The History Center uses exhibits, both on-site and on-line, to showcase some of our vast collections of documents and photographs.
East Texas Railroad Photograph Selections
Texas State Railroad History (Convict work gang, ca. 1913)
A seasonal convict work gang clears ditches along the tracks of the Texas State Railroad between Rusk and Palestine in about 1913. (Photo from a vintage post card in our Grady Singletary Collection).
The Texas State Railroad began in 1882 as a decision by Governor Oran M. Roberts to construct 1.3 miles of railroad between the state's new East Texas Penitentiary and the tracks of the Kansas & Gulf Shortline (K&GSL) railroad at Rusk. The spur was necessary to provide significant amounts of fuel to the prison's charcoal-fired iron smelting furnace and also provide an outlet for heavy iron products manufactured at the prison. Although built by the state, the spur was operated by K&GSL until 1886, when the state, under Governor John Ireland's direction, purchased a second-hand locomotive and began independent train operations. In 1893 Governor James Hogg initiated the state's construction of a branch line railroad from the prison to Palestine, completing 9 miles by 1896, but stopping short of the Neches River. Texas abandoned 6 miles of this extension in 1903 and began construction of a new route, reaching the present site of Maydelle in 1904. Between 1907 and 1909, under push from Governor Thomas M. Campbell, the state exercised power of eminent domain and finally completed the Palestine objective initiated 16 years earlier.
Unlike other state-owned and operated railroads in Brazoria, Fort Bend, and Walker counties, the 33 mile Texas State Railroad between Rusk and Palestine organized under special legislation in 1907 as a common carrier of public freight and passengers. As such, civilians composed all operational train and regular maintenance crews. Between 1910 and 1920 the Rusk-Palestine operation regularly employed between 36 and 70 civilians monthly, paying wages comparable to private railroad companies in Texas operating over similar distances. Because of construction cost overruns and almost annual "emergency" operational appropriations, the State Railroad was quickly identified by legislators as "a white elephant on the hands of the state." To mitigate further losses, Texas leased the line to private railroad companies, including Texas & New Orleans, Texas Southeastern, and Missouri Pacific, between 1921 and the early 1970s, then transferred it to the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department in 1972. The line reopened to the public as a State Historical Park in 1976, providing steam passenger tourist excursions seasonally. * Based on Jonathan Gerland's STEAM IN THE PINES: A HISTORY OF THE TEXAS STATE RAILROAD (Nacogdoches: East Texas Historical Association, 2004).