A good photograph can say a thousand words.
“Wooden passenger car the day the lots were sold,” is written on the back of this photograph, supposedly the first excursion train in Kirbyville, Texas.
This photo, from the collection of Mr. D.T. Kent of Kirbyville, is what photography can be at its greatest level. Photos may tell stories. The quality of this photo, which is undated but I am guessing was taken at the turn of the last century, is indeed worn, aged and tattered. But the stories are still there.
I found myself wanting to know more… wanting to know any details about this photo. After all, all I truly know about it is it depicts a “wooden passenger car the day the lots were sold” and that the top of the train car is inscribed Beaumont & Kansas City.
To backtrack, I “googled” the rail name and found that the Gulf, Beaumont & Kansas City Railway Company was chartered in March of 1893 to connect a point on the Neches River at the Beaumont Lumber Company’s mill near Beaumont, Texas with a rock quarry in northern Jasper County. The rail traveled for 70 miles from point to point.
John H. Kirby was the father of the railroad, planning for the venture to tap his timber resources in East Texas. Though most of the railroad’s earnings came from freight operations, passenger service was also provided, as we see in this photograph.
In 1895, the rail line reported total passenger earnings of $5,000 and gross earnings of $52,000 through the use of its four locomotives and 193 cars. By 1903, passenger earnings had climbed to $70,000 and gross earnings to a half million dollars, with 559 cars and five locomotives.
In 1894, the Gulf Beaumont & Kansas City Rail built 21 miles of track between Beaumont and Silsbee and three miles of track between Collins Ferry Junction and Kirbyville. In 1899, 10 miles of track was added between Kirbyville and Roganville.
I found no maps online of the routes, but I could picture them pretty well in my mind.
Now, to sidetrack a bit… what about these wooden passenger train cars, I next wondered, now that I was able to imagine possible places these men were traveling. Wooden train cars? Hmmmm.
I’ve seen some really really old train cars in person, some restored completely or partially to their original glory, and others just left abandoned to become at one with the terrain in which they were left. These train cars were all made of steel. I’ve never seen a wood train car and quite frankly did not know there was such a thing. For some one like me who immediately associates rail with the industrial age of steel, the mystique around a train car made of wood is, well, a bit on the fascinating side.
So back on track, I sought more information and discovered that when trains first came to be, iron technology was in its infancy and its ore was scarce. Before the 20th century, railway cars were mostly built by independent builders. These builders who were active during the wooden car era came to that business from almost every imaginable occupation that dealt with wood: lumbering, sawmilling, millworking, general construction, wagon and carriage building, building of cabinetry and/or fine stairways, bridge building, and ship building.
Screech… So much for what I thought was my keen knowledge of American history related to economy and economics.. I’ve apparently been blowing smoke thinking I knew a lot when all along I have mistakenly thought rail was a result of the industrial age of steel and iron, rather than the truth of the matter which is that rail and trains predated the industrial age. Okay, this makes me feel a bit ignorant… a bit derailed if you will… I admit it.
A wooden passenger car!! Whoa! I thought these just existed in toy models, not the real deal. Ah, the joy of learning… That’s the ticket! I shared this knowledge with my brainiac daughter who immediately tooted her own horn, informing me that she knew there were wooden train cars from reading the one and only book she had read that I did not– Atlas Shrugged (I tried… But couldn’t).
With or in spite of my newfound knowledge… I still want the stories! My one track mind still wants to know the meaning of the inscription on the back of the photo about the lots being sold. I want to know something, anything, about any of the men traveling in the train on this iconic day.
And that pig! This is the second time I have seen a pig in an old train photograph. What is up with the pigs and these trains?
Maybe someone who reads this knows someone who maybe knows someone who maybe knows something. If so, you know where to reach me, right here on the world wide web in this era of technology with many generations like mine who are a bit ignorant of the glory of the days of the rail.
In the meantime, I found myself still tunnel visioned, and honing in on each of the men whose faces had any details in this photograph. Most of thes men were staring straight at the camera. I cropped, enlarged and saved individual sections of the photo (which I had sharpened and “de-noised” to the best of my ability)… I did this just for kicks, and maybe for bearing fruit to boot if someone… anyone… recognizes a face : ) It’s a longshot… probably a needle in a haystack. But it can’t hurt to try to get some bells and whistles on the story of this photo the day the lots were sold.