A Trip in Time: Exploring the Great Frontier, the Western Railroads

According to the excellent reference book, West Texas, A History of the Giant Side of the State, at the end of the nineteenth century, the federal government classified any county with fewer than two persons per square mile as “frontier.” Astonishingly, more than a few counties in north and west Texas still (!) qualify as a frontier by that standard. My wife and I recently spent a few days driving through a handful of the vast spaces in the western part of the state, and it was a literal trip through time in many ways.

First, the mundane: unbeknownst to us, although our cell phone carrier purports to offer the largest network in the lower forty-eight, and serves us well in all the urban areas to which we’ve ever traveled, they obviously haven’t heard of west Texas. For the first time since the late 1980s, we were without coverage. That also means no navigation—out came the paper maps! And asking people for directions and dining recommendations. It was quite a window into how much we’ve come to rely on these handy devices.

Second, the vastness of the west part of Texas must be experienced to be believed. Literally, hundreds upon hundreds of miles of road have a 75-mph speed limit due to the extreme isolation and lack of traffic, and they stretch as far as the eye can see, often without even a mailbox to hint at a human presence. The Texas Forts Trail is a 650-mile loop through a region that encompasses the 44 major forts and over 100 camps set up by the federal government between 1848 and 1900, as well as republic-era forts and Spanish Presidios that predate the former by up to 100 years. Much of the area along the trail allows a glimpse of life as it was generations ago, wild, isolated, untamed.

The natural progression of westward growth went something like this: folks from the East or overseas sought their fortunes in the remote areas of the country, taking what they wanted, coming up against the Native Americans who resented their intrusion. Enter the soldier, who was entrusted to build fortifications on the advancing frontier. As the forts grew and became established, little towns sprung up around these bastions of protection, and as the demand for supplies grew, the railroads came along and laid track to connect these far-flung outposts to the rest of civilization.

The Homestead Act of 1862 offered 160 acres of land to anyone who would pay ten dollars, live on the land for five years, and care for and improve the land. By 1872, under the Pacific Railroad Act, Congress had awarded the railroads over 170 million acres in land grants, largely to facilitate the railway connection of the East Coast and the West Coast.

A map of the Kansas City Mexico and Orient Railway original route leading through San Angelo.
A map of the Kansas City Mexico and Orient Railway original route leading through San Angelo.

Railroads represented a monumental undertaking, cutting through the wilderness of the West with nothing but hand tools, strong backs, and a dream of conquering the distances that separated people from their dreams, and entrepreneurs from their desire for wealth and power. The railroad companies had heretofore unheard-of power: they literally made or broke towns as they decided which path or route would be their next stop. They also encouraged immigration by offering free transportation to the West and offering loans that could be repaid through the sale of crops grown on one’s own 160-acre homestead. To illustrate, Fort McKavett, discussed in my previous blog, once home to several thousand individuals, did not get selected for a rail stop. It’s now a ghost town.

San Angelo, Texas, however, was originally the home of another fort in the Texas fortification endeavor, Fort Concho, and although the Fort only existed from 1867-1889, the town that sprang to life across the river was selected first by the Santa Fe Railway System and roughly twenty years later by the Kansas City, Mexico, and Orient Railway as a stop on the way to a deep-water port in western Mexico on the Pacific Ocean, through which it could ship goods to the Orient. For anyone who’s counting, San Angelo now boasts over 100,000 residents. What a difference a rail-stop made in this and many another town!

A timeline of the Kansas City, Mexico, and Orient Railway of Texas (KCM&O) and Santa Fe Railway System. First circled date is in 1888 when the Santa Fe Railway arrived in San Angelo. The second circled date is when the first scheduled train on the KCM&O line arrived in San Angelo.
A timeline of the Kansas City, Mexico, and Orient Railway of Texas (KCM&O) and Santa Fe Railway System. First circled date is in 1888 when the Santa Fe Railway arrived in San Angelo. The second circled date is when the first scheduled train on the KCM&O line arrived in San Angelo.

Reference:

https://www.historynet.com/westward-expansion

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