Rails to the Texas Hill Country
By Hugh Hemphill

This piece was originally published by the San Antonio Express News On September 23, 2017. The text below is as was submtted. The pictures are different from this found in the newspaper and on its web site.
City leaders in Fredericksburg, Kerrville and Boerne in the mid-1880s looked on with admiration and anguish as established towns such as New Braunfels and Seguin and new communities like Floresville, Devine and Hondo thrived with rail connections to San Antonio and beyond. They witnessed old county seats like Castroville, Frio City and Helena lose status when they were passed by. They desperately needed rail service to survive and would have to pay whatever it took to get it.

Rails to the Hill Country

1990s railroad map showing former Texas Hill Country railroad routes
2004 Kerrville branch railroad timetable
All three communities were struggling. Under the best of circumstances, it took two days to reach San Antonio from Kerrville. There were no bridges, and no army posts to help maintain the trails and provide security. Boerne’s population was declining. The area had beautiful landscape in its favor but not much else. Large farms and ranches were not an option. What they did have was wool and wood. Many pier and beam houses in San Antonio were built on Hill Country cedar posts.

San Antonio and Aransas Pass Railroad

Uriah Lott, chief S.A. & A.P. construction engineer
Colorized image of the SA & AP station in San Antonio
They approached Uriah Lott, the head of San Antonio and Aransas Pass Railroad, the only one of the seven original railroads that served San Antonio to be created locally. Started in 1884, the “Sap’ as it was fondly known had very little capital. Its main goal was to establish rail service with a port city other than Southern Pacific controlled Galveston. Its first thirty miles to Floresville, were improvised. They used old streetcar track being replaced and intercepted a steam locomotive on its way to the scrap yard. The first train arrived in Floresville on January 7, 1886. Lott then found backers in Corpus Christi to extend the tracks there.

Leon Springs

Leon Springs depot
Military train at Leon Springs near Camp Bullis, 1940.
Lott agreed to build into the Hill Country. A construction engineer by trade, he knew finding a suitable route to climb from San Antonio’s 650 feet above sea level to Kerrville at 1,637 would take all of the 65 miles that separated them. Boerne and Kerrville had to pay $180,000 each, the equivalent of $5 million today. Leading families, like the Schreiners of Kerrville decided to take the risk.

Boerne

S.A. & A.P. (San Antonio and Aransas Pass) depot in Boerne, 1906
The "Farm Train" in Boerne in the 1920's. Text about the "Farm Trains" can be found on the main Boerne page. They are a wonderful example of capitalism at its best.
Construction began swiftly. Tracks were laid heading north from the “Sap” depot located south of downtown, where S. Alamo crosses S. Flores. (A Salvation Army store occupies the space today.) The first train to Boerne arrived on March 12, 1887, to much fanfare. Special trains to bring in visitors were run, and local people welcomed overnight campers with enthusiasm. The town is 800 feet higher than San Antonio but the terrain and the grades are gentle. Reaching Kerrville would be more of a challenge.

Waring

Original San Antonio and Aransas Pass railroad depot in Waring from the 1880's.
Otto Beseler was the depot's first agent at the San Antonio and Aransas Pass railroad depot in Waring. His name is still legible on the freight room interior wall.
Continuing north, the railroad had to build its first major bridge, over the Guadalupe River. As the terrain got tougher, the people of Fredericksburg learned that they would not be getting service from the ‘Sap’ after all, a bitter blow to their ambitions. Instead the tracks went on to Comfort and then Kerrville. Along the way, residents in Zanzenburg relocated closer to the tracks and adopted the name Center Point. Bandera, twenty miles away, used passenger and freight wagons to access rail service here.

Comfort

Hand colored postcard of the first railroad depot in Comfort, Texas. Note hotel carriages waiting for passengers
San Antonio and Aransas Pass train near Comfort, Texas
Service to Kerrville began on October 6, 1887. Again it was a gala occasion, with numerous special trains to bring in visitors. Many liked what they found and decided to stay. A population boom ensued. Land values soared. The gamble for city leaders paid off, handsomely. But the news was not so good for the railroad itself. What they now had was an expensive to maintain branch line that just stopped, in the middle of nowhere. It was always hoped that communities north of Kerrville would pay to extend service but none emerged. The nearest rail connection was Llano, 62 difficult miles away.

Center Point

Original San Antonio & Aransas Pass railroad depot in Center Point, Kerr County, 1939
Original San Antonio & Aransas Pass railroad depot in Center Point, Kerr County, 1967
The ’Sap’ declared bankruptcy in 1890. This was mainly due to overly ambitious expansion to Houston and shoddy construction that led to numerous fatal accidents. The Southern Pacific took control. No one else was willing or able. They consolidated what the ‘Sap’ had built and Hill Country service continued unaffected. In 1916, twenty-nine years after the rails had reached Kerrville, rail service to Fredericksburg finally began, from a junction on the ‘Sap’ line just south of Comfort. The twenty-four mile route required twenty-four bridges ranging in length from twenty-five feet to seven hundred and forty, the largest being almost forty-two feet high. It also required the construction of a tunnel, one of the very few in Texas. The SP and major banks refused to help fund construction so it was paid for by local businessmen. Construction was so expensive and revenue so small, the original company, the San Antonio, Fredericksburg and Northern declared bankruptcy in 1917. The company was reorganized as the Fredericksburg & Northern. Original backers lost their entire investment.

Kerrville

The first San Antonio and Aransas Pass depot in Kerrville. The passenger section would late be destroyed in a fire. The remainder would serve as freight depot until the tracks were removed. A separate passenger depot would be constructed a short distance away, which still stands.
Drawing of the San Antonio and Aransas Pass passenger depot in Kerville.
An unusual aspect of the Hill Country line was its heavy reliance on passengers as opposed to freight. Hotels flourished with a steady stream of visitors. The military also took advantage of the line. There were tracks right into Camp Stanley, which became a major storage facility, and many a soldier disembarked at Leon Springs for a final route march into nearby Camp Bullis. During World War One, the army opened a rifle rage near Center Point and an artillery ranger near Kerrville. To encourage civilian development, the SP brought in special Farm Trains, staffed with agricultural experts to teach recent immigrants from Europe how to make the land profitable. Each station agent was expected to know his local customers well. Some got tired of constantly spelling their Germanic names and just painted them on the interior walls of the depot. You can see the history of each one in the surviving depot in Welfare.

San Antonio, Fredericksburg & Northern Railroad

San Antonio, Fredericksburg and Northern locomotive 101 during the construction of the railroad. The tent city for construction workers can be seen on the right of the tracks at the extreme right of the picture.
A steam engine emerging from the tunnel on the San Antonio, Fredericksburg and Northern Railroad.
The economics of providing Hill Country rail service were never good. The line was especially expensive to maintain. Branch lines need a major industry to sustain them but this was never emerged. With better automobiles and roads, and buses that charged lower fares, even passenger service began to dry up. The SP began running doodlebugs, lightweight gasoline powered passenger/light freight combinations to save money but maintain their common carrier passenger obligations. The Fredericksburg line, the last to be built in South Texas, which the SP declined to acquire, was the first to be abandoned. Its last train ran in July of 1942. All local passenger service ended in 1947. In the mid 19fos, one depot after another was closed. Center Point was the first to go. Freight service declined as trucks took over. The construction of the interstate was the final nail in the coffin. Even before it was opened, the SP applied to abandon the line. The last train to Kerrville, delivering asphalt, was run on May 15, 1970. The tracks north of Camp Stanley were pulled up the following year. The facility continued to use rails until the early 1990s. The tracks now stop at a large quarry just north of Loop 1604.

Southern Pacific rolling stock

San Antonio and Aransas Pass train pulled by locomtive #23 crossing the Guadalupe River rail bridge
Southern Pacific / Texas and New Orleans (T&NO) motorcar 300 at the Kerrville passenger depot, looking north. Originally the area outside the depot's ticket counter under the open arches allowed folks to wait outside in the shade. The interior did not have A/C.
Hill Country rail service lasted 84 years. It never made a profit in one of them. Today, many people regret that the tracks to Kerrville were pulled up. They believe they could have been become a popular scenic railroad, similar to the “Hill Country Flyer” between Cedar Park, north of Austin, and Burnett. That line survives because the City of Austin bought the trackage when the SP applied to abandon it. Freight service and, more recently, a commuter line, make the expense worthwhile and the tourist train somewhat rides coat tail. Austin even pays for the liability insurance on the line. None of these things happened on the Kerrville branch.
What's left to see today

San Antonio and Aransas Pass railroad bridge over the Guadalupe River near Comfort, 2011
View of the San Antonio, Fredericksburg & Northernrailroad tunnel in 2011
Kerville railroad station, September, 2017

 

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