Review of "The Railroads of San Antonio
and South Central Texas" by Hugh Hemphill
By Ed Conroy, Special to the San Antonio Express-News

Ed Conroy is a San Antonio writer and development
director for the Southwest School of Art & Craft.

Published in the San Antonio Express News on Sunday 8/13/06

What the Alamo means to San Antonio's cultural history, the railroad industry is to this city's economic development: a seminal influence.

Hugh Hemphill, who directs the Texas Transportation Museum, makes that point in many eloquent, well-researched ways in his comprehensive history of local and regional railroads, published earlier this year.

Hemphill makes a direct parallel between the 2002 decision by Toyota to locate in San Antonio because of proximity to rail lines and the arrival in town of the first train in 1877.

Both train deals were indeed great economic breakthroughs, but Hemphill documents how the first had a crucial, pivotal impact upon the whole city's development.

He illustrates the earth-shaking significance of the early local railroad age with an excellent, varied assemblage of archival photos and a lively narrative full of an amazing level of factual detail.

We learn, for example, that the city fathers of San Antonio promised to pay $500,000 (an estimated $7.6 million today) to the first railroad to reach our city. Their offer was taken by the Galveston, Harrisburg and San Antonio Railroad (GH&SA).

A crowd of 8,000 people greeted its first train (full of dignitaries) when it arrived in town on Feb. 19, 1877, with great pomp and celebration. Prior to 1877, Hemphill relates, the local populace numbered "barely 17,000" souls. By 1900, the city had grown to a population of 53,000.

Hemphill sees the development of the railroads here as the stories of the various lines, and organizes his book along those tracks.

After an introductory chapter, he dives into telling the stories of nine railroad lines, noting how each of them played a distinct role in the region's development, town by town.

In addition to bringing Czech and other immigrants to farm South Texas lands, and making this city a major state commercial center, Hemphill relates how the railroads also fomented San Antonio's identity as a "Mexican-style" tourist destination.

An illustrated magazine advertisement Hemphill reproduces from the early 1900s shows a stereotypical young Mexican boy (complete with sombrero and huaraches) pointing at the Alamo beneath the gaze of two bemused tourists, while a rosary-praying nun passes by an ancient woman huddled on the sidewalk beneath her serape.

Another visual treasure is Hemphill's tribute to the architectural richness of many of San Antonio's old train stations, two of which have been carefully preserved.

His archival photos of the Sunset Station (now an entertainment complex), the I&GN Station (now the main office of San Antonio City Employees Federal Credit Union) and the MKT depot (now gone save for one doorway integrated into a shop at Los Patios) reveal their Spanish Colonial Revival beauty.

People who live in areas surrounding San Antonio will find much of interest in this book as well, for it includes the story of how trains came to Boerne, Comfort, Welfare and New Braunfels, as well as to Crystal City, Uvalde, Jourdanton and Pleasanton, among many other towns.

Through recounting how the GH&SA line became Southern Pacific, how the International and Great Northern (I&GN) became the Missouri Pacific and the tortured history of Amtrak and the Union Pacific Line, Hemphill gives the reader a good sense of how the industry grew and consolidated, and eventually changed entirely.

To his credit, Hemphill does not gloss over the recent local Union Pacific accidents that resulted in deaths and toxic chemical spills, but he is positive about overall rail safety.

Hemphill acerbically comments contemporary "locomotives look like they were designed by a committee."

Still, rather than lament a lost age, he finishes the book with a useful directory of railroad museums and tourist railroads for the enthusiast to enjoy.

You can't read this book for long without hearing that old steam whistle blow.
"The Railroads of San Antonio and South Central Texas"
is published by Maverick Publishing of San Antonio

 

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