH&SA to reach Texas (he officially took over the property on July 1, 1881).
According to the book, "Southern Pacific Railroad," by Brian Solomon, the Southern Pacific arrived in El Paso by May 19, 1881.
Under SP's control the GH&SA was extended throughout Texas reaching such points as Galveston and Houston. Along with through corridors several branch lines were also added.
With a final spike ceremony held just west of the Pecos River, the Southern Pacific boasted a direct route into New Orleans, Louisiana. Better known as Southern Pacific's "Sunset Route" this corridor became a key artery within its system.
Through a corporate restructuring the GH&SA was swallowed up into other SP holding company on March 1, 1927, the Texas & New Orleans Railroad.
Today, the old BBB&C is still an important component of SP successor Union Pacific. Because of the state's size, natural resources, and important cities (Dallas/Fort Worth, Galveston, San Antonio, etc.) Texas still contains thousands of miles of railroads.
This museum, located in the Northern Panhandle, is located at 3160 I Avenue near the former Santa Fe main line and along a former industrial park siding.
They are housed within a large building and feature an impressive 48-feet x 75-feet layout set in the era between 1952 - 1970s.
The Austin Steam Train, based in Austin, Texas, hosts excursions through the "Hill Country" using tracks once owned by the Southern Pacific.
The line is 163 miles long and used as both a commuter and freight rail line with the Steam Train having permission to operate excursions. Along with their standard trips the association also features murder mystery specials, seasonal rides, and charters.
"The former Gulf, Colorado & Santa Fe railroad depot in Clifton has been restored with the old passenger section of the building being transformed into a railroad museum.
The original depot building was built in 1880 but burned in 1901 and was replaced with the current building. The Gulf, Colorado & Santa Fe originated in Galveston and many Texas towns along the route were created by the railroad and named after various personalities within the railroad including Rosenberg, Sealy, Cameron, Temple, Moody, Kopperl and Morgan, to name a few.
Like many railroads in the era, the GC&SF encountered financial difficulty and was subsequently bought by the larger and more famous "Santa Fe", the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railway in 1888.
In that era, the railroad was an economic juggernaut and was the cause for a migration of the town of Clifton from its original location, a bit north on the Bosque River, to be next to the rails.
Equipment, furniture and other goods and supplies, both large and small, arrived on a railhead directly behind the major store fronts.
Local farmers shipped their crops and cattle by rail; a grain elevator, a dedicated cotton bale loading platform and a cattle corral were all located on Clifton's rails just south of the depot.
At its peak, Clifton had seven active sets of rails passing through town, distributed on both sides of the depot building.
With the rapid growth of the highway system and more affordable and reliable automobiles combined with the dawn of the airline industry, national demand for railroad passenger service plummeted after World War II and in 1953 scheduled passenger service in Clifton was terminated. Santa Fe's "Texas Chief", which operated between Galveston and then Houston and Chicago, continued to pass through Clifton with the closest stop being in McGregor.
In 1967 the U.S. Postal Department terminated the vast majority of mail contracts with America's railroads.
Those mail contracts were the lifeblood of the passenger train service and after the contract cancellation, the railroads rushed to drop unprofitable passenger service all across the country.
In 1971 Amtrak assumed nearly all passenger rail traffic in the United States with Santa Fe's "Texas Chief" being ultimately replaced by Amtrak's Texas Eagle which still passes through Clifton to and from Chicago.
In 1983 local freight traffic had also diminished substantially and the Santa Fe closed the agency in Clifton, donating the depot building to the City of Clifton with the proviso that it be moved off the AT&SF right-of-way.
The City moved the depot to about two blocks north and two blocks west of its original position and converted it into the headquarters for the Clifton Police Department, a capacity in which it served for over 25 years.
The railroad industry went through yet another series of financially trying times.
Many railroads were failing and mergers and acquisitions became commonplace throughout the industry as the railroads worked to survive in an environment where the many operational interfaces between the customers and the various railroads produced huge inefficiencies.
A proposed merger of the Santa Fe with the Southern Pacific was blocked by the federal government.
Although still profitable, the Santa Fe needed a partner and in 1995 the Santa Fe was acquired by the Burlington Northern, giving birth to the Burlington Northern Santa Fe or BNSF. BNSF still uses sidings in Clifton for occasional local freight shipments but most of the trains now simply pass through town on their way to other destinations.
After the police department moved into a more spacious and modern home, the depot fell into ill repair. Very little maintenance had been done in 30 years.
So, in 2016 the family of Edwin Olsen, a long time Clifton resident and a die-hard railroad enthusiast, generously offered to finance much needed repairs and improvements to the depot including a new roof, carpentry repairs, new heating and air conditioning, electrical work and both interior and exterior paint, interior lighting, landscaping and display cases and many items for those cases.
So in April, 2017 Amtrak's Texas Eagle made the first scheduled passenger stop in Clifton in over 54 years and de-boarded over 60 passengers to help celebrate the grand opening of the Edwin Olsen Railroad Museum.
While naturally focused on the Santa Fe, the museum houses historical railroad items from many other famous railroads. A fully functional HO-scale model railroad layout exposes a new generation to model railroading while kindling fond memories for many other railroad fans.
The City of Clifton owns and operates the museum, which is open on the 1st and 3rd Saturdays of the each month, except for holiday weekends, from 10am to 2pm. The museum is also open to school tour groups, civic organizations and others by special arrangement through the City offices."
This attraction is located in Flatonia and features the area's railroad history. It maintains a small pavilion, museum, original switching tower, and caboose on the grounds.
This attraction is located at 1700 Colonial Parkway in Fort Worth and boasts a 5-mile trip from the Forest Park Depot to the Duck Pond in Trinity Park. The rides last about 30-45 minutes. The little railroad has been in operation since 1959. To learn more please visit their website.
One of the state's largest railroad museums, the facility at Galveston features an impressive collection of rolling stock and preserved locomotives along with a wide range of displays and artifacts.
Some of their noted pieces include a pair of cosmetically restored Santa Fe F7's (ex-Southern Pacific) and SP/T&NO 4-6-0 #1 built by Alco in 1892. There is also an operating model layout and short train rides on the grounds.
The Grapevine Railroad, based Grapevine, Texas operates train rides between its headquarters and Fort Worth on trackage originally owned by the St. Louis Southwestern Railway (Cotton Belt).
Along with two operable steam locomotives the railroad also has a GP7 diesel on hand. It operates numerous specials throughout the year (such as hosting "A Day Out With Thomas" the tank engine) along with their standard excursion schedule.
The Historic Jefferson Railway, also known as the Jefferson & Cypress Bayou Railway, is a 3-foot, narrow-gauge located in Jefferson, Texas.
It has been in service since 1985 and uses 4-4-0 #7 for power, hosting trips on a 3-mile journey through the Big Cypress Bayou. The railroad also features several special rides and other trips throughout the year. To learn more please visit their website.
The History Center, located in Diboll, is an organization which keeps alive the history of the East Texas region.
They feature a small collection of rolling stock, including Texas Southeastern/Southern Pine Lumber 4-6-0 #13 built by Baldwin in 1920, and a large exhibit of historic photos relating to the area's lumber industry.
This museum, located in Plano, tells the area's interurban/streetcar history.
These rapid transit services were once maintained by the Texas Electric Railway, formed in 1916 through the merger of predecessor carriers.
It was very large for an interurban with three branches radiating away from Dallas. The museum features numerous displays and a preserved interurban car.
The only operating vintage trolley service in the state, the McKinney Avenue Transit Authority serves its namesake street in Dallas (in the Uptown district) as well as a section of St. Paul Street and Cole Avenue. Service is provided via restored trolley cars that are climate controlled.
Another of the state's larger railroad museums the Museum Of The American Railroad, now located in Frisco, features an impressive collection of rolling stock including Union Pacific "Big Boy" 4-8-8-4 #4018, Frisco 4-8-4 #4501, Frisco 2-10-0 #1625, and one of only two preserved Alco PA's still in the United States, former Santa Fe PA-1 #59-L (under restoration). To learn more about their facility please visit their website.
This museum, located in New Braunfels, features a collection of artifacts and displays related to the railroads which serve the region including the Missouri Pacific/International-Great Northern and Missouri-Kansas-Texas (Katy).
They are home to a few pieces of rolling stock including Florida Portland Cement 0-6-0T #7 built by H.K. Porter in 1942.
This museum is located inside San Angelo's beautifully restored Kansas City, Mexico & Orient Railway (later Santa Fe) depot. Inside they feature numerous displays as well as an operational model train layout.
Also, be sure to check out their 44-ton switcher and GP9 road-switcher (former Northern Pacific #211 but preserved as South Orient #103).
The Texas & Pacific Railway Museum is located inside Marshall's restored, two-story brick Texas & Pacific (Missouri Pacific) depot built in 1912, which is also used as an Amtrak stop.
The facility preserves the history of the T&P and has a large collection of artifacts and displays on-hand; outside be sure to visit the Union Pacific caboose.
This historical organization is located inside the beautifully restored 1911 Gulf, Colorado & Santa Fe Railway (Santa Fe) in Temple.
The museum tells the history of railroads within the region and the role they played. Inside are several exhibits and historic artifacts while they also feature an archives and library wing. To learn more please visit their website.
The state's most popular train ride is the Texas State Railroad, based in Rusk and Palestine, Texas. Using trackage once owned by the Southern Pacific the railroad features two operating steam locomotives and a vintage diesel locomotive (Alco RS2). Along with their standard excursions the railroad hosts numerous specials throughout the year.
The Texas Transportation Museum, located in San Antonio, has several pieces on-hand to peruse from fire trucks to farm tractors.
They also feature a large collection of rolling stock and locomotives, including a few steam locomotives and operational diesel switchers that pull short excursion trains. Along various other artifacts be sure to check out all of their model layouts on display.
This museum has been in Wichita Falls since 1980 and features a nice collection of rolling stock and locomotives to exhibit including Fort Worth & Denver 2-8-0 #304 built by Alco in 1906. They are open most Saturdays of each week. To learn more please visit their website.
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Wes Barris's SteamLocomotive.com is simply the best web resource on the study of steam locomotives.
It is difficult to truly articulate just how much material can be found at this website.
It is quite staggering and a must visit!