PALESTINE — The coming of the railroad to Palestine in the late 1800s was a great boon to the city and Anderson County, according to historical documents.
Local residents voted during a public meeting in the late 1800s to pass a $150,000 bond issue to be given as a bonus to lure the railroad to Palestine. Palestine's railroad history spans more than 140 years.
The International Railroad from Austin reached Palestine in July 1872 and the Great Northern Railroad from Houston arrived the following December. The next year, the two lines merged to become the International & Great Northern Railroad Company with main offices in St. Louis and general offices, shops and repair facilities in Palestine.
The railroad brought industry to the county, iron foundries, cotton gins and compressors, manufacturing, furniture manufactories, ice companies, wineries, coal mining, tobacco growing, fruit growing, salt mining and limited oil drilling.
Cotton, which had been shipped by steamboat down the Trinity River when the river was high, could be shipped by rail at a lower cost, and stores were able to maintain a good stock of anything they needed once the railroad reached Palestine, states a historical plaque.
By enabling fruit to be shipped north to markets, the railroad encouraged the growing of fruit in Anderson County and it became a major fruit growing area in the 19th century, according to historical information.
Palestine even received shipments of ice from St. Louis and managed to get oysters from Galveston, so that restaurants advertised oyster bars.
The railroad advertised land and shops available in Anderson County and newcomers stayed in what was then called the immigrants home until they could get settled.
The railroad brought unforeseen problems along with the benefits, a historical marker in Palestine states.
With the rapid transport of people, diseases spread more quickly and more widely. The yellow fever epidemic of 1873 in Louisiana and East Texas led to officials of Palestine issuing a quarantine for trains, refusing to allow travelers from the East to disembark in the city until the epidemic was over.
The railroad also brought many undesirable transients, increasing the rate of robberies and murders. The first train robbery in Palestine occurred on July 20, 1872, less than a month after the arrival of the first train. Two of the four robbers were caught, but the $7,000 stolen was never recovered.
Palestine became an important location for steam locomotive and coach repairs when IGN built its first major depot in the city in 1892. In 1902, a modern passenger coach shop was built.
Those shops remained in operation until 1954 when the present facility was built exclusively for freight car repair.
Car and locomotive repair and maintenance facilities also were constructed. Soon afterward, the locomotive roundhouse was built to service the steam locomotives passing through Palestine.
Early on, a hospital was built that served railroad employees and their families for nearly 50 years. The original structure was built in 1884 on Magnolia Street and was replaced with a brick building in 1920, housing 75 beds, a pharmacy, a laboratory, an X-ray department, a medical clinic and an emergency room.
But with a reduction of railroad employees, it closed in 1970.
The original railroad shops employed up to 1,200 craftsmen and remained in operation until 1954, when a new facility was erected to accommodate the new diesel-powered engines after the steam-powered locomotives became obsolete.
The International Great Northern railroad also built a YMCA in 1903 adjacent to the main railroad tracks on Magnolia Street to provide housing for its workers. The large brick structure had three levels. On the lower level were the gymnasium, an indoor swimming pool and showers. The mid-level was used for the entrance to the building where there were offices and game rooms. Housing was on the top floor.
During World War II, troops traveling on the trains used the YMCA's overnight quarters. It caught fire and burned beyond repair in August 1955.
In 1919, the railroad general offices burned and the company leased space in the Redlands Hotel for temporary headquarters until a new office structure could be built. The new general offices building was constructed on South Magnolia across from the site of the old YMCA.
However, most operations in those offices were transferred to St. Louis in the late 1950s. That left installation, maintenance and repair of the tracks, rail switches and signals for East Texas being dispatched from the general office facility in Palestine.
The only major operation utilizing the general office space was then the national freight claims division of the Union Pacific.
The International Great Northern railroad became part of the Missouri Pacific Lines in 1925 although the IGN continued working as a separate entity until the merger was completed in 1956 when Mo-Pac acquired over 5,000 rail cars and more than 1,000 employees, many of whom lived in Palestine.
Palestine was a passenger hub for Mo-Pac, but the last passenger train through Palestine left the station in 1970. The Missouri Pacific merged with the Union Pacific in 1982. But it was 16 years before the Interstate Commerce Commission legally approved the merger, leaving Union Pacific as the surviving corporation.
Union Pacific's facility in Palestine has more than 150 employees now, who work in the car shop and the transportation, signal, track and freight claims departments. Palestine also is the home of a depot for the tourist excursion Texas State Railroad.