Living Along the Cotton Belt Route

By Thomas J. Minter

When I was growing up in the small town of Saltillo in east Texas in the late 1930s the railroad was a big part of our lives.  The one that ran through our town was called the "Cotton Belt Route."* The track of this railroad was a single
type main track that required  foolproof communications and train lay overs on sidings to facilitate safe traffic flow.  Our track ran east-west parallel to, after a fashion, highway US 67.

The railroad touched us in many ways, and was the source of a lot of benefits -- some large, some small. I think it might have been a bigger part of people's lives earlier, for near the edge of town on the east side there was a big, covered loading dock alongside the railroad track near the cotton gin. It had to have some connection with the railroad, for it had that railroad look to it: hefty, well-built, and made to last and take a lot of abuse. We called it the "pea shed," although I don't know why, and can't ever recall seeing much of anything on it . . . not even bales of cotton, though the cotton gin was still in operation.

But a few of us boys put the shed to good use -- it was our meeting place, our hangout. It was there we introduced the new kid in town to our subculture. The newcomer was told that to cement the group's friendship everyone was to put something of value, such as a pocketknife, rabbit's foot, slingshot, or special marble, under a hat, or box, and then there would be a race for the treasures, with  everyone grabbing what they could. As each placed his contribution at the proper place, the others hid or closed their eyes.  Unknown to the new inductee, who was desperate to be a part of the group, only one item wound up at the appointed place. It usually was some feces . . . maybe a dead rat, or a bird. Every one lined up and ran for the bounty. You can guess who was allowed to win the race and greedily grab up what he thought were the prizes. Whereas everyone but the butt of the joke would almost fall down laughing.

There was also a huge water tank east of town where trains would stop and take on water. Instead of being made of wood, this dark blue, or maybe black, tank was one of the newer ones made of steel.  As I recall, it had "Cotton Belt Route" painted on its side in white script-like letters. My buddies and I use to remove our clothes and put them behind the tank and climb its ladder to the top in our skivvies and descend down on the inside by ladder and go swimming.  One time a train stopped to take on water as we were splashing about. We stayed quiet as could be, because the railroad didn't like for people to appropriate or use its property. Finally, the train departed. Naturally we thought we had put one on over the railroad. But when we went to retrieve our clothes, they were gone. They left with the train. You can imagine how each of us sneaked home.

There were other things we "borrowed" from the railroad. Across the track from the water tank and more toward the east was a small lake built by the railroad to furnish water for the tank. We used this also for swimming, although it was half covered with lily pads of which you could become entangled in and drown. Every kid knew about the perils of this just like they did about mishandling guns. Sometimes we would jump our ponies off into the water and let them swim around while holding on to their tails.  And, directly across the track from the lake was a long, narrow cat-walk platform that was about 25 feet tall and probably some 100 yards long, which we used to satisfy our monkey instincts. It had some pipes on it, but it was no longer in use. It might have been for filling railroad tank cars with oil or some kind of liquid.

Athough few passenger trains ever seemed to stop at Saltillo, it did have a depot with a telegrapher/agent on duty and all the essentials of a thriving station. Every day mail bags would be thrown from the mail car, and at the same time it would snag the outgoing mail bag from an upright pole with an arm.  In springtime baby chicks would arrive by rail, from a place I am not sure . . . maybe Dallas or St.Louis, in cardboard boxes about 6-8 inches tall with holes all over them about the size of a dime for ventilation.  And, only rarily would a train stop to either take or a passenger or to discharge one. But in spite of this activity, the station didn't seem to be used to the capacity for which it was designed.

When the train's arrival was imminent, everyone in town knew it was approaching because they could hear the sound of the locomotive's whistle way out . . . two long blasts . . . one short . . . and another long as it came to crossings on its way in. On a clear, windless, winter day you could almost hear the whistle all the way to Weaver, Texas, which was  four miles to the west.

At this stage of my life the larger world was pretty much a mystery to me . . . as with most grown-up people around me. We were poor and isolated. I had never ridden a bus, much less a train. So when passenger trains came through Saltillo, I used to look into the windows of the coaches and wonder who the people were, where they were going, and what their lives were like. Not in an envious way like Rousseau had his fictional boy in Emile look at  things, but more in an inquisitive vain as Alice did in Wonderland. I was especially curious about the dining cars and what the people were eating. It was even more interesting at night when the cars were all lit up. The caboose at the tail-end of the freights also fascinated me in a similiar way.

The trains back in those days ran on time; you could with great confidence set your clock or watch at their passing. My Uncle Jack had a 21 jewel Elgin pocket watch, and every so often he would take the back off of it and let me see its inner works . . . the jewels, springs, wheels, and so on. I was all eyes. He said it was similiar to the ones the railroad conductors and locomotive engineers carried.

Horses were still important in the late 1930s, and they sometimes didn't behave very well around trains and automobiles. Highway U.S. 67 ran through town, with three businesses on one side of it and four on the other side.
One half of Saltillo, you might say, backed right up to the railroad, which ran parallel to the highway. The drug store, which also housed the post office, had a hitching rail between it and the tracks. And, every so often  a team of horses hooked to a wagon and tied to the hitching rail would get spooked by a passing train and break loose and run away. They would take off just high tailing it with the wagon careening side to side swiping trees, culverts, fences, and the like. When this happened it created a big stir in town, for it set all the dogs to barking and it caused everyone to drop what they were doing to investigate. Usually the horses got slowed down when a wheel got knocked off of the wagon or they came to deadend, blocked by a fence. More often than not, some brave soul would step into their path and face them down, like in a game of chicken.

The railroad was a source of good to the town, which outweighed  the negative aspects like scaring horses.  You could put pennies on the rails and have them flattened by a passing train. If you needed a ralroad spike for something, there was always one around somewhere near the track. And if you just wanted to walk a rail, balancing yourself as you went along, you could do that too. Because of the railroad, there was always some of those big, flat washers around somewhere which were used in fastening things together. They were just the right size for a game where we pitched them. We had to hunt for them though. They were especially plentiful around trestles.
When it came to rocks, the railroad was a God-send for boys. It provided an unlimited source of sling-shot ammunition.  You had your choice of  rocks from about the size of a cherry to those as big as a hen egg.  And if you were picky, you could  sort out missiles with a more perfect rounded shape. Because of the plentifulness of rocks in the railroad bed, just about every boy in town was proficient with the sling-shot. Some, myself included, could also throw rocks with great accuracy.  A bird sitting on a telegraph wire could usually be toppled by one of us with a well-placed rock..

But easy access to rocks, as with BB guns, can sometimes lead boys into the realm of mischief. One day near the railroad a few of us boys were messing around. One drew back on his slingshot and sent a rock sailing high into the air. When it came down it landed on the tin roof of the Culpeper's house and bounced loudly a time or two before sliding off the roof. This didn't sit too well with the Culpepers inside, for old man Culpeper came out of the house, mad as a cornered badger, and proceeded to give us all a dressing down. The harangue must not have made much of an impression on us for later his house was often singled out for special attention, but from some distance.

Some things more serious happened with boys and rocks. Every once in a while some kid in town would throw a rock at a passing passenger train hitting a window, and sometimes shattering it. This was a serious matter, and the railroad company would immediately send an inspector to town to investigate, which caused everyone to sit up and take notice, and speculate as to who was the culprit.  At the same time, it is safe to say that just about every kid in town was grilled at home to determine if he had anything to do with the incident, and was told in no uncertain terms all the bad things that would happen to him if he ever engaged in such malicious and destructive behavior.

At times totally unexpected things happen around a railroad. One morning, for instance, I was walking down the tracks when I came upon a baby pig, which was barely alive, lying between the rails. It was a newborn and had apparently fell between the cracks or slats of a livestock car of a freight during the night. I hurriedly carried the little fellow home. We tried like heck to give him more life, but to no avail . . . he finally succumbed.

Probably the biggest event  having to do with the railroad when I lived in Saltillo was the coming to town of a railroad work train. It parked at one end of the siding. It had came to town to extend the siding. It was a town unto itself.  It had a kitchen car, dining car, sleeping cars, cars for mules, cars for equipment and supplies, an office . . . just everything.  Every chance I got I watched all the things going on around this special train.  One day for the first time I witnessed the train's blacksmith snub a mule in preparation for shoeing him. The snub, sometimes called a "come along," consisted of a piece of wood about 12 inches long with a loop of rope through a hole in one end. The loop was slipped over the upper lip of the mule, and then twisted with the board. The device sure worked wonders . . . the rope was twisted until the mule, no matter how ornery he was, became as docile as a pussy cat. And he stayed that way too . . . until the job was finished.

The work train was in town for about a month. Everything then was done by hand, or by hand and mulepower.  The road bed was graded and dirt and gravel moved about by fresnos pulled by three mule-teams. The fresno scoops were the front-end loaders of their day, or more accurate, "back-end loaders."  The laying of cross ties and  rails was also done by mule assisted manpower.

The highlight of work train's stay in town for me came near the end of its work.  One day as I often did, I rode my pony Major to where the men and mules were working  just to watch them. On this day I talked to the foreman, who rode a big buckskin horse as he went about checking on the work and giving orders. Having observed  me and my horsemanship before, I guess he sensed how much I cared about horses and seemed to admire his. So he told me if I wanted to I could ride his horse. He said I could ride him to town, and I didn't have to hurry back.  His horse was big, buckskin and a dead ringer in every respect to the one Matt Dillion rode in the old television series "Gunsmoke."  To get to ride a big horse that was fully equipped with saddle and surcingle was really something special for me, for I rode my pony bareback indian-style using the reins, mane and my feet and legs to secure myself.  I was eleven years old, and I don't think I need to tell anyone who knows about these things how grownup I felt when I rode that big old horse into town and around.

Later on, after the War had began, it was common to see long trains passing by going east loaded with war material -- tanks, trucks, artillery pieces, and other cargo. Troop trains came by too, with soldiers hanging out of the windows
waving. Sometimes they threw out candy. I didn't know where they were going, but it was some sight to see. As  I now know, it was probably to Camp Polk In Louisana or to embarkation points on the Gulf coast.

Yes . . . the railroad was a big thing in an earlier rural America. And I can understand why people now travel all over the world to ride trains pulled by steam locomotives, to record their sounds, and to donate their spare time in helping to restore them. There was a personna to those old engines -- the smell of burning coal, the way they belched, and the letting off of steam. There are a couple of steam trains in the area where I now live. They are excursion trains manned by volunteers that take people out into the countyside for a few miles and then back. And, I must tell you that every time I hear the far off lonesome whistle of one of these trains, it always reminds me of my time in Hopkins County, Texas living along the Cotton Belt Route.
*"Cotton Belt Route" was a nickname or slogan for the St. Louis & South Western Railway, a 1500 mile carrier linking St. Louis and Memphis plus Ft. Worth, Dallas, and Corsicana.  "Blue Streak Fast Freight" was also another slogan of this railroad.

Note: I lived in Saltillo with my Uncle Jack and Aunt Minnie (Turrentine) Turner from 1938 to 1945.