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Port of Call

  • Galveston’s history is inexorably linked with rail.

Galveston’s history with various forms of rail — including electric railway, the railroad and street cars — is as extensive as it is captivating. At one time, Texas’ largest port depended on rail to function successfully, and citizens found public transportation a necessity for daily living. Today, the role of rail has declined but vestiges remain.

Electric Railway

The Rosenberg Library Museum on Sealy Street has, in its permanent collection, a model train of the Galveston Flyer. This brass replica was made in Japan by GSB Rail Ltd. and purchased by the Rosenberg Library in June 2010. It serves as a striking reminder of the efficient public transportation that once connected Galveston and Houston.

The Galveston-Houston Electric Railway Co. (or, as most people called it, the Interurban) operated between the two cities from Dec. 5, 1911, to Oct. 31, 1936. The company formed in 1905 when local businessmen hired Boston-based Stone & Webster Engineering Corp. to plan the project.

Stone & Webster pledged $500,000 to subsidize the cost of building the causeway, which ended up totaling $2 million. The firm chose a direct cross-country route (as opposed to following the coast, as was originally proposed), which passed through Genoa, Webster, League City, Dickinson and La Marque. Although the tracks typically missed city centers, the Interurban helped develop these towns and drove up land prices. Construction started March 28, 1910, and the last spike was driven into the ground Oct. 19, 1911.

The Interurban averaged 1 million passengers a year during its 25-year service.

A one-way ticket cost $1.25, and round-trip was $2. To entice riders, the Interurban offered specials for weekend trips, hunters, dog-track-goers and policemen. The Galveston-Houston Electric Railway Co. also stirred interest with a monthly magazine called The Tangent. It chronicled interesting tales from employees and patrons about the line and became so popular that a number of people subscribed to it.

Passengers could take their dogs onboard but lap dogs had to be kept on the passenger’s lap. Hunters could check their guns, and passengers were allowed to check luggage of up to 150 pounds. In addition to passengers, the Interurban also carried freight, including agricultural goods, dairy, poultry, oil and beer.

The Galveston-Houston Electric Railway Co. had very high standards for its employees. Motormen and conductors were carefully selected and underwent specialized training. Many of the company’s policies — such as refraining from drinking, swearing, smoking, or gambling on duty — might seem like common sense but represented the cutting edge of professionalism at the time. Workers’ watches were inspected regularly to ensure everyone kept the same time, and the cars had headlights that could illuminate up to two-thirds of a mile.

Safety was of the highest priority for the line as well. Master mechanics regularly checked cars and had to approve them before they could leave the barns to return to service.

The Galveston Flyer won the Electric Traction magazine annual speed award in 1925 and 1926. It covered the 50.47 miles from downtown Houston to Galveston in an hour and 15 minutes and had a top speed of 60 miles per hour.

Geography played an important part in its speed and allowed for a fast trip: 34 miles of track were completely straight, and the maximum grade it encountered was a short 3-percent grade bridge. The Interurban was powered by two 1,500- kilowatt, 2,300-volt, 60-cycle alternators, each driven by a horizontal Curtiss turbine. Its main power plant on Clear Creek burned coal or oil and delivered 600 volts of electricity to the trolley lines.

The Interurban was able to weather the storm of 1915 (although the causeway was damaged, causing the loss of service for a week), but by the mid-1920s ridership began to decline. Ultimately the Interurban fell victim to a newer, more personalized form of transportation: the automobile.

The Galveston-Houston Electric Railway Co. invested heavily in buses, and much of the railroad’s right-of-way property was rich in oil. On Halloween day 1936 the Galveston Daily News modestly noted, “Galveston’s historic Interurban line gave way last night to the march of time and ceased operation after 25 years of almost continuous service.”

The replica on display in the Rosenberg Library Museum is a ”Standard” model similar to the 10 cars purchased in 1911 from the Cincinnati Car Co. by the Galveston-Houston Electric Railway. The Standard weighed 72,000 pounds and was 52 feet long, 9 feet wide and 13 feet high.

The cars originally were painted Pullman green with gold lining and lettering, and later the named cars (such as the Galveston Flyer or the Houston Rocket) were painted blue with dark blue roofs, white window posts, red window frames and doors, and white headlights. On the sides of the cars were white oval bluebird emblems.

The Standard had two compartments and could sit 54 passengers. The interior had beautiful Honduran mahogany, bronze trim and luggage racks, wool carpet and silk curtains. Cars also had a bathroom in the rear and a water cooler with paper cups for patrons to quench their thirst.

While the Interurban has been out of service for more than 80 years, its legacy still lives on. It cemented Galveston as an affordable getaway for people in the surrounding region, helped develop many of the cities along its route and forged a bond between Galveston and Houston that lasts to this day.

Railroad

The Galveston, Houston and Henderson Railroad, the first chartered railroad (1853) in Texas, also was the first rail line to reach Galveston Island. Construction began in 1856, with track first laid the next year. By late 1858, it reached from Virginia Point on the mainland to Houston.

With the completion of a railroad bridge across Galveston Bay in February 1860, the GH&H arrived on Galveston Island.

The railroad causeway was destroyed in the storm of 1867 and damaged in the hurricane of 1875, and the Galveston, Houston and Henderson experienced a series of business failures.

Railroad magnate Jay Gould leased the line to the International & Great Northern Railroad in 1882. In 1894, the Missouri, Kansas and Texas Railway (“Katy”) became co-owner with the International and Great Northern.

The GH&H operated the last passenger train to leave Galveston the morning of the great hurricane, on Saturday, Sept. 8, 1900.

During the first decades of the 20th century, the GH&H operated freight and passenger trains. It began developing its Galveston engine facilities in 1907. During 1910, James Stewart & Co., from St. Louis, built a 14-stall roundhouse of reinforced concrete — said to be the only one in Texas — at 43rd and Market streets. The structure cost $45,000. A 70-foot turntable served steam locomotives.

In 1949, the GH&H acquired its first diesel engine, an RS-1 manufactured by American Locomotive Works. The Galveston, Houston and Henderson discontinued the use of steam locomotives in 1953.

The Galveston Wharves Board leased space from the GH&H during the 1970s and early 1980s to service its own diesels. The roundhouse became superfluous when the Galveston Wharves completed a new engine house at 37th Street and Port Industrial Boulevard. The roundhouse was demolished in September 1983.

The Galveston, Houston and Henderson’s freight depot, on the north side of Market Street between 33rd and 35th streets, still stands. It was built at a cost of $64,000 and dedicated in September 1911. The GH&H; International and Great Northern; and Missouri, Kansas and Texas maintained offices in the facility. The building had concrete floors, which offered resistance to fires and pests.

In 1982, Gately Paper Co. purchased the depot from the GH&H for its business operations. Today, the building is a visible reminder of Galveston’s first railroad.

Street Cars

The first street cars came to the city in 1866, courtesy of Col. B. Rush Plumly and the Galveston City Railway Co. People waited hours for their turn to take a 10-cent ride down Market Street. The first street cars could seat 10 passengers. Smoking, drinking and profane language were prohibited.

The streetcar lines expanded exponentially during the next 30 years, peaking at the point of having more than 40 miles of track covered by 88 cars pulled by 238 mules.

According to one news account written in 1936, the mules that powered the street cars in those days were docile beasts who learned to stop only when their drivers set the brake.

If the mules were set to farm work, or made to pull a car that wasn’t set on a track, drivers had a difficult time controlling them. “One could yell ‘Whoa!’ at them forever and never be heeded,” one Galveston newspaper noted.

Galveston began making the switch to electric trolleys in 1891.

The cars were originally “open,” meaning a careless medical student could occasionally fall out on his way to the University of Texas Medical Branch. That changed in 1917, when the railroad company began purchasing cars that were enclosed. At that point, it was the latest in safety innovations for the company.

In 1915, air brakes were introduced. As a novel concept, the brake system included a safety feature, where if the conductor became incapacitated, the brakes would be enacted and as an added measure, the trolley would dump sand on the tracks to prevent a collision.

The electric trolley system operated until 1938, though service was interrupted by the 1900 Hurricane, and the mules had to return in the interim. But the company operated at a deficit for its last five years — thanks in no small part to the city preventing a 5-cent price increase. The trolleys’ final run was on June 1, 1938. They were replaced by a bus system.

In truth, trolleys have never really come back to the island. To be a trolley, a car must troll under something, and Galveston never rebuilt the overhead electric lines that powered the original trolleys. They did bring back the tracks, however.

Starting in 1973, certain groups began agitating for the return of a rail system. The calls ultimately resulted in a 1979 study, sponsored by the Park Board of Trustees, the Moody Foundation and others, that called for a rail system that connected existing and potential visitor attractions.

Construction of the new system, priced at $10.7 million and paid for by federal and private grants, began in 1983 and was completed in 1988. The park board also bought four diesel-powered streetcars and four rubber-tire trolleys that would bring the tourists to areas not covered by the 6.7 miles of track.

Even at that time, the project was controversial. In 1987, a group of citizens organized a recall of the city council halfway through the new system’s construction. A recent charter amendment, made after the start of the project, required a citywide vote to start new transportation projects. The council survived the recall.

Still, during its heyday, opinions of the trolley were split between whether it was a tourist attraction or a system for commuters, said John Dundee, who managed the trolleys when they returned in the 1990s. Dundee told the Galveston County Daily News that he saw the trolleys as a way of promoting the island’s tourist interests.

“It’s a heritage thing, it’s a way to get tourists out of their car and out of their vehicle,” said Dundee, adding that he encouraged his drivers to describe Galveston landmarks and add other personal touches to the trolley rides as they made their way from the Strand to Seawall Boulevard.

The track itself was expanded twice, in 1995 and 2005, to increase service to the port and University of Texas Medical branch — but ridership was always considered to be lower than what was originally estimated. In 2007, about 31,000 people rode the trolley for $1.25 a trip, bringing in only about $39,000 for the system’s operation.

The trolley system ended its second run after Ike in 2008, while under the guidance of the city’s Island Transit system. After Hurricane Ike, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the Federal Transit Authority agreed to fund repairs to the streetcar system, and the trolleys were back in the summer of 2018.

To expand the service area that the streetcar trolleys serve, the city of Galveston purchased four rubber wheel trolleys that will connect with the downtown trolley route, providing island visitors transportation from the historic east end of the island to the west, with numerous stops in between.

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