Imagine the excitement this week when morning commuters on their way to Austin saw 22 cars of an empty freight train piled up like fallen dominoes along the highway. The derailment happened at 2 a.m. when a rail broke under an empty gravel train heading west to the gravel pits near Marble Falls. It wasn't vandalism, the railroad folks say, just old track. Nobody was injured, thankfully, and we're too far away to have been awakened by the noise. But when Bill and I drove past the wreck site yesterday, we saw that workers had pulled up about a hundred yards of old track and were beginning to replace it.
Which made me wonder just how old that track might be.
Bertram (some 45 miles northwest of Austin) was established in 1882. It wasn't built in the ordinary way a town gets built: it was moved. The residents of the little community of San Gabriel were disappointed when they learned that the new narrow-gauge Austin and Northwestern railroad was going to miss them by two miles. The railroad was being constructed to transport pink granite from Marble Falls to Austin to build the State Capitol Building. San Gabriel didn't want to miss out. So they put wheels under their buildings, hitched up their teams of oxen and horses, and hauled the little town (stores, the post office, and several houses) to the railroad and renamed it. Local legend has it that one of the San Gabriel ladies made the trip in her rocking chair, with her knitting, on the front porch of her house as it was pulled to its new site.
It was a good move. By 1891, the town numbered 150 souls and boasted a depot, a cotton gin and gristmill, three general stores, a grocer, a blacksmith, a shoemaker, and two wagon makers--and boys heard the steam locomotive whistle and dreamed of going to work on the railroad. In 1901, the railroad merged with the Houston and Texas Central Railroad and the narrow-gauge track "broad-gauged." A stockyard had been built near the depot, and Bertram was shipping cotton, cattle, and wool--sheep wool but also Angora, the fleece of the popular Angora goats. When Black Tuesday hit in 1929 and the stock market crashed, the town had a population of 1,000 and ginned nearly 12,000 bales of cotton in that year.
But the Depression and the war hit Bertram hard, dropping the population to a low of 600. It's only twice that now, but it's likely to grow as suburban Austin expands into the Hill Country. In 1986, the City of Austin and Capital Metro (Austin's transit authority) purchased the railroad for $9.3 million, planning to use the right-of-way as a mass transit corridor. These days, an excursion train (the Hill Country Flyer) is operated by the Austin Steam Train Association. You can board at Cedar Park (northwest of Austin) for a 66 mile round trip across the wooden trestle bridge over the South San Gabriel River and Short Creek Canyon and through some undeveloped Hill Country landscape. Not this weekend, though. It'll take a while to replace that track.
How old is that broken track? Only the railroad folks know and if they've mentioned it, I haven't heard. But it's very likely that it was laid in 1901, when the original narrow-gauge track was replaced. Which would make it 116 years old. Which makes me think about the importance of the railroad to this rural place, back in the day before everybody owned an automobile--and makes me hope that maybe it will become important again.
Reading note. Boys did not go to work on the railroad simply because their fathers did. What fetched them were sights and sounds of moving trains, and above all the whistle of a locomotive. I've heard of the call of the wild, the call of the law, the call of the church. There is also the call of the railroad.--Gary Krist