The town of Brownsville, Texas, located near the Mexican border along the banks of the Rio Grande River, was once served by two major railroads. The Historic Battlefield Trail uses a short stretch of what was once the Texas & New Orleans, a Southern Pacific (SP) subsidiary. The history of the corridor can be traced back even further to a predecessor, which constructed the line into Brownsville during the mid-1920s. The SP once owned a far reaching web of trackage in southeastern Texas to serve port towns such as Corpus Christi and local agricultural interests. As early as the 1930s, the railroad began pulling up parts of its system in this region, a process that continued through the 1990s. The line into Brownsville survived until the Union Pacific era, which acquired the SP in 1996; however, it was abandoned a few years later, creating today’s trail.
The Southern Pacific is regarded as one of the largest and most successful classic railroads. It began humbly in 1865 with intentions of linking San Francisco and San Diego. A few years later, however, it was acquired by the “Big Four” of Collis P. Huntington, Charles Crocker, Mark Hopkins, and Leland Stanford. These individuals were instrumental in providing the financial backing needed to complete the western leg of the transcontinental railroad known as the Central Pacific (CP). Soon after gaining control of the SP, the group acquired the CP and quickly laid down a blanket of trackage all over California by the 1870s. In 1877, the SP began its march eastward with a goal of reaching Texas and the Gulf Coast; it achieved the endeavor in early 1883 when it linked up with the Galveston, Harrisburg & San Antonio (GH&SA), a system it had controlled since 1879. The GH&SA was a key link in the SP’s “Sunset Route” from New Orleans to Los Angeles and remains an important corridor today under Union Pacific.
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The SP’s network of trackage in southeastern Texas also came together around this time. Its most important acquisition was the San Antonio & Aransas Pass Railway. The SA&AP was chartered on August 28, 1884, to connect San Antonio with a deep-water port closer than Galveston. This was expected to be Aransas Pass but was later amended to Corpus Christi, a few miles south. Progress with the new railroad was initially slow, but by November of 1886, it had opened for service. After achieving this milestone, the SA&AP grew rapidly thanks to strong financial support and growing traffic. By 1891, the railroad had expanded to nearly 700 miles, reaching such locations as Waco, Kerrville, Alice, Houston, Rockport, and Giddings among others. In 1890, the SA&AP fell into receivership, and the Southern Pacific subsequently acquired it in 1892. The SP was soon forced to divest its stock ownership in the railroad since state law forbade the same company controlling competing lines.
In 1904, the SA&AP set its sights farther south, hoping to reach the fertile Lower Rio Grande Valley along the Mexican border. It was able to open service as far as Falfurrias before construction was once again halted. The Southern Pacific was allowed to reacquire the property in 1925 through its Galveston, Harrisburg & San Antonio subsidiary. A route to the border was finally completed two years later, reaching Brownsville (as well as McAllen) and a connection with the St. Louis, Brownsville & Mexico Railway (Missouri Pacific). This new corridor also established an interchange with Mexican carrier Ferrocarriles Nacionales de México (National Railroad of Mexico) via Matamoros and the International Bridge across the Rio Grande River.
Brownsville became an important source of agricultural traffic as well as other types of freight when the city’s port opened in the mid-1930s. In 1934, to improve its corporate structure and simplify operations, the SP merged all of its Texas and Louisiana holdings into its Texas & New Orleans subsidiary. The line to Brownsville and the rest of the SP’s network in southeastern Texas became known as its Victoria Division.
Passenger service to Brownsville was never considerably flashy, but the railroad did operate one named train, the “Border Limited”(train #314 northbound and #313 southbound via San Antonio), which provided Pullman and sleeper accommodations. Much to city’s chagrin and despite complaints, the SP was able to end passenger service by the early 1950s. Thankfully, its beautiful depot still stands. All of the railroad’s Gulf Coast lines contributed profitable volumes of freight, particularly those based in petroleum and chemicals. Interestingly, however, much of the former SA&AP trackage fell into a secondary role under SP ownership. As early as the 1930s, it had abandoned the Gonzales to Luling segment, and more cutbacks continued into the 1940s. During the 1960s, it ended service over more sections east of San Antonio. Abandonments continued over the next 30 years, and by the 1990s, most of the former SA&AP was no longer in service. That decade also witnessed the Southern Pacific disappearing as well, after many years of decline. In 1988 it had lost its independence, acquired by Rio Grande Industries, which also controlled the Denver & Rio Grande Western.
In 1996, long-time rival Union Pacific (UP) purchased the SP, and shortly thereafter abandoned the line into Brownsville in 1999, opting to use the former Missouri Pacific route along the Gulf Coast instead; UP had acquired that railroad in 1982. At the time, it was one of the last remaining sections of the former SA&AP still seeing rail service.
Railroad attractions across Texas include the Austin Steam Train in Cedar Park (near Austin); Flatonia Rail Park in Flatonia; Galveston Railroad Museum; Grapevine Vintage Railroad in Grapevine; Historic Jefferson Railway in Jefferson; Houston Railroad Museum; Interurban Railway Museum in Plano; Museum of the American Railroad in Frisco; New Braunfels Railroad Museum in New Braunfels; Railroad & Heritage Museum in Temple; Railway Museum of San Angelo in San Angelo; Texas & Pacific Railway Museum in Marshall; Texas State Railroad in Rusk; Texas Transportation Museum in San Antonio; and the Wichita Falls Railroad Museum in Wichita Falls.