BY DANNY MOGLE | Photos BY ANDREW D. BROSIG| Nov/Dec 2016
As the Cotton Belt rumbles toward town, the conductor blows a long wailing whistle signaling its approach to the depot where a crowd anxiously awaits its arrival. After the passengers climb aboard, the black and red engine picks up speed and darts past the wooden water tower on the edge of town and then through miles of fields.
Watching the model train pass through the miniature village in the Cotton Belt Depot Museum in Tyler, Texas, it is easy to let one’s mind drift to decades past when railroads pumped life into communities and arrivals of trains were moments of excitement.
Although docent Paul Royal has seen the museum’s model trains thousands of times, he still gets excited when he puts one into motion and hears the familiar “chug, chug, chug.”
It never fails to command attention.
“The kids love them (the moving trains). It’s the first thing they’re drawn to,” Royal says. “We let them come over and work the controls. They get a big kick out of that.”
He flips a switch and the engine and passenger cars begin moving along the tiny tracks.
Three friends in the museum — elderly women crisscrossing the region together to visit unusual historical attractions — stop looking at the photos of yesteryear trains covering the walls and gather around the table.
“Oh, my,” exclaims one of the women as she pulls out her cell phone to shoot a video. She is clearly delighted to see the train loop around the village. “I remember when the trains would come through town.”
“I do too,” adds one of her friends, who bends down to get a closer look. “I always took the train to visit my sister. I always made sure to sit by the window. You could see everything.”
“My husband worked for the railroad,” interjects the third.
THE COTTON BELT
Back in the late 1870s, East Texas was producing fruit and vegetable crops that were the envy of the rest of the state. Maj. James P. Douglas, an Army officer who had fought in the Civil War, saw the money-making potential of farming. He was convinced that the best way to get the bountiful crops to larger markets was by rail.
He received a charter from the state to build a rail line that would begin in Tyler and connect to other railroads in the region.
The Tyler Tap was completed in 1877 with one engine and a few cars. It soon ran out of money and was bought by the St. Louis (Mo.) Cotton Compress Company. In 1879, the company founded the Texas and St. Louis Railway — better known as The Cotton Belt.
The company built a railroad that ran from St. Louis to Texarkana and then connected to the old Tyler Tap and continued through East Texas and into the Waco area.
In 1891, the Texas and St. Louis Railway became part of the St. Louis Southwestern Railway system which in 1933 was acquired by the mighty Southern Pacific. Even though the parent company changed, The Cotton Belt kept its identity.
The Cotton Belt provided passenger service in Tyler from 1905 until 1956. By the 1950s, people were increasingly traveling by cars, buses and planes. After it closed, the once bustling depot was used for storage and then from 1977 to 1988 sat vacant and fell into disrepair.
Many people in Tyler forgot that the depot even still existed. Others didn’t care.
The railroad eventually deeded the depot to the city of Tyler. By this time, the building was in terrible condition. City leaders were interested in finding a new use for the historical property but there was not enough money in the budget to renovate it.
Nothing happened for years until the city received federal transportation money that allowed it to remodel the depot and use part of it to house the city’s transit system offices.
The old baggage claims area was converted into the Cotton Belt Depot Museum, a depository of the vast archives of the Cotton Belt Railroad Historical Society.
The museum displays hundreds of photos, a large collection of railroad lanterns, Cotton Belt memorabilia and equipment — including a life-size switching station panel — that were donated by former employees and railroad fans.
The star attraction in the museum is known simply as the Bragg Collection. As the story goes, in 1975 Sharon Bragg gave her husband, Clyde, a Lionel O-gauge electric train set as a Christmas present because he never had one as a child.
The East Texan fell in love with model train sets and began acquiring pieces at a furious pace. By the time Bragg died 26 years later, he had 200 locomotives, more than 1,600 train cars of every shape and function imaginable and enough houses, businesses, bridges, trees, people and miscellaneous items to create a miniature metroplex crawling with trains.
Mrs. Bragg donated her husband’s treasured collection with the understanding that it would be preserved and used to bring joy to others. It went on display in the museum in 2005.
THE REAL THING
Royal, who is retired and often wears a cap with the Cotton Belt logo on it, comes from a family of railroad workers. At a young age, he fell in love with railroads.
“My grandfather actually started working for the Illinois Central Railroad in the 1880s,” he says as he stands on front of the glass cases displaying the Bragg Collection. “My grandfather progressed to become the superintendent of the Paducah shops in Paducah, Kentucky, and they built steam locomotives.”
Royal’s father worked in a rail yard in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.
“My dad used to take me down there on Sundays … to prepare the engines for the next day. I would go down there with him and ride (on the trains) out of the roundhouse and up and down to the cooling tower. And of course I was 10 years old. You can’t do that today.”
Royal gets a kick out of talking about trains with many of the 5,000 people who visit the museum each year. Visitors have come from every state and several foreign countries.
“The people who have actually ridden on a train is becoming fewer and fewer but those who have want to share their stories when they see all of this,” Royal says.
“Our mission is to preserve the history of the Cotton Belt and tell the story of railroading in America and, if I may say so, I think we do that very well.”
Despite all the cool model trains and railroad memorabilia, Royal knows that nothing in the museum can even come close to competing with the experience of what he calls “the real thing.”
“The advantage that we have (being located) here is that we have real trains going by,” Royal says. “When that happens, this place clears out because everyone wants to go outside and see the train. There’s nothing more exciting and overwhelming than standing 5 feet from a train that is going by.”