Bill Hobbs, 70, of Tyler, spent 40 years working in the Cotton Belt rail yard and on its route. As a yardman, Hobbs “sorted” cargo-carrying cars bound for destinations around East Texas, the rest of the state and nation. The cars carried East Texas produce, petroleum products and an assortment of goods produced in Tyler and East Texas.
When Hobbs started in 1963, almost 100 years had passed since Civil War veteran James Douglas acted on his desire to spur local commerce via train, according to Smith County Historical Society research material.
By the early 1900s, East Texas was becoming an agricultural center in the state. But the growth and expansion of agriculture could not have happened without the ability to move mass quantities of produce to other markets.
Douglas, a peach grower, saw the need to move the area's cotton, livestock and other produce to outside markets. His success in the war, rising to the rank of major and political aspirations, led to a stint as state senator and an open door to influence commissioning an East Texas rail project.
In 1871, Douglas brokered passage of an act granting him and several financial backers the right to build a rail line out of Tyler. The 21.5-mile Tyler Tap connected the city with Big Sandy by 1877. The line owned one locomotive, one passenger car and 16 freight cars.
It was a modest beginning to regional connection.
Local subscription and state land certificates funded its creation, but financial problems drove Douglas to seek outside backers from St. Louis who were interested in gaining access to Texas cotton.
In 1879, the Texas and St. Louis Railroad started north to Texarkana, where it would connect with the Iron Mountain Railroad and St. Louis, and south to Waco. By 1888, the line connected Tyler with other regional markets Waco, Lufkin, Shreveport, La.; and Little Rock, Ark.; and east of Dallas. Tyler's first hospital was established by the railroad the same year.
In 1908, Cotton Belt Railroad established a 300-acre agriculture experiment station in Troup, which helped improve farming techniques.
In 1909, Smith County produced more strawberries than all other Texas counties combined.
After 1910, agriculture business boomed in the region. The ability to reach larger markets meant increased corn, cotton, tomato and fruit production. In 1912, the Cotton Belt line alone hauled 2,730 box cars of peaches. Tyler area farmers produced a record cotton crop of 53,693 bales in 1925. In Smith County, 8,000 acres of tomatoes were grown in 1926.
After surviving early financial woes, the rail struggled along with the rest of America during the Great Depression. It fell into bankruptcy in 1935 but survived under trusteeship and had paid its debts by 1947.
Diesel engines silenced the “choo-choo” chugging of steam-powered locomotives in 1952.
Automobiles emerged as the preferential mode of transportation and the Cotton Belt rail line, and Southern Pacific, which purchased the route in 1932, was forced to abandon passenger service in 1957.
Hobbs witnessed more changes during his four decades with the company starting in 1964. It took a conductor, engineer, fireman and three brakemen to get a train down the tracks when he started. By the time he retired as a conductor, it took him and an engineer.
Stories abound from his four decades. Hobbs and the rest of his crew survived a derailment near Dallas. The ground beneath the rails had washed out during a flash flood and on the return trip, the second engine sank in the hole and cars began stacking as he sat in the caboose.
The derailing cars lost their momentum five cars ahead of the caboose, he said.
Another time, a truck became hung up in the cross ties at a crossing and was hit by Hobbs' train. The driver was not in the vehicle when the train hit it, he said.
“But we got it off the tracks for him,” Hobbs said. “We left one half on one side of the tracks and the other half on the other side.”
By the time he retired, the rail yard barely resembled the 16-track location where hundreds of cars were sorted to move around the country.
Hobbs said throughout his career, the rail line moved Kelly-Springfield tires, Carrier air conditions, Brookshire's produce and more.
In 1988, after being closed for decades, the depot was deeded to the city.
In 1995, the city of Tyler bought the depot and restored the building. In 2004, it became the home of the Tyler Transit system and the Cotton Belt Depot Museum.
Glenn Wilkins, who directs the museum, said the rail line was central to commerce and community.
Cotton Belt train whistles announced Germany's surrender to end World War I in 1918. They blasted as people filled the square for an impromptu parade. During World War II, the lines were used to ship soldiers and war-time materials east.
It was used by statewide and national politicos who campaigned depot to depot.
“The depot was a bustling place,” he said.
The railroad also became the largest employer in Smith County by the mid-1920s. From the rail yard, trains, general store and adjoining rail businesses, it provided more than 1,300 jobs and paid almost $2 million to its employees.
Without the Cotton Belt, Tyler could have dried up and withered away like so many towns bypassed by train or major thoroughfare routes, Texas A&M rural agriculture historian David Vaught said.
Railroad was “the key to move great volume of products like cotton to the East Coast,” he said. “There is the argument that the railroad in general was the impetus to the industrial revolution.”
By the early 20th century, Texas was the leading cotton producer in the nation, and East Texas was leading statewide production, he said. The number of peaches shipped in 1912 indicates an intricate production system was in place to get delicate produce from the orchard to major hubs in St. Louis and Chicago and eventually eastern cities.
“I don't know what would have happened to Tyler without the Cotton Belt,” Wilkins said. “I have a hard time believing it would be the town it is today without it.”