by John L. Baldwin
Early Transportation and Industry
Road and Stage Lines
The history of transportation in Walker dates back to the period of Spanish activity in Texas. Henderson Yoakum states, "In old times there were well known crossings on the Trinity; first in the upper crossing; at the present town of Magnolia -- the oldest road in Texas; second, the middle crossing at Robbin's Ferry, established 1689, by De Leon; third, crossing at Liberty, established in 1856." As it was originally set up, the Walker County boundary reached to Robbin's Ferry and the trail which Yoakum mentions was the La Balua Road. After crossing the Trinity its northern part of what later became Walker County, the road ran in a southwesterly direction and crossed the San Jacinto River. Most of the distance covered by the road between the two rivers., then was within the Walker County boundary as established in 1846. At a later date the Old San Antonio Road also crosses the Trinity at Robbin's Ferry, and the act creating the county designated this road as the northern boundary. A third road, the Contraband Trail, crossed the Trinity at a point near the old town of Carolina, in Walker County, and continues in a westerly direction to join the Old San Antonio Road. It was used as a route to by-pass the Spanish authorities along the official road. In later years the section of the Contraband Trail laying between the Neches and Brazos rivers came to be known as the Cushatti Trace, named for Cushatti Indians who used this trail in their hunting expeditions to the west of their village, which was located in what is now Polk and Tyler counties. (T. C. Richardson, East Texas, Its History And Its Makers , p. 1292)
When settlers began coming into the future county site in the 1830's the roads became more numerous but travel over them was very difficult. They were really little more than trails from which the brush had been cleared. When stages began to travel over them the passengers often had to assist in prying the vehicles out of the mud, using fence rails.
During the days of the Republic of Texas a large portion of commerce was carried by freight wagons, usually drawn by three to eight yoke of oxen, or less often by horses or mules. The use of oxen had several advantages; their hoofs did not sink into the mud as readily; the purchase price of a yoke of oxen was about 40 to 50 dollars, as compared with 3 or 4 times as much for a pair of draft horses; the oxen could subsist almost entirely on prairie grass. For these reasons horses were used mostly for certain stage coaches, rather than freighting. (W. R. Hogan, Republic of Texas )
By the time Walker was organized, the following roads existed in the area: Huntsville to Swarthout: Huntsville to Washington; Huntsville to Cincinnati and Montgomery. During the period of the Republic the county courts and the commissioners were authorized by law to construct and maintain roads within their counties, and now they had the power to require all males between 18 and 50 to work on the roads in the precinct in which they lived. This practice was continued after Texas became a state, and even into the early 1900's. In 1856 Frederick law Olmstead, a citizen of one of the northern areas, traveled through East Texas to secure information for his book, Journey in the Seaboard Slave States. Of the state he had this to say, " Texas has but two avenues of the Gulf and the Red River. Travelers for Gulf counties and West enter by seas, for all other parts of Texas, by the river. All roads leading into the state are scarcely used except by herdsmen bringing cattle to the New Orleans market. Ferries across the rivers and bayous are so costly and ill tended, roads so wet and bad, and the distance from steam conveyance to various part of the state so very great that the current is entirely diverted from this region.
Armstead, in the same book, gives a map of Texas showing the principal roads. those shown to pass through Walker were: a road branching from the San Antonio Road, halfway between San Augustine and Nacogdoches, which ran in La Grange, passing through Huntsville, via Huntsville to Houston.
MMamie Wynn Cos, in an article for an historical issue of the
ITEM , March 6, 1941, lists the following early roads of Walker County.
1. Post Road - This was a stage coach road which crossed the Trinity River at Wyser's Bluff in the northern part of the county.
2. Contraband Road. This road is not to be confused with the Contraband Trail mentioned earlier, ran in a southwesterly direction fro Huntsville to Houston. It is a densely forested road used for the purpose of avoiding Federal Authorities in hauling of contraband cotton at the close of the Civil War.
3. Telegraph Wire Road. This was a stage line passing through Huntsville on the way to Houston. The road was so named because a telegraph line was strung along its side, and some of the old insulators which held the wire may still be seen fastened to the trees along the way. The road had a stage stopping point at Stubbefield Lake where the passengers rested and the horses were changed.
4. East-West Road. Most of this road followed what is now Highway 190, but at that time it also went to Raven Hill, Sam Houston's country home.
5. Four Notch Road. This is said to be by many the oldest road in the County. It ran in a southeasterly direction across the county, crossing the railroad about 2 miles south of Phelps. Some of the trees along this road still have 4 notches used in making the route from which the road got it's name.
It was over these roads that the stage coach ran and products of the farmers of the county were hauled to markets.
Trinity River Traffic
From the beginning of the settlement of Texas until the middle of the 1870's and in some cases even later, the Trinity served as an important means of transportation and commerce. River boats were put into use and made journeys from coastal ports into the interior of the state, carrying passengers and supplies, and returning with products to be sold, particularly cotton. Farmers from all over the county would bring their ox and mule wagons, loaded with products to the chief river ports in the county -- Tuscaloosa, Cincinnati, Newport and Carolina.
Early navigation of the Trinity was accomplished wit old-fashioned boats, very much like those on the Mississippi, although somewhat smaller because of the narrowness and, in many places, shallow water of the Trinity. These boats operated up and down the river, despite the many hazards by river snags, sand bars, and other obstructions. River traffic was irregular, however, with the Trinity often being too low for any but the smallest of boats to attempt passage.
Although steamboats were used for most of the trips up and
down the river, other types of boats, such as the bateau, were employed.
These boats were constructed of rough planks and were propelled with poles, the
steering being done with long oars or sweep at the stem. The keel-boat was
similar to the bateau but was better constructed and was sometimes pointed at
both ends. It was often used to carry passengers as well as freight.
There was a cabin running the entire length of the deck, and propulsion was by
poles or sweeps. The flat-boat, propelled in the same manner, was designed
only for the one way trip down the river. It was generally used only for
freight but sometimes carried passengers.
(E. H. Brown, Trinity River Canalization, 133-136)
Although the Trinity has been used in earlier days by the Indians and the Spaniards for the transporting of goods, the first extensive navigation did not begin until the 1830's, and reached it's peak in the 50's and 60's. One of the earliest known steamboats operating on the river was the Branch T. Archer, which ascended the Trinity in 1838. It encountered difficulty in making the trip and was forced to lay over in one of the ports to wait for higher waters. (Telegraph and Texas Register June 9, 1938)
The Vesta, the Sciota Bell, and the Ellen Frankland also operated on the river during this earlier period, about 1843-1844. A Galveston paper reported that the Vesta had just returned from Alabama on the river with a full cargo of cotton and that there was just enough cotton yet remaining up the river to keep both the Vesta and the Ellen Frankland employed in bringing it down for several months.
Wrecks among the boats in the river traffic were not uncommon,
as there were many hazards in navigating the stream and the bay from the mouth
of the river to Galveston, not to mention the defects of the boats themselves.
The Ellen Frankland was wrecked in 1844 in a storm in Galveston Bay, with the
loss of its cargo of 180 bales of cotton.
The Sarah Barnes was also wrecked about the same time, with the loss of it's cargo. In the spring of 1853 the Fanner and another boat were racing from the wharf at Galveston when the boiler of the Fanner exploded from overheating. Several passengers were killed, among them Geo Hunter, a prominent citizen of Cincinnati, Walker County. (History of the Hunter Family, possession of Willene Story of Tyler, Texas)
The Sciota Bell was an important Trinity River packet which took over much of the activity of the Ellen Frankland. The following advertisement appeared in the Civilian and Galveston Gazette, May 11, 1844: " Regular Trinity Packet - for Liberty, Swartwout , Cincinnati and Alabama. The substantial steamer Sciota Bell, E. Jones, Master, for freight of passengers having good accommodations. Apply on board."" Another advertisement on Nov 18,, 1843 announced the fine, light, draught and very substantial steamer Lady Byron, S. W. Tichenor, Master, would depart for Alabama and all immediate landings shortly, and that all persons desirous for shipping goods would apply aboard.
The Mary Clifton operated the year 1854. It was a large steamboat built to carry a load of 2,550 bales of cotton, but, because of its size was often forced to wait in various ports for the river to rise before being able to continue. There were several smaller boats, however, which had little difficulty keeping up a fairly steady operation on the Trinity. Among those were the Guadalupe, the Kate, the Early Bird, the Vesta, and the Belle of Texas.
Other boats not previously mentioned which navigated the Trinity various times were the Ruthven, Mustang, Grapeshot, Orleans, Justice, Brownsville, Pioneer, Friend, Correo, Trinity, Wyoming, Victoria, Brazos, Star State, Nick Hill, Hays, Washington, Buffalo, Texas, Wren, Black Cloud, Mary Conley, Mollie Hamilton, and the Id Reuse.
Occasionally steamboats were able to get all the way up the river to Dallas, but ordinarily the most distant point was Alabama, or by a port the name of Magnolia, which was located near the present city of Palestine. Even below these points travel on the river could hardly be described as regular, because of the dependence on rains and subsequent rising and falling of the water, but, even so steamboat travel was an important method of transportation in early Texas. Walker County is on the lower section of the river, which was more easily navigated. The county had thriving, prosperous towns which owe their existence to the river trade as well as illustrated by their complete demise following the coming of the railroad to the area and the resulting cession of the river traffic.
Coming of the Railroad
TThe Houston and Great Northern Railroad Company was chartered by Texas Lewis in the year 1866. However, it was not until the year 1870 that actual construction was begun, with the line reaching Phelps, Walker County, on the way to Palestine, on March 1, 1872. S. G. Reed, A History Of The Texas Railroads, 315.
In those days it was the custom in railroad building for towns to pay a bonus to the railway company for the privilege of having the line run through the town. When the main line to Houston and Great Northern was being built through Walker, the company requested $25,000 bonus from Huntsville before agreeing to lay the track through the city. Many of Huntsville citizens favored paying the money, but the majority of the townsfolk did not, fearing that a railroad might bring in undesirable elements into the town and also take money out of the community. As a result, the Houston and Great Northern Company by-passed Huntsville. (McFarland, A History Of Huntsville, ITEM, March 6, 1941.
After finally realizing the necessity of having a railroad, the citizens of Huntsville organized the Huntsville Branch Railway Company, for the purpose of building a tap road to the main line at Phelps. This cost the city $125,000 and the resulting tap line provided only limited service. The Houston and Great Northern Company built the branch line, which was completed in 1872, and merged with Houston and Great Northern the following year in May 1873,
Upon the completion of the tap line, Huntsville held on March 26, 1872, a gala celebration in conjunction with the arrival of the first train. A ceremony was held during the day, featuring an address by William Walter Phelps, a member of the U S. Congress from New Jersey. That night there was a banquet and a ball at the court house to round out the day's activities. Houston Chronicle, Mar 26, 1922.
New Waverly, Phelps, Dodge and Riverside, all of which are towns within Walker County, owe their existence to the railroad, and were established with its arrival. Four other towns in the county, as mentioned earlier, eventually vanished as a result of the steamboats and river transportation in Texas, by providing a regular service which the boats could not promise and lower rates which the riverboat owners could not match. The river ports gradually dwindled away after having there chief means of livelihood cut off.
Industry in the County
Agriculture has long been the leading industry in Walker County and by far the major portion of the county income came from that source prior or the 20th century. Cattle raising, however, was also popular with the many settlers, and the excellent grazing areas throughout the county enabled them to increase the size of the herds that many of them brought to Texas. A count of 1850 revealed that the county had approximately 24,000 head of cattle, but the wealthy slave owners from Alabama, Tennessee, Georgia and Mississippi began coming in larger numbers, the number of cattle began to decrease. the Federal census of 1850 showed Walker County to have a population of 3.964 persons, of whom 1,301 were slaves. the slave population more than doubled within the next 5 years, reaching 2,765, with most of the larger plantations having 30 or more slaves each. As is usually the case when the plantation type of development began to greatly increase, cattle raising decreased in the county over the same period, and there were only 12,000 cattle in 1855 (Richardson)
Most of the slave owners coming to this region were of scholarly, religious and aristocratic ancestry, and their first efforts were lent to the establishment of schools, churches and plantations. they brought with them many capable servants and slaves trained in the farming of such crops as cotton and corn. Finding that one half to one bale of cotton could be produced per acre in the rich soils of the area, cotton became their money crop, with other crops raised for home consumption. (H. Smith)
In addition to farming and cattle raising, the timber industry was of prime importance in the county. Many sawmills began to appear in the area to supply lumber for the frame houses which replaced the original ones built of logs. Beginning with a sawmill established by William Viser, in which the lumber was sawed by hand, the industry steadily as a result of the coming of more up to date machinery and a greater capacity for turning out larger quantities and better grades of lumber. (P. H. Singletary, Huntsville, Texas)
There were besides the three mentioned,, other types of industry within the county, though they were of a lesser importance. Some three or four tan yards [?] were established in the county and numerous cotton gins appeared in the area, with many larger plantations having their own gins. Two cigar factories were located in Huntsville; one operated by J. B. Jones, was located on what is now Avenue L, near the present  location of the Life theater; the other, owner Peter Gilbert, was located on the property now owned  by Mrs. T. S. Williford on Avenue I. Both of these men had their own plantations and raised their own tobacco.
Huntsville also had two brick yards, one of them located at the pen, and the other on the present Avenue J near it's junction with Highway 75. The Smith Brothers owned the later, and made bricks used in the building of "Old Main", the administration building of S. H. N. I.
This work written and researched by John W. Baldwin in 1954.
copyright 2000 - 2003 Charlotte Sandel Beck