Waco was a city on the move at the turn of the 20th century and its run into modernity was aided by the advent of the interurban electric railway, according to Holly Browning of Historic Waco Foundation.
Browning is curator of a new exhibit in the gallery at the Fort House Museum on the Texas Electric Railway, the firm that lasted the longest in the people-moving business in North and Central Texas.
The display, which opened earlier this month, uses local artifacts and materials borrowed from the Plano Interurban Railway Museum to tell the story.
Although Waco had other forms of mass transit since the days of the stagecoach, with first mule-hauled and then electrically-powered streetcars, it was the Texas Electric Railway that ultimately purchased or inherited the early rights-of-way to do business here.
As documented in author Johnnie J. Myers’ 1982 volume, “Texas Electric Railway,” Waco had several transit firms vying for traffic in its early days.
Citizen’s Railway Co., formed in 1877, used 18 mule-drawn cars, and 10 electric ones after 1891, to get commuters and shoppers where they needed to go, until 1912. It was succeeded by Southern Traction Co. (1912-17), which upgraded properties with track reconstruction and extensions.
A streetcar company named Huaco Heights operated from 1913-18, servicing the Huaco Heights real estate development. Equipment was leased from the Citizens Railway Co. It operated at the end of the Sanger Avenue line and was not included in the sale of the Citizens Railway Co. to the Southern Traction Co.
It took a man of vision and drive to pull together the diverse elements to craft an efficient system, said Robert Haynes, curator of the Plano Interurban Railway Museum, who recently visited the Fort House exhibit.
That man was John Frank Strickland of Dallas.
Strickland (1861-1921) traveled to Texas by wagon train in 1878 from his native Alabama. Strickland would go on to create in North and Central Texas the largest interurban rail system in the Southwest, with more than 200 miles of track connecting commercial and cultural centers of the state.
Working his way up through plowing, cotton ginning and then the grocery trade, Strickland became involved in electric power generation in Waxahachie in 1892. He later was president of companies such as Texas Power & Light and Dallas Power & Light, positions he held until his death.
Strickland and partners saw construction of interurban railroads as a complementary function of their power companies, Haynes said. In 1908, a Strickland company began interurban service from Dallas to Sherman.
By 1911, Texas Traction operated 77 miles of track from Dallas and Denison as well as local lines in Sherman, Denison and McKinney. In 1912, interurban transportation from Dallas to Waxahachie began. It was extended to Waco in October 1913 and absorbed streetcar lines in Waxahachie and Waco.
On New Year’s Day 1917, Strickland merged his Southern Traction Co. and his Texas Traction Co. to create the Texas Electric Railway Co. The rail right-of-way served also as the right-of-way for the electric power lines.
Tickets were sold in area drug stores and hotel lobbies. Different rates were offered for children, clergy and “excursion” groups, Haynes said.
As ridership soared and business boomed, Strickland also won a postal contract to transport U.S. mail, and employed a clerk to sort the letters and packages along the way.
Bettye Tucker, 82, co-owner of J&B Realty in West, a property management firm, lent several artifacts to Historic Waco Foundation for the exhibit, Browning said. Items included a drawer from an original ticket counter, which was too large to be moved in its entirety to Fort House.
Tucker and her husband, Jake, operated Tucker Lumber Yard at 226 W. Oak St., on the lot where the West Depot stood for 30-plus years when the interurban operated. Jake’s father, Tommy W. Tucker (1897-1979) was the station manager for almost 30 years until the rail service folded.
The system’s usage peaked around 1920, when some 819,000 passengers rode the rails. The interurban’s decline began during the Great Depression, and the line started taking freight to make up for the loss of passenger revenue. Business rallied again during World War II, when gasoline shortages and rationing of rubber made rail travel more attractive than driving.
But after the war, the lure of private car ownership and the development of better roads lead to the system’s decline. The streetcar operations of Texas Electric Railway were sold to Waco Transit Co. in 1946.
As part of that sale, the streetcar continued to run from downtown to East Waco along the Texas Electric’s city track. But streetcar service ended when Texas Electric Railway ceased operations on Dec. 31, 1948. Commuter service lasted for another year by the Texas Electric Bus System before being entirely phased out.
“Within days, they started taking up the tracks and pulling down the (copper) wire to sell off the assets and liquidate,” Haynes said.
Interurban exhibit at Fort House
The interurban exhibit at Fort House Museum is on display through mid-December.
When: 2-5 p.m. Sundays or by special appointment only.
Where: Fort House Museum, 503 S. Fourth St.
Cost: The exhibit is free with admission to Fort House, which is $3 for adults, $2.50 seniors, $2 for students; Children 6 and younger are free as well as active-duty military with identification.
More information: 753-5166
Virtual tour: visit http://vimeo.com/46378037