Why Smithville's Here

by Bruce Blalock

The Area

In the 1880's, Jay Gould, the "Great Robber Baron", was firmly in control of a number of railroads. Two of those, the Missouri Kansas & Texas and the International & Great Northern were both building North-to-South in Texas. The MK&T was the first railroad to build into Texas from the north. At that time, Gould was looking for access to the Rio Grande Valley to facilitate trade with Mexico. He also wanted access to Houston and the Port of Galveston for control of the lucrative import-export market. The point on the map that gave the most favorable junction for North-South and East-West traffic was the river plain which we now know as Smithville.

On July 4, 1886, the first train of the Bastrop and Taylor (a few months later, October 27, 1886 this line became the Taylor, Bastrop & Houston, actually the construction subsidiary of the Missouri Kansas & Texas; the Katy) crossed a wooden bridge over Gazley Creek into the location of present-day Smithville 1. The Smithville area represented great potential to the railroad; an expansive area with gentle grades and mild curvature along the Colorado River that was almost equidistant from Waco, San Antonio and Houston. The gentle grade along the banks of Gazley Creek out to the Colorado River valley allowed the surveyors an easy route towards San Antonio. From this location traffic could be controlled on the line, crews housed and shops centrally located for maintenance of the locomotives and cars.

An agreement between the railroad and the principals of the townsite company allowed land for the railroad facilities in return for establishment of a major terminal. This cemented a relationship (which in later years was the cause of bitter disputes between the railroad and the city, see transcript of Austin American article) between the railroad and the city. Smithville came to life. Only one business in the original town moved its building to the new Smithville Townsite Company location. Until that time agriculture was virtually the only industry in the area. The arrival of the railroad and its division headquarters not only brought a large number of railroad-related jobs but also developed the town as the gathering and shipping point for the agricultural products. New markets were developed. It attracted the supporting network and financial institutions required for commerce on a larger scale, and businesses from other areas relocated in Smithville to take advantage of the business climate. 'Smithville, the infant of yesterday the ambitious youth to-day, and giant to-morrow!' Smithville Times, Vol 2, #48, Christmas edition, 1895.

During the period of development from a small station to that of a major railroad division headquarters many things changed in that town of Smithville. The railroad division headquarters meant that all of the area operations were controlled from Smithville. Included under the direct control of the Smithville District were the terminals in Houston, Waco and San Antonio. The division superintendent and staff were located here. The required management, dispatchers, trainmasters, express agents and line maintenance personnel operated out of Smithville. Additionally, the roundhouse and backshop forces necessary to make any and all repairs to the locomotives and cars were headquartered here. All district emergency equipment and personnel was stationed in the town. This was in addition to the legions of engine and train crew members and switchmen required for the yard jobs. The shop and maintenance forces alone were over 400 people, and astonishingly large proportion to the population of Smithville, which during 1920 swelled to over 4,000 and by 1925 had grown to 4,350 2. It is no small coincidence that 1925 marked the height of the Katy Railroad's expansion and from that year it declined until purchased by the Union Pacific.

Every train required a minimum crew of five; engineer and fireman, conductor and two brakemen. Additionally, passenger trains were required to have porters, postal workers and dining cars had cooks and stewards. Since Smithville was a division headquarter, crews worked out of Smithville and back, but never through. A separate crew would have to be called to get a train through town, ho matter how short, or long its trip had been.


1. The Railroad and Locomotive Historical Society, Bulletin No. 63, January 1944, Sylvan R. Wood.
2. Sanborn's maps, Barker Texas History Center, LBJ Library, Austin, Texas.

Additional Railroad Information:
  • I.T. Harper (1995) - "Working on the Railroad in the Early 1930's"
  • Phil Mounger (1996) - "Segregation in Railroad Jobs"

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