On March 10, 1898, a
group of Eagle Lake businessmen - including William Dunovant and William
T. Eldridge - chartered the Cane Belt Railroad. The line
was to commence from Lakeside (about one mile southeast of downtown
Eagle Lake) and proceed 10 miles south to Bonus, Texas, where Dunovant
had a large plantation. As indicated by the title, sugar cane
would be the primary product transported by the railroad - at least
initial construction was completed on November 11, 1898, and the Cane
Belt purchased 1 mile of track from the Galveston, Harrisburg, &
San Antonio Railway Co. from Eagle Lake to Lakeside in order to
connect with that road. By the summer of 1899, the businessmen
decided to make a real railroad out of their venture, and amended the
charter to extend the line north to Sealy (to connect with the
Missouri, Kansas & Texas Railroad) and south to the Gulf Coast.
Bonds were issued by the shareholders and purchased by
the Lincoln Trust
Co. of St. Louis to finance the construction.
Left: An article from the November 16, 1899 edition of
the Dallas Morning News. Courtesy of Joel Rosenbaum.
Above: January 27, 1901 Cane Belt Railroad Schedule from the
Official Guide. Courtesy of Joel Rosenbaum. The
number of stops and the lengthy schedule suggests these may have been
freight trains with a coach car included to accommodate passengers.
Note that service beyond Wharton had not yet been established. See
the GC&SF Timetables page for more service information.
In 1900, the railroad was
completed northward to Sealy and
as far south as Wharton. New communities were established, and
others relocated to be on the railroad. Glen Flora was one of the
new communities and named the street west of the tracks "Dunovant" and
the street east of them "Eldridge". Colonel Abel Head "Shanghai" Pierce
offered a $5,000 cash bonus if the Cane Belt reached Bay City by July
1, 1901. The railroad made the deadline with only hours to spare,
but Pierce did not live to see the event, having died the previous
December. The bonus was paid by his estate.
Although profitable the first few years, by 1903 the Cane Belt
had a lot of construction debt and an inconsistent cash flow.
At some point prior, William Dunovant's shares of the Cane Belt had been bought
out, and solicitor Jonathan Lane had replaced him as president of the
railroad. William T. Eldridge remained as vice president. The relationship between Dunovant and Eldridge had soured
to the point that Dunovant had publicly threatened to kill Eldridge. The feud
took a deadly turn
on August, 11, 1902 when Eldridge shot and killed Dunovant after the latter
boarded the San Antonio & Aransas Pass
#2 passenger train at Simonton.
Right: SA&AP Ry
depot site at Simonton, TX. Somewhere in the view of this image is
where Dunovant met his fate on the SA&AP passenger train #2. This photo was taken in the fall of 2001, just weeks
before the tracks were removed.
Eldridge was charged with the murder of William Dunovant, but posted
bail and was released until the trial. Despite local sentiment in
favor of Dunovant and the presence of several angry members of the
Dunovant family, Eldridge continued to reside in Eagle Lake, as he had
since 1884. He was not deterred by even an attempt on his life on
the evening of October 4, 1902. W. T. Cobb was arrested and
charged with attempted murder, but was acquitted in September of 1903.
Eldridge's trial for the murder of Dunovant had not yet commenced.
Despite an earlier announcement that it had secured right of way to
Quintana, the Cane Belt built the final stretch of its main line from
Bay City to Matagorda - a curious choice at the time, because the town
had been in a slow decline since 1865. However, there was oil
exploration going on at Matagorda, as was occurring seemingly everywhere
in southeast Texas at the time, and the Cane Belt would get all
of the traffic from that area if wells did come in. An extension of the Cane
Belt from Rayner
Junction to Garwood was also in progress at this time, to get traffic
from the large rice farms in that area.
On November 7, 1903, the Cane Belt Railroad
was sold. As can be seen from the newspaper articles below, there
was briefly some mystery concerning who actually purchased the line. It
was assumed that the MK&T, who had held the construction bonds,
was the buyer.
Above: Three November 1903 articles from the Dallas Morning News.
Courtesy of Joel Rosenbaum.
In the November 14th, 1903 edition of the Dallas Morning News, an
article stated that all indications pointed to the purchase of the
Cane Belt by the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railway Company,
but officials for the Texas subsidiary in Galveston, the Gulf
Colorado & Santa Fe, refused comment. A "reliable source"
stated that the Santa Fe had held an option on the Cane Belt
for a year, and that a recent inspection visit by AT&SF president
Edward P. Ripley was conducted to help close the deal. The article
went on to say "It is also intimated that an extension will be built
from the Cane Belt eastward ... to connect with the Santa Fe ... and
giving a short route from the Cane Belt direct to Galveston."
Eldridge told the Santa Fe officials that such a route was
planned by the original owners of the Cane Belt and would have
been constructed had they held on to the property.
A formal announcement was made on November 19, 1903 that the Santa
Fe had purchased all of the stock of the Cane Belt Railroad.
However, a completely different direction was proposed - a planned
800-mile extension of the line along the Texas Coast to form connections
with the Eastern Railway of Mexico. In that highly
competitive era of railroad construction, acquisitions and mergers, this
may have been a "shot across the bow" at rival Benjamin Franklin Yoakum, chairman of
the St. Louis & San Francisco Railroad, who was in the process of building
the St. Louis, Brownsville & Mexico Railroad along the Texas
coast toward Brownsville.
No railroad manager wanted to have his route into a new territory
paralleled by a competing line, and occasionally the railroad companies
would announce such actions, and possibly even construct short sections
of railroad, to either keep their competitors in check, or bring them to
the bargaining table. If such was the strategy of the Santa Fe, it worked to
some degree. Discussions ensued over the course of the next year between the
Yoakum, Ripley, and their designees regarding a Cane Belt
extension from Bay City to Alvin, over which the St. Louis
Brownsville & Mexico would have trackage rights. Yoakum also
wanted to use the existing Santa Fe lines to access Galveston and
Houston and to use Santa Fe facilities at those points. He
proposed a 3 year lease, but Ripley wanted a longer term to discourage
Yoakum from building his own line in the area. [Postscript - No extension of the
Cane Belt was ever built to
Alvin. Yoakum built the StLB&M east from Bay City and
connected with the Santa Fe at Algoa. Yoakum negotiated
trackage rights on the GC&SF to reach Houston and Galveston.]
A meeting in Eagle Lake on November 30,
formally transferred the ownership of the Cane Belt. Representing the Santa Fe
were AT&SF president Edward P. Ripley of Chicago, vice-president
L. J. Polk, general manager W. C. Nixon, general superintendent F. G.
Pettibone, solicitor J. W. Terry, and GC&SF treasurer A. C.
Torbert. The former directors of the Cane Belt resigned,
and officers were elected to operate the road. The following were
elected: president Jonathan Lane, first vice president William T.
Eldridge, vice president W. C. Nixon, treasurer A. M. Waugh,
secretary and auditor E. C. Covert, assistant secretary L. C. Deming,
assistant treasurer H. W. Gardner, general solicitor E. D. Kenna, and
controller B. T. Gallup . The article concluded: "The new
proprietors of the Cane Belt expressed themselves as well pleased with
the property and favorably impressed with the appearances around Eagle
Eldridge's new term as first vice president would last only six months.
On June 6, 1904 in downtown Eagle Lake, Eldridge was shot and nearly
killed. W. E. Calhoun, a brother-in-law of the late William
Dunovant, was arrested. Eldridge recovered and announced on July
4, 1904 that he would resign as first vice president of the Cane Belt
and no longer reside in Eagle Lake. Oliver Snyder was elected
second vice president and general manager of the Cane Belt, to
replace Eldridge. W. E. Calhoun was released
from jail when no eye-witness to the crime could be found, and the case
was referred to a grand jury. Eldridge was finally brought to
trial for the murder of William Dunovant in November 1904, pled
self-defense, and was acquitted. The case against W. E. Calhoun
for the attempted murder of Eldridge was later dismissed.
There is an interesting footnote not directly related to the Cane Belt.
Once again it involved a shooting, William T. Eldridge, and occurred on
the San Antonio & Aransas Pass passenger train #2. This time,
on May 9, 1905, the passenger train was
pulling into the station at Wallis, TX when Eldridge noticed that W. E.
Calhoun was also a passenger on the train. Eldridge wasted no time
shooting Calhoun four times - killing him instantly. Eldridge
was brought to trial in 1907 for this murder, pled self-defense, and
The Santa Fe improved service over
the Cane Belt almost immediately via the establishment of
separate passenger trains. The travel time from Sealy to Matagorda
(or vice-versa), almost 90 miles, went from nearly 7 hours in 1904 to
about 5 hours in 1908 and down to under 4.5 hours by 1914. The
drop-off of passenger demand
after World War I made the operation of separate passenger trains on
many branch lines too expensive, and service was reduced to mixed trains
- freight trains with a passenger coach coupled. Mixed train
service was painfully slow - 9 hours one way - because the freight train stopped
often to couple and uncouple cars. [See the GC&SF Timetables page
for schedule details.]
The Santa Fe received permission from the Texas Railroad
Commission to discontinue passenger service on the Matagorda District on
March 12, 1956, and did so effective March 26, 1956.
The 1922 derailment of Train #115 -
mentioned in the Dallas Morning News article below left - occurred about 1
mile north of Bonus. Courtesy of Joel Rosenbaum.
While the Cane Belt
primarily hauled sugar cane initially, rice, gravel, and eventually
sulfur became the chief commodities shipped on the railroad. In
1930-31, the Cane Belt Railroad constructed a branch from Lane
City (in Wharton Co.) to Thompsons (in Fort Bend Co.) that connected
with two sulfur operations: New Gulf in Wharton County and Long
Point in Fort Bend County. This branch also created a short cut
from Matagorda to Galveston for the Santa Fe, and was titled the
Hall District in employee timetables
from the period. See the Timetables page for a list of the
stops on this line. Passenger service was offered on a mixed train
from Thompson's to Cane Junction and back, but was discontinued in 1942.
The portion of the
"Bonus Loop" from Eldridge to Bonus, about 5 miles, was abandoned in
1940. Portions of the Hall District were abandoned in the early
1980's, and most of the portions from Sealy to Wharton, and the terminus
near Matagorda soon afterward. All that remains today is a spur
line in Sealy to the Stewart & Stevenson plant, a spur off of the
Union Pacific to Lakeside in Eagle Lake (to A&K Railroad Materials),
and a small section around Bay City.
I am still working on the
Cane Belt history, and will continue to include photographs,
articles, and documents on this website. Until then, for more
information on the Cane Belt, visit the Prairie Edge Museum in
Eagle Lake (my next door neighbor across Lake Street). They also
have an exhibit about the feud between Dunovant and Eldridge. The following web site also has a detailed history of
the Cane Belt: http://texassantafehistory.com/q
Other published information can be found in:
WARBONNETS AND BLUEBONNETS - Santa Fe in
Color Series -Vol. 3 Texas by Joe McMillan. Photos
on pages 60-63 of Santa Fe operations on the Cane Belt branch.
Santa Fe Locomotive Facilities -Volume One - Gulf Lines by
Russell L. Crump. Interesting material on Lane City,
Matagorda, and Eagle Lake on pages 145-147.