BOLIVAR PENINSULA GULF & INTERSTATE RAILROAD
Bolivar Peninsula is a 27 mile long strip of land on the Gulf Coast of Texas. At its widest, it measures 3.5 miles and at its most narrow, 0.25 mile. Today, it's a peaceful destination for swimmers, sunbathers, shell collectors, and bird watchers, but for the better part of the 1890s it was a magnet for raucous railroad wheeling and dealing.
It was the age of the railroad when all areas of commerce depended on the rails to transport everything everywhere - iron ore, rice crops, live stock, lumber. Railroad magnates saw Texas as a slate clear for carving, especially the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railway Company (AT&SF), which already stretched from Kansas to California. Texas had cotton and cattle to send north and the Midwest had wheat and corn to send their way. There was one problem - Texas law mandated that any railroad operating in the state had to have headquarters in Texas. However, the fine print held promise - the principal officers had to live in Texas, but not the president.
Meanwhile, at the southern tip of Texas, Galveston was enmeshed in dreams of becoming a prosperous shipping port, one that was believed to be hurricane-proof due to the shallow waters of the Gulf. A port at Galveston would never be destroyed as New Orleans had been recently because any resulting tidal waves would break up before reaching Galveston Island. The AT & SF looked at Galveston and visualized an ideal rail route, beginning in Topeka, Kansas, and running to Galveston Bay with the final leg along the Bolivar Peninsula.
However the Populist Party also had ideas.Waco was the scene of the 1890 People's Party convention at which gubernatorial candidate, Jim Hogg put forth the idea that Texas build its own railroad to break up what had become a rail monopoly, and the national Populist Party proposed a name - Gulf and Interstate Railroad. (G&I)
Naming the railroad was easier than getting it going. The next few years saw a number of G&I organizing conventions, noisy gatherings staged around long debates over proposed routes and organizing procedures, with just about every city lobbying for their municipality. The Populist Party finally caved in to capitalist thinking and decided to sell segments to individual states. In 1893, when Kansas granted a charter to G&I the AT&S had its piece of Texas.
There was rejoining in Galveston. Long enmeshed in a rivalry with Houston, they were thrilled that a railroad connecting Galveston to points east and north meant nothing would have to pass through Houston.
Charles Jesse "Buffalo" Jones was chosen as contractor, a man with a colorful past: adventurer, cattleman, buffalo hunter, and occasional fraud. CJ Jones' first decision was to employ an innovative type of track using steel for the ties as well as the rails. He brought in a lineup of machinery for grading and track-laying and made plans for a ground-breaking ceremony, the likes of which the Bolivar Peninsular had never seen. The ground breaking was delayed by torrential rains but that did not stop the Populist Party from going on with the celebration.
Within weeks the grade reached Rollover where Jones took it upon himself to alter the route northward to bridge East Bay,even though G&I plans called for it to go around. Railroad officials commanded him to follow the original plans. Jones not only ignored them, but announced that the railroad would now be crossing land he'd purchased in Chambers County where he planned to build a town to serve as a connection between Houston and Beaumont.
On May 19,1894, a tug of war erupted when Jones, citing the law prohibiting out-of-state railroad ownership, claimed it as his own. He secured a charter, describing a railroad to travel 70 miles from Bolivar Point to a point on the Southern Pacific Railroad between Denvers and Raymond.
G&I directed their Texas officers to draw up a charter for a railroad to be known as the Interstate Railway, to be incorporated according to the laws of Texas. A truce was reached when a compromise gave the Kansas corporation a third of the control of Jones company, and the Texas corporation, another third. Neutral engineers were assigned to decide which route, the original or Jones' was the better. They chose Jones' route, and work continued, reaching a point just south of Raymond.
The road to completion still held several twists and turns. Cost-cutting led to Jones abandoning his all-steel design, and when tracks reached Flake, Texas in May 1895, the Interstate Railway Corporation of Texas staged a celebratory excursion into Flake. Again, Mother Nature put a damper on the festivities, drenching excursionists who rode in flatcars.
Another round of bickering saw C.J. Jones replaced by Arkansas politician L.P. Featherstone, a man who matched Jones in shady dealings. But Jones was far from out of the picture. Construction was still needed to High Island, and on to Winnie which was to be the junction for the branch to Beaumont.A subcontractor was named - C.J. Jones.
Anxious for a New Year's Eve celebration, Beaumont offered a cash bonus if track reached the city by December 31, 1895. It looked as if Jones would meet the challenge until, mysteriously, every sawmill in the area was suddenly overwhelmed with work, leaving them unable to supply G&I of Texas with needed railroad ties. Just as mysteriously, ties were available after January 1.
Galvestonians, pumped with pride when word spread that the first train from Galveston had pulled into Beaumont on May 1,1896, held their breath a few days later when they heard Featherstone was suing Jones. The finding was that the line could remain in the hands of the contractor, and thus the subcontractor, until work was completed. Jones immediately ceased work and dismissed his men. If work was never completed, the G&I was his once again! He quickly scheduled runs on the already completed portions and pocketed the fares.
One last court battle vanquished Jones, and Featherstone finally completed G&I and turned it over to its legitimate owners - but not before extending the route with a ferry service linking Point Bolivar to Galveston. In addition to transporting railroad cars, the ferry was available to individuals who wished to cross in their own cars, with the city of Galveston reimbursing G&I for this free service.
But G&I was not out of the woods. A couple of mishaps lay ahead. The first, taking place on September 19, 1897 when the railroad ran two trains simultaneously for the first time, only to collide head-on at a curve in the woods, the only spot on the line where engineers did not have miles of track in sight.
Mishap #2, aka the latest train in history, was caused when a hurricane all but succeeded in leveling "hurricane-proof" Galveston. On September 8, 1900 the passenger train from Beaumont found itself in a foot of water awaiting the arrival of a wind-tossed ferry. The train was able to back up eleven miles before the tracks sunk beneath it. When the storm subsided, thirty miles of road bed had been destroyed and what track remained was wrapped around trees and buildings.The train lay on its side all but buried in sand.
G&I of Texas declared bankruptcy but the citizens of Galveston and Beaumont, determined to have a railroad of their own, rolled up their sleeves and raised $20,000 to rebuild the line. The passenger train was dug up and transported to Beaumont to undergo a complete overhaul. On September 24, 1903, it caught the ferry it had missed and arrived in Galveston three years and sixteen days late.
Gulf and Interstate was back on its feet but only for a short while.The financial wounds it had suffered never quite healed, and the 1907 depression dealt the final blow, leaving it with a deficit of $1,000,000( That's in 1907 dollars!) On January 17, 1908 the Santa Fe Land Improvement Company, a subsidiary of the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe bought it.
The line soldiered on under a succession of new names until its final enemy vanquished it - the Interstate. Track was abandoned a stretch at a time, but the Bolivar Railroad lives on in the archives of the Bolivar Peninsula