Antebellum Ghost Towns and the Railroads that did them in

I’ve been making several trips around the Red River Valley to discover forgotten towns for my book project this summer. However, I don’t just look for cemeteries, even though they’re the best way to find old settlements. I want to find actual ruins! I think that remains speak much louder than anything can, so I look for towns with remains.

The other day, I took a trip around Louisiana and found the antebellum town of Allen’s Settlement, which was built around intersecting roads. Because nothing remains of Allen’s Settlement,  I don’t consider it necessarily a “ghost town” that needs to be visited.

Allens Settlement

Allen’s Settlement in Claiborne Parish, Louisiana, 1863.

But it makes me wonder – why did some towns thrive and others falter? I guess it’s because most antebellum towns west of the Mississippi River did not survive the railroad boom. It’s not necessarily just because the existing towns didn’t provide enough incentive for the companies to lay tracks, though. These corporations – the original “corporate personhoods”- often had settlement, or rather town building, subsidiaries that speculated on selling land plots. They didn’t want to (or need to) compete with established towns as the state granted them charters, like the land grant companies of old, to entice settlers. They simply built new towns, and the profits of both freight hauling and land sales could be gained by the railroads exclusively.

Examples of the railroad land schemes can be found all over the Red River Valley: Hope (Hempstead County, Arkansas) and Texarkana (Miller County, Arkansas and Bowie County, Texas) were founded by the railroads, as was Denison (Grayson County, Texas).

Hope UP train

Trains made Hope, Arkansas what it is today – including the Hempstead County seat.

Luckily, some antebellum cities along the Red River still exist – Dallas, Sherman, Alexandria, Shreveport, Natchitoches, and Marksville, for example. Being a county seat helped them to survive, of course – however, Hope wrestled the county seat status away from Washington, as did Ashdown from Richmond (Little River County, Arkansas) – so political status was no guarantee. The take-away is that in the American capitalist system, money talks. Cities that were able to incentivize railroads enough for them to lay tracks were able to “weather” the corporate land take-overs.

Railroads might be romantic and all, but above all, they were corporations that changed the very nature of human settlement patterns, at least in the US. They are the true Goliaths.

Published in: on May 16, 2015 at 2:13 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Mapping the Red River Valley

Google Maps have been my constant companion since they were introduced back in the stone ages (okay, a few years ago). I can’t believe I ever did research without them, and I seriously pity the historians who came before me who didn’t have this kind of tool at their disposal.

I should mention that I’ve been a map fiend from way back, and have always used them extensively… but! The satellite pictures on Google Maps (and Google Earth) truly help me understand the geographical context of what I’m researching.

CaptureSpanishBluff

A snapshot of Spanish Bluff, the place where the Custis/Freeman Expedition was halted by Spanish troops in the early part of the 19th century.

History cannot exist without a grasp of the geography where events took place. The location, time, and space are all important factors in understanding why and how things happened. Sometimes, it’s not the easiest thing to picture… landscapes change, after all.

Let’s take at a photo I found on the Texas & Pacific Railway Historical Archive website:

denison tp tunnel

Denison, where this photo was taken, doesn’t look at all like it did back in its railroading hey-day. So I checked the Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps to make sure that I am seeing the intersection of tracks correctly, as it seems the T&P tracks are passing underneath the MKT tracks:

CaptureSanborndenison

Using descriptions from the T&P site (behind Crockett and Hull Streets) and discerning the railroad bed from up in the air, I found the disused right-of-way on Google Maps. I made sure it was the right one when I traced it back to Bells.

CaptureDenisonKatylinemod

And, if you look closer, you can even spot a section of the stone wall from the old tunnel:

CaptureDenisonwall

Which is what I photographed when I visited Denison the other day:

Denison wall on old katy right of way

 

Looking at the photograph and the current condition of where the railroad used to be gives me a sense of how much Denison has changed over the years.

Then, there’s the question I had about something I saw from the air in Sherman, between Mulberry and Pacific Streets (south/north) and Willow and Lee Streets (west/east):

CaptureShermangoogle

It looked industrial (that wasn’t too far-fetched) so I decided to see what I could from old maps. First, I checked out the Bird’s eye map:

CaptureShermanbirdseyeCaptureSherman13

And then checked the Sanborn Fire Insurance Map:

CaptureShermansanborn

So, the bases I’m seeing are peanut and cotton oil tanks. Not earth-shattering, but at least I know what I’m looking at when I check out the ruins.

Another way to do this is to check city directories from the time periods, but since I don’t have them handy, I’ll use the maps to figure things out.

This kind of research is what goes on all the time inside museums, archives, libraries, bored people’s laptops at Starbucks, etc. Hey, it’s something to do!

Published in: on March 17, 2013 at 1:45 am  Comments (2)  
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Three Things I love about Fort Worth

Fort Worth Camp Bowie Landmark Lodge small

A while back, I posited three of Dallas’ greatest places to visit… according to my biased, unasked-for opinion, anyway. Woe is me if I didn’t give Fort Worth its fair share of my enthusiasm. Fort Worth is, by anyone’s account, a city that knows its identity – pure western – and knows its value, as evidenced by the way citizens and benefactors care for it. Fort Worth is full of architectural gems, vibrant city life, and cultural mainstays, and I feel the need to give it its Red River Historian due. Therefore, in no particular order,  my top Fort Worth-y places are:

Camp Bowie Boulevard
I love roads – so much, in fact, that I’ve made it a habit of learning the history of highways. While Fort Worth has long been a crossroads of many different overland pathways, I have a special affinity for Camp Bowie Boulevard. The Camp Bowie Historical District  has fought hard to keep its original, brick-lined integrity intact. Fort Worth’s modern history is centered around this road, with locally-owned restaurants, small florist shops, traffic circles, and old-fashioned motor courts along the west end. At the other end of the boulevard (nearest downtown) sits the famous Kimball Art Museum. A large Picasso statue welcomes visitors (special exhibits require entrance fees, but the permanent collection is free).

Fort Worth Camp Bowie with Lucilles

Surrounding the Kimball are the Museum of Modern Art, with its contemplative exterior and expansive interior, and the Amon Carter Museum of American Art. Nearby are the Cattle Raisers Museum, National Cowgirl Hall of Fame, and the Fort Worth Museum of Natural History.

Believe me, you can spend DAYS here. So when you’re all museumed-out, come on over to my next-favorite place in Fort Worth:

The Texas & Pacific Station
Of all 20th-century design styles, the most decadent and identifiable is art deco, and the Texas & Pacific Station along Lancaster Avenue (the original US 80) sits as a holy grail to this style. While the upstairs portions are now lofts, the lower portion is still accessible. To take the Trinity Railway Express to Dallas, you’ll have to enter the station to get to the platform. From there, you can witness the many freight and Amtrak trains that come in and out of Fort Worth as well as fabled Tower 55, one of the last, fully functioning railway control towers in the Dallas/Fort Worth area. The T&P Station used to be sit forlorn and empty after Interstate 30 was built on its north side, which separated it from its historic place at the south end of downtown. Luckily, the interstate was reconfigured to the south of the station, and now this wonderful building is, once again, a true Fort Worth icon.

Pictures can't do the T&P Station justice, but I'll try.

Apparently, the love I have for Fort Worth centers around transportation, and my last entry lets you use your own power:

The Trinity Trail passes the Swift ruins.

Trinity River Trail
To get a real feel for what my ex-coworker used to affectionately call “Funky Town,” I take bike rides between the Trinity River levees along the Trinity River Trail network. The trails stretch several miles to the east, south, and west, and they take me to downtown, towards the zoo, and into the Stockyards. I love this ride, as I get to pass under multiple railroad bridges – as someone who really loves trains, it’s always a bonus to get a little closer to them (and even on a quiet Sunday, I counted at least ten freight trains). But I especially like the scenery on the trail. The Trinity River Trail system provides a complete picture of Fort Worth, and I urge anyone who can to bike, walk, ride a horse, or mosey on a scooter to take it and see the city from such a historic and serene vantage point.

So these are my favorite places, but I could point out quite a few more: the Old Southern Pancake House! Miss Molly’s Burgers! Lucille’s! (Huh, all of these are food places, so I must be hungry). Okay, non-eateries: the Davidson and Centennial Yards! The old KATY bridge on East Morningside Drive! What used to be Hell’s Half Acre!

fort worth katy bridge
I just count myself darn lucky that I live in the Dallas/Fort Worth metro-mess, because I’m in awe of these fascinating cities. And that I consider them a part of the Red River Valley region, of course!

Insulator-ing

I consider myself very lucky because my son likes to take road trips with me. Sometimes, I feel as though I need to justify my trips, and what better way to do that than to just blame all the traveling on my son. Well, not really – I just like to get up and go, and ever since he was a small baby, he got up and went with me.

Now, he’s 12, and he discovered a hobby that combines my love of road tripping with a purpose: to find insulators. Glass (also ceramic and plastic) insulators were used to hold up and protect telegraph and telephone wires that were strung next to railroad lines. David likes to discover old right-of-ways that still have telegraph poles next to them and hunt for these utilitarian pieces of art. Currently, he has over 100 glass insulators in a variety of colors. He usually finds simple Hemingray 45s that are clear or aqua,  but sometimes he’s lucky enough to find blue and green ones, too.

A sandblasted Hemingray

While I’ve never been much of a collector, I must say these insulators are growing on me. They’re just so pretty, and some of them have interesting stories to tell. For example, I especially like the ones that still have a ring of soot on them – remnants of the days of steam locomotives.

If your curiosity has been piqued, here are a few websites that can tell you a lot more about this rather interesting hobby: http://www.insulators.info/ , http://www.nia.org/, and http://insulatorstore.com/

Published in: on December 3, 2011 at 3:53 am  Leave a Comment  
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In Defense of Automobiles

I love a good road trip, and I believe that I’m not alone in sharing that sentiment. I’d wager to guess that the majority of people from all over the world like to move about and see what they haven’t  seen yet, and experience things they haven’t yet come across. To want to get up and go is probably simple human nature.

But I’m also very environmentally conscious. I like my world green and clean. I recycle, plant only native shrubs, grasses, and trees, eat hand-gathered eggs, insulate my house properly, ride my bike to shopping, never litter, and pick up after my dogs.

Thus, many of my travels always come with twangs of guilt. Just last week, I once again took a road trip. This time, I retraced the old route of US Highway 77. Having been bypassed in many places by Interstate 35, it often proved a hard road to follow, but I lucked out and found both official and forgotten remnants along the way. I also discovered right-of-ways of long-abandoned railroad lines (mainly the Missouri-Kansas-Texas Railroad). That, of course, made me think about the environmental impact of all the ways I could travel – by plane, train, or the automobile.

The Southern Pacific Sunbeam and the Sam Houston Zephyr at Dallas Union Station.

The oldest kind of major traveling option are trains, but here in Texas, they are also the most neglected. It used to be that daily trains from Dallas to Houston to Austin to San Antonio to Oklahoma City to Shreveport, et. al., were common sights. Now, those routes have been torn up, to either be used as bike paths or to simply exist as forgotten berms on the side of the road. Today, only three long-distance trains serve Texas (the Texas Eagle, Sunset Limited, and Heartland Flyer), and only one is in Oklahoma (Heartland Flyer). Hopefully, that will change soon, as talks are giving way to action in installing a high-speed rail line.

High-speed railroads are supposed to be THE answer to transportation problems like pollution and congestion. I’m all for them, because locomotives (whether at 60 mph or at 160 mph) use hybrid technology that use less diesel the faster they go, and carry more people per gallon than any other passenger carrier. So, yea for trains.

Planes offer a different experience, of course. They are far from efficient in their carbon footprint, but their speed makes up for their lack of environmental friendliness. I hate flying, though.

Remains of a gas station along US 77

Then, there’s the scourge of the earth – the personal car. When taking into account the gas used per miles driven, and the number of each needed to equal the capacity of one airplane or one train, then environmentally speaking, the car is a MAJOR loser. And I hear about it all the time, too: automobiles are major polluters, co-commuting and less driving will save the earth, etc.

And that’s all true. But I tell you what, cars have also been VERY beneficial in many ways. While I can’t dispute their negative environmental impact, I can say that of all the long-distance traveling options, cars are by far the most democratic. When I was driving along and around US 77, I saw many small mom & pop store, cafes, gas stations, and auto part stores (many still in operation) that crowd the sides of the roads. Airplanes don’t allow for that kind of infrastructure at all, of course, and train stations have limited space to accommodate small businesses. Cars are also quite affordable. Yes, I know they cost money (insurance, payments, taxes, repairs) but these costs can be stretched out over a period of time, whereas plane and train ticket costs cannot. Further, their affordability comes from their accessibility – cars can take you practically anywhere, whereas trains and planes bring you only to certain pre-designated spots. Besides, cars can be used (or not) as needs arise, meaning one can have a “beater car” and still get by.

Taking bikes rock, but driving rocks, too.

It’s not that I don’t favor alternate modes of transport… I definitely do! I take the train as much as I can. I voted for a commuter rail line that by June of this year will come through my town. I also walk to the grocery store and ride my bike to run errands. But, I have to admit – I LOVE my car, too. I love that I can drive around the Red River Valley and discover places I’ve never been to; that I can pick a place on a map and be able to visit it; that I can eat, read, and even sleep inside my car (which I’ve done on occasion, after visiting a ghost town in the middle of nowhere).  The car has provided me with more freedom than any other mode of transportation. I think everyone should feel this kind of freedom, too. Cars should become more affordable, more efficient, smaller, and more reliable. It may not be the “in” thing to say among my fellow tree-hugging friends, but I’ll say it, anyway: cars are cool.

I wouldn't mind road tripping in this.

Curiosity is not just killing the Cat

Lately, I have been getting what Laura Ingalls Wilder called “itchy feet:” I’m just so itching to get out of the house and explore whatever suits my fancy – and this curiosity is killing me (hence the witty – cough – title of this post). What with teaching, the preps for teaching, the grading, and the work I’m doing on my books and future classes, I haven’t had much time.  I did go hunting for some railroad relics this past weekend, and found a few, so I’m not destitute for discoveries, yet.

I encountered this ca. 1915 suspension bridge near Sherman, Texas.

But I just bought a 1934 Conoco Map of Texas from E-Bay. Good grief, does that make for some interesting reading. Ferry crossings are dotted all along the Red River, as well as old toll bridges that do not exist anymore. I went to Google Maps (thank goodness for satellite imagry) and was able to find remnants of these toll bridges, so guess what I’ll be doing in the near future?!

There is nothing in the world that comes close to finding places that time has forgotten. These small pieces of the historical puzzle just fill me with absolute wonder. I don’t think I’ll ever get tired of exploring the backwaters around here. And believe me, there are some real backwaters to explore.

I guess my interest in the Red River Valley of Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, and Louisiana might seem rather mundane for people who live around really old, settled history – let’s face it, the ghost towns I encounter can’t even hold a candle to the ghosts of Pompeii, and the ruins I photograph are rather puny when compared to the cavernous insane asylums of the Northeast. Yes, consider yourselves envied, you people of the history book places. Still, I LOVE the fact that some of the places I encounter may have never been explored at all – it’s almost pioneer-like, in a way. Like woman on the moon or something.

If you happen to read any of these entries and are wondering what the heck I’m talking about, come visit my website, Red River Historian. Also, for a great way to loose yourself for a couple of hours in some fantastic photography and conversation, visit the Urban Exploration Forums. You can also find a kindred spirit in Forgotten New York, a website devoted to exploring the side of New York and its burroughs that urban redevelopment has missed (at least for the moment).

If you know of a cool place you think I’d like, or if you’d like to share what you’ve found, just post a comment!

Published in: on October 21, 2008 at 3:07 am  Comments (4)  

Hidden Dallas

dallas-floor.jpg

The tiled floor peaks out from underneath the asphalt of a parking lot in downtown Dallas reminds me of what has been lost.

dallas-elm-street-t-and-p-advert-small.jpg
Passenger service to St Louis from Dallas via the Texas and Pacific – now, the Amtrak takes the intrepid traveler to that destination.
I know there are many, many people out there who have a low opinion of Dallas (I’m not naming names, but you know who you are). Fortunately, I’m not one of them. I think Dallas is pretty nifty. Yes, some parts are ugly, there are WAY too many ‘iffy’ neighborhoods, and the differences between the ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’ are palatable. And, besides the always insightful and slightly neurotic Dallas Observer, the city only has one newspaper

However… Dallas is a real card. This city tries to be fancy and cosmopolitan, but its shady little past always keeps popping up in the most unexpected places.

I took a drive through Dallas the other day to visit a bunch of sights -the Texas Theater in Oak Cliff, Old City Hall, Old Red Museum, JFK Memorial (you know, the usual Kennedy tour) and while moseying around, I spotted some very interesting hints of what Dallas used to be like.

On Elm Street, just south of the US 75 bridge, one can see an old Texas and Pacific advertisement painted on the side of a commercial building – a tribute to Deep Ellum’s railroad past, where the T&P would lumber on Pacific Avenue, the next street over. In a parking lot just a few blocks up from Deep Ellum are the remains of what once was a magnificently tiled floor of some poor, demolished building.

I’ve promised myself that very soon I’ll be taking a visit to the DeGoyler Library at SMU to hunt down some more vintage Dallas photos, just so I can see what Pacific Avenue used to look like with the trains slicing through its middle. I also like to picture the way Dallas was before that bohemoth, Interstate 30, was built and cut off the southern part of downtown (on occasion, I’ve had people gripe that Fair Park was so far away, when it’s really just a mile from Union Station!)

Oh, how I wish Dallas looked like it used to…

Published in: on February 5, 2008 at 3:19 am  Leave a Comment  

Driving and discovering

dexter-vault-door-closer-small.jpg

I took a couple of roadtrips this past weekend. My road trips are usually local – I don’t drive very far because I like to know where I am. I want to see the locations behind the history. Since I’m learning so much about the history of the Red River Valley, I guess that’s why I continue to explore that region.

My class had told me about a ghost town named Dexter in Cooke County, Texas. Dexter used to be close to Gainesville, TX in size, but it was slowly abandoned after the ferry stopped running and the railroad decided not to lay its tracks around Dexter (the topography is not really suitable for tracks, as just 15 miles south the terrain is much flatter). Ergo, Dexter is a town no longer.

I found the remains of the old downtown hidden behind trees, including a vault that stands amid the foundation of what used to be the bank. Its iron shutter doors, a form of fire saftey at the turn of the century, remain intact, though the vault itself is crumbling. In a few years’ time, the entire structure will cave in on itself (maybe with the help of a few people who desire some of the loose bricks).

Besides the vault, a church, and two cemeteries, an old store (?) school (?) is the only builidng left standing in this once busy town that hugged the Red River.

As usual, I started to contemplate the fragility of the human story in the American West. Far from being unique, ghost towns litter the landscape around here, testament to the many failures of the capitalistic experiment the West was to settlers, immigrants, and industry. Withits few ruins, Dexter symbolizes the tenuous hold that people had in this region, and the rapidity of development and progress – founded in 1873 (Post Office opening), the city of Dexter had outlived its purpose by1900.

I love to read these ruins, because I feel that when I do, I allow the story to continue.

Published in: on February 5, 2008 at 1:16 am  Leave a Comment