Sugar Land Railway
By W.E. “Bill” Willits
In creating this article I referred frequently to several vintage topographical maps which show the route of the Sugar Land Railway in its prime years. The maps: Sugarland 1915, Alvin_Brazoria 1916, Alvin 1929, Brazoria 1929, Pearland 1929, Juliff 1943, Thompsons 1953, Sugar Land 1955 and Missouri City 1970 show the wandering of the tracks across county lines (and in some cases back into the same counties two or three times) as local creeks near the Brazos River often dictated the rail line’s path. Locations and place names that may not have survived the years since the building and operation of the Sugar Land Railway appear on the maps and are important to the telling of the “Sugarland” story, helping to establish crossroads and hamlets as real places, some of which are buried under larger communities which have grown up around them since the railway was there.
According to the Handbook of Texas Online, “The Sugar Land Railway Company was chartered on April 14, 1893, in the interest of Ed. H. Cunningham and Company, to build from Sugar Land to Arcola, both in Fort Bend County, and to connect with the International and Great Northern Railroad Company. The capital stock was $142,000, and the principal place of business was Sugar Land. The members of the first board of directors were Cunningham and George W. Brackenridge, both of San Antonio; G. B. Miller, Haywood Braban, W. K. Wornow, and W. J. Bertrand, all of Sugar Land; William D. Cleveland and E. W. Sewall, both of Houston; and J. H. B. House of Duke, Texas. During the period 1893-94 fourteen miles of track was constructed by Ed. H. Cunningham and Company. In 1895 the Sugar Land Railway reported passenger earnings of $200 and freight earnings of $17,000 and owned one locomotive and one car.”
Cunningham had acquired more than 12,000 acres in the area of the village of Sugar Land by 1893; eventually he would control more than 20,000 acres. On that land he had built a sugar refinery named after himself, a raw-sugar mill and a paper mill. That sort of industrial development required a railroad to carry raw materials in and finished products out; the Sugar Land Railway was the answer. This rail line of fourteen miles was to expand even farther over time, going in two directions from the company town of Sugar Land.
Since the Sugar Land Railway was built on the promise of profits from sugar cane raising, harvesting and processing, it was similar to the Cane Belt Railroad begun a few years later for the same reason, and it had some of the same people in its history as well. One familiar name that crops up often when reading about various enterprises begun in our area of Texas during the late 1800s and early 1900s was that of William T. Eldridge, one of the central figures in the sugar cane business for which both the Cane Belt and the Sugar Land were built.
W. T. Eldridge was a latecomer to the Sugar Land company, not being one of the original people who started the mill operation or the railway, but he appears prominently in the company’s operation. His aggressive reputation preceded him. He had only recently been acquitted of murder charges under two separate pleas of self defense for shooting to death his former business partner (in the Cane Belt Railroad and other enterprises) William Dunovant in 1902 and then in a later confrontation killing Dunovant’s brother-in-law W. E. Calhoun in 1905, leading to uneasiness by some people about dealing with him, but his business acumen was unquestioned.
Eldridge and his partner Isaac H. Kempner began buying up plantations belonging to the Cunningham and Ellis interests in addition to acquiring the Cunningham Sugar Company between 1906 and 1908. With the management of Eldridge, they began modernizing the operation of the sugar refinery and their other properties under the corporate name Imperial Sugar Company and continued to develop Sugar Land as a company town.
During this same period, in May 1907, they chartered another railroad, the Imperial Valley Railway Company, to build track northwest from Sugar Land to some point near Hempstead, where it was to interchange with the Houston & Texas Central Railroad (H&TC). This route would also have provided interchange at crossings with not only the Galveston Harrisburg & San Antonio Railroad (GH&SA; under Southern Pacific control) at Sugar Land, but the San Antonio & Aransas Pass (SA&AP) and the Missouri Kansas & Texas of Texas (MK&T of T) in the 60 miles to Hempstead.
However, as with so many startups, the Imperial Valley Railway initially only went a short distance. It first reached northwest about five miles to the community of Cabell in western Ft. Bend County, site of a prison farm. The extension to Hempstead was never to become a reality although some expansion beyond Cabell did occur many years later.
The International & Great Northern (I&GN) line between Anchor and Houston provided access to Houston under trackage rights for the Houston and Brazos Valley (H&BV) beginning some time after 1907 as well as the Sugar Land Railway soon afterward.
It is interesting to note that the H&BV, which was chartered in 1907 and acquired the properties of the Velasco, Brazos & Northern Railway from the port of Velasco on the Gulf Coast (later Freeport) to Anchor at this time, also was authorized to build a rail line from Anchor by way of Sugar Land to connection with the Houston & Texas Central near Hempstead and a branch from Sugar Land to Houston. However, H&BV never was able to build any of that planned trackage.
The Sugar Land and Imperial Valley railways connected end to end; the Sugarland 1915 map shows the mainline crossing the GH&SA tracks in a generally northwest-southeast direction in the town of Sugar Land. (NOTE: Topgraphical maps were redrawn from time to time by U. S. Corps of Engineers draftsmen. For example, the Sugarland 1915 map shows a redraw date of 1929; this explains why “Missouri Pacific System” appears by the track along with “Sugarland,” although in 1915 MP control was still several years in the future).
In 1909 the Sugar Land Railway acquired about one mile of yard trackage at Sugar Land from the GH&SA in order to expand its storage and interchange capabilities at that location. In 1912 the entire Imperial Valley Railway was sold to the Sugar Land Railway in an internal business transaction that increased the size of the Sugar Land Railway considerably. Milepost 0 was established at Pryor, 1.7 miles northwest of Sugar Land itself on the line to Cabell.
One track of a wye located in the sugar mill area created an interchange point with the GH&SA. To the west the Sugar Land also crossed the GH&SA at grade with a spur track coming south from the Sugar Land-Cabell mainline track to Sartartia (the original headquarters of the Imperial Valley Railway), this spur crossing the GH&SA near the Convict Farm. Another long spur from near Cabell crossed the GH&SA at Harlem farther west. These spurs reached into sugar cane operations both north and south of the GH&SA tracks, but no interchange tracks with GH&SA were shown at these locations.
From Sugar Land southward, the Sugar Land Railway had built its main track to an area shown as Burnside on the Sugarland 1915 map (at milepost 10.74), just a mile north of a diamond crossing the GC&SF called Sugarland Junction, but without an interchange track at this junction. The Railway did not have direct access to Arcola or Arcola Junction as envisioned in the original charter. Instead, an interchange track more than three miles long ran eastward from Burnside past Oyster Bayou and Clear Lake to Duke where it connected with the GC&SF; from there (using trackage rights) it was a mile farther east on the GC&SF to an interchange with the I&GN at Arcola Junction.
This short stretch of trackage rights required to get to Arcola Junction via the GC&SF may have been more expensive than the Sugar Land Railway would have wanted, but access to Houston through this I&GN interchange was the only choice in the early years.
However, in 1912 there was a better and more direct access point to the I&GN built a few miles farther south. The sugar company had constructed an additional seventeen miles of “private” track for their own cane harvesting operations from the Burnside area continuing southward (crossing the GC&SF at Sugarland Junction). During 1912 the Sugar Land Railway took over the 17 miles “from mile post 10.74 to Rotchford.” Rotchford must have been in the vicinity of Otey but is not marked on any map studied; it may have been named for a land owner or railway employee and thus was not a “public” name. As part of that transaction the Sugar Land Railway gained a shorter and more direct interchange with the I&GN by building a track 1.5 miles long going directly east at a community called House (at the location of the Thomas W. House sugar plantation about two miles north of Juliff in Brazoria County) and interchanging with the I&GN’s Houston-Anchor line at Hawdon.
Although the Sugar Land Railway’s old interchange track with the GC&SF eastward from milepost 10.74 may no longer have been needed when the new Hawdon interchange was built, it was still shown as though active years later on various maps. Interestingly, in October 1913 an item relating to that original interchange track appeared in Railway Age Gazette:
“The State of Texas has lost its case against the Sugarland Railway Company for penalties amounting to $5,000 and a mandatory injunction to compel the road to rebuild a short branch which had been torn up and which the railroad claims would have cost $40,000 to construct and $10,000 annually to maintain, with practically no revenue. The case was filed in July, 1911, shortly before the company had extended its line from a point three miles from Arcola Junction to a point eighteen miles south of the connecting point of the International & Great Northern and the Santa Fe, leaving a spur 3 1/2 miles long from the point of divergence of the extension to Arcola Junction. Permission was granted by the Railroad Commission to tear up the spur, but later the order was revoked, and the company was ordered to rebuild the track.”
Going south between Sugar Land and House, the Sugar Land Railway crossed and then ran along Oyster Creek. Communities or place names along that creek besides Burnside included Smada, DeWalt, Trammells and Herman; each except for Burnside was a listed station on the railroad. Today some of these places may be road names, intersections or just lost to history. Some of the names may be spelled slightly differently in different sources.
Track would eventually be built all the way south to Anchor. Beyond House going southward were places identified as Laprella, Cow Lake, Sears, Lange Plantation, English, and Lockridge. The railway crossed the Ramsey State Prison Farm and continued on to Otey. At the southeast end of the line where it had temporarily ended years earlier, six miles of track were added from Otey to Guenther and on to Anchor in 1916, so another interchange with the I&GN was established at Anchor. This was to be the southernmost extent of the Sugar Land Railway’s expansion.
Tower 114 was established to protect the crossing of the Southern Pacific and Sugar Land Railway tracks in late 1923. Apparently no other towers were required at any of the other junctions on the Sugar Land.
Sugar production in the area served by the railway continued at a high level and in 1927 was producing more than 300 million pounds of sugar per year. However, evidently cost of production using locally grown cane was eating into profits, and the last sugarcane crop grown in Fort Bend County was harvested in 1928. After that raw sugar from Cuba and the West Indies was imported to continue the sugar mill operations. With the onset of the Depression two years later the company posted some losses, but in 1938 still produced 400 million pounds of refined sugar.
The Sugar Land Railway became a part of the Missouri Pacific Lines (under the New Orleans Texas and Mexico Railway Company, NOT&M) in 1926 after MoPac had taken over control of the several associated Gulf Coast Lines (GCL) in Texas, one of which was the Sugar Land Railway.
Twelve additional miles of track westward from Cabell to a place called Hickey were opened by the Sugar Land Railway in 1931. However, in 1932 the railway removed the interchange at Anchor and abandoned the 21 miles of track between Anchor and House; making the interchange at Hawdon again become the Sugar Land’s only link to Houston.
The 12 miles between Cabell and Hickey had a short life, as this trackage was abandoned in 1942. Cabell, therefore, was “end of track” at the northwest end for much of the Sugar Land Railway’s existence. But even that ended; during 1952 the three miles of track between Pryor and Cabell were abandoned and removed, so that “end of track” was a short distance northwest of the Sugar Land mill complex itself.
The Sugar Land Railway became one of several railroads absorbed into the Missouri Pacific when the MoPac reorganized in 1956. What little trackage of the Sugar Land remained was gone by 1982, when MoPac’s territory became Union Pacific territory.
Despite ups and downs in the sugar industry the company marketing the brand called Imperial Valley Sugar (and some other brands) continues in operation today, but it is no longer affiliated with the company that began in Sugar Land, Texas in 1893.
However, even without its signature sugar company operation and the sugar cane transporting railway that has long been gone, Sugar Land lives on as a thriving suburban community near Houston that would be unrecognizable to the founders of the sugar industry and the railway that spawned the modern city there.
Sources and Bibliography
The Handbook of Texas Online
The Official Guide of the Railways January 1939
The Official Guide of the Railways December 1949
Railway Age Gazette
Perry-Castaneda Library Map Collection – UT
Artifacts from the Ken E. Stavinoha Collection
Photos from the Russell Straw Collection
Author’s collected research notes