Remnants of a Railroad Rivalry
by JIM KING
In 1901, two of the biggest names in Texas railroading were B. F. Yoakum and E. H. Harriman. Yoakum controlled the St. Louis San Francisco Railroad (the "Frisco") and the Chicago, Rock Island and Pacific Railroad. Both were major midwestern systems with rails reaching into north Texas from Oklahoma. Yoakum also controlled the Gulf Coast Lines, a collection of routes planned to link south Texas with New Orleans. Harriman controlled the Union Pacific and Southern Pacific (SP) railroads, with the SP being the largest system in Texas at the time. Harriman and Yoakum had numerous competitive skirmishes in Texas and Louisiana, but their railroads also had to work with each other as they exchanged significant levels of traffic.
In 1902 Yoakum was searching for a way to connect his railroads in north and south Texas and announced plans to build a line from north Texas to Galveston. At the time, the Frisco and Rock Island systems were generating large amounts of traffic destined for Gulf ports in competition with the Katy and the Santa Fe. Since Yoakum had no north/south connection to the Gulf, most of this traffic moved through Texas on the Southern Pacific and the International & Great Northern. Harriman recognized the importance of preventing Yoakum from building his own line to the Gulf; SP's Houston & Texas Central (H&TC) Railroad carried much of the Frisco-Rock Island traffic and had the most to lose if Yoakum had his own line. Harriman proposed to sell a half interest in the H&TC and other SP properties to the Rock Island, but this plan was disapproved by the Texas Railroad Commission in May, 1903 as being "unconstitutional." There was speculation that the Commission's vote was based on their preference that Yoakum build his own, previously announced line to the Gulf.
About this same time, the Railroad Commission suddenly began to investigate Southern Pacific for unauthorized control of the San Antonio and Aransas Pass (SA&AP) Railroad. The SP had effectively controlled the SA&AP for many years, and Harriman suspected that the Commission's sudden interest in this situation was motivated by Yoakum, who had plans to expand his routes and holdings in south Texas and the Rio Grande Valley where the SA&AP operated. When Yoakum announced plans to build into the Valley, SP suddenly became interested in extending its own routes in the area. When the U.S. District Court in Austin forced SP to relinquish control of the SA&AP in December, 1903, SP's plans in south Texas were gutted and Yoakum had free reign to extend his routes to the Rio Grande. Harriman blamed Yoakum and reportedly told him that he would parallel every new line constructed by Yoakum in Texas. Harriman soon had his chance when Yoakum began to build his own line to connect his railroads in Texas.
The Rock Island had proceeded to develop plans to build a line to the Gulf, but Yoakum was able to expedite the process by acquiring control of the Trinity and Brazos Valley (T&BV) Railway in 1904. The T&BV had built a line from Mexia to Cleburne in 1902 - 04, but had begun to experience financial difficulty. Yoakum saw the T&BV as providing the necessary charter to serve as a bridge route between his Frisco-Rock Island lines to the north and his Gulf Coast Lines to the south. Yoakum began to extend the T&BV by completing a line from Mexia to Teague and from there south and north to Houston and Waxahachie respectively, both completed in 1907. Trackage rights on the Katy gave Yoakum access into Dallas from Waxahachie, while rights on the GCSF gave him access to Fort Worth from Cleburne. The gentle grades and limited curves on this route would facilitate high speed freight and passenger service between Houston and north Texas, a growing market. This route would also have superior running times to SP's competing route on the H&TC via Hearne and Mexia.
Since the H&TC already served the Dallas-Houston and Fort Worth-Houston markets, Harriman viewed Yoakum's plans with alarm; the Frisco-Rock Island traffic bound for the Gulf would no longer travel the SP rails. As Yoakum's strategy became apparent, Harriman reacted by making good on his rumored threat. In 1905, he initiated construction of the Mexia-Nelleva Cutoff to shorten the distance between Nelleva, a small community on the north side of Navasota, and Mexia. Both of these towns were on the existing H&TC route between Houston and Dallas via Hearne, but the new cutoff would shorten the route by about 15 miles with lower grades and fewer curves. And, in a dramatic display of one-upmanship, portions of the route of the Mexia-Nelleva Cutoff would be immediately adjacent to Yoakum's line, in some cases, less than a hundred yards to the west. The 94-mile cutoff was completed in 1907 in time to compete with Yoakum's new T&BV line.
Over the years, Yoakum's line flourished due primarily to the connecting traffic provided by the other railroads Yoakum controlled. Eventually, Yoakum lost control of these railroads and the T&BV's traffic suffered; the line went into a 16-year receivership from which it emerged in 1930 controlled by a partnership of the Rock Island and the Burlington System. Today, it is the BNSF main line between Waxahachie and Houston.
By contrast, Harriman's Mexia-Nelleva Cutoff did not fare nearly as well. There was virtually no local traffic provided by the small communities on the line. And while it was faster than the H&TC line via Hearne for through trains, the marginal increase in speed was insufficient to cover the costs of maintaining an additional route between the two endpoints.
Oddly enough, it may have been SP's competition with the Texas & Pacific between Texarkana and El Paso that finally doomed the Mexia-Nelleva Cutoff. The T&P could carry transcontinental traffic directly across Texas and interchange it with the SP in El Paso. This service competed favorably with SP's much longer route across Texas that required a connection with the Sunset Route at Houston. To improve the situation, SP opened the Dalsa Cutoff in 1914 between Hearne and Flatonia, shortening the route across Texas by 140 miles. Through freights that might previously have been routed via the Mexia-Nelleva Cutoff and the Sunset Route connecting at Houston could now bypass Houston altogether. With stiff competition from the T&BV for Gulf coast traffic, a diversion of transcontinental freight traffic to the Dalsa Cutoff, and virtually no local traffic, the Mexia-Nelleva Cutoff was doomed. In the end, it hosted SP's mixed freight and passenger trains #345 and #346 and not much else; it was finally abandoned in 1933.
Tracking the Route of the Mexia-Nelleva Cutoff
Of the 94 mile route between Mexia and Nelleva, it is somewhat remarkable that approximately 80 miles of it has been preserved as a transportation corridor in one form or another. Most of this is attributable to Farm Road 39, which is constructed atop the old right-of-way between Iola and Mexia, a distance of roughly 71 miles. A one mile section of Farm Road 3090 near the community of Piedmont is built on the right-of-way as is a three mile Grimes County gravel road near the community of Carlos (at the intersection of State Highway 30 and Farm Road 244).
Driving Farm Road 39 between Iola and Mexia provides a unique way to examine the rivalry between Harriman and Yoakum. Proceeding north from Iola, it is easy to envision the highway as sitting atop an old right-of-way. The few curves are of the long-radius, sweeping variety not typically found on farm roads. Even more noticeable, the road remains virtually flat as the countryside rises and falls beside it. The road passes through several noticeable cuts and over several large fills; when focusing on these signs of railroad construction, it is easy to envision actually piloting a train down the road. It is also easy to envision the rivalry between the two railroads as they remain a stone's throw apart in many places. At North Zulch, the names of the rivalry's survivor - "Burlington Lines" and "Rock Island Lines" - are faintly visible on a BNSF highway bridge.
South of Iola, the FM39 roadbed leaves the right-of-way as the old rail line proceeds due south toward Navasota. For five miles, the grade sits beside a gravel county road, and then suddenly, rails appear! In 1977, five miles of the original route was rebuilt as a rail spur to serve the Texas Municipal Power Agency's Gibbons Creek Generating Plant south of Iola in Grimes County. The spur connects to the BNSF line that was formerly the rival T&BV line. In 1995 and 1996, an extension to the rail spur was constructed to allow the unloading of coal at the power plant. This extension included a rail loop which was all within the existing plant boundary; a portion of this extension also followed the bed of the old rail line. South of the power plant, the grade serves as a gravel road leading north and south out of Carlos. It can be seen again along FM 3090, near the old community of Piedmont. Except for the brief section of FM3090 built on the right-of-way, there is little access to the old route between Carlos and Nelleva.
There were two places where the Mexia-Nelleva Cutoff crossed the T&BV. South of Jewett, the T&BV passed under the Cutoff where today FM39 has a sizeable highway bridge over the BNSF line. North of Jewett, the situation was reversed; the T&BV passed over the Mexia-Nelleva Cutoff. It appears that the T&BV fill was finished first, and then a narrow cut was made in the fill to allow the H&TC right-of-way to pass through. The cut was topped with a bridge for the T&BV that only needed to be wide enough to allow a single rail line to pass underneath. As recently as the mid-1990s, this underpass remained in place and was too narrow to carry a two-lane highway with both shoulders, resulting in the need for several warning signs on FM39 on both approaches to the bridge. This dangerous situation has since been rectified with a new rail bridge and a much larger underpass that can fit the highway and both shoulders.
Some time after the Mexia-Nelleva Cutoff was abandoned, someone moved several old box cars to a location on FM39 a few miles southeast of Mexia to be used to house a store and living quarters. They formed a community known as Box Car Center, Texas. The community no longer exists and does not show up on current Limestone County maps, but it does show up on USGS topographic maps and also on DeLorme Street Atlas USA CD Version 3.0. Presumably, the individuals that created Box Car Center, Texas understood the significance of the location they chose astride the route of the Mexia-Nelleva Cutoff, where box cars roamed for a quarter century in a long, failing struggle on the losing end of a railroad rivalry.