The Rail Spur

Click to zoom in. There's no date on this, but it's pretty early, I'd guess early 20s.

In the comments the other day I was asked about an early rail spur that was used to bring coal to the campus power plant. This is one of those things that you can’t just go look up in a file. Everything I do know about it I’ve learned in bits and pieces, sometimes by accident, over the years. I’m sure that there is much more about it that I don’t know.

The first time I came across it was in President Lovett’s papers, which contain most of the records that remain of the early design and construction history of the campus. Here’s a 1913 letter from my old friend Wilmer Waldo, who was responsible for much of the basic infrastructure work (such as drainage, grading, laying out the roads, etc.):

Waldo did get this job and did most of the work to build the spur, which came off the San Antonio and Aransas Pass Railway. You can see it clearly in the drawings done by the students in the early surveying classes at Rice, dropping down from the north, crossing Harris Gully and swinging around behind the Power Plant. Here’s one from 1916:

The drawing ends at the campus boundary, though, so the next thing I wondered was what the “spur” was spurring off from. I assumed it was the tracks to the north, up near where Highway 59 is today, but I never had a good reason to stop what I was doing and go look. So I just forgot about it. Then when one of my colleagues was organizing the old William Marsh Rice land lease records (remember the “Sundry Contracts” file?) he turned up this blueprint that confirmed my hunch:

Unsurprisingly, there aren’t many images of the spur to be found. The one at top might be the only one where you can actually get a good look at the tracks and here’s one from 1921 where some railcars are visible at the right edge:

The only other picture I’ve seen that might show railcars is this one, which I scanned because I was interested in the sheds and only later noticed something else in the background right in between the Mech Lab and Physics:

The next obvious question is when did they take it out. Short answer: I don’t know. The beginning of a longer answer: it might be gone in aerial shots from 1928. I’ll look closer.

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13 Responses to The Rail Spur

  1. Wow! Thanks! Those are the pictures I remember.

  2. James Medford says:

    So I’m guessing the first photo was taken from the roof of Mech Lab … seems like the only place where the photographer could have gotten that angle.

  3. If I recall correctly, there is a steam engine on display at the Houston Museum of Natural Science that came from Rice’s original power plant. I wonder if the retirement of that engine signaled a transition away from coal and therefore the end of the need for the rail spur. You’d think that the coal cars would have been brought down by a switch engine from time to time and someone would have thought that was cool enough to take a picture of it. On the other hand, maybe it was as commonplace as FedEx or UPS is today and no one noticed.

  4. effegee says:

    I hadn’t heard of the SA&AP Railway (“the Mission Route”) before. Its Kenedy (south of Kingsville) to Houston line ran through Simonton, Fulshear, Clodine, Jeannetta, and Bellaire on its way to Houston – Grand Central (via Houston & Texas Central RR). It was eventually absorbed into Southern Pacific which gobbled up a number of fine old Houston railroads. Lots of fasincating stuff at saap.tnorr.com.

  5. Deborah Gronke Bennett says:

    I like the unintentional tie-in you made. Your last photo also shows the west face of Physics again!

  6. Now if someone could tell us about the Amerindians who used to camp out on Harris Bayou!

  7. jput says:

    I also like this map from 1921:

    (Although Hermann Park is misspelled.)

    Linked from:
    http://www.lib.utexas.edu/maps/historical/historic_tex_cities.html#H

  8. Thomas Lytle says:

    Thank you Melissa,

    I’m still hunting more photos and information on the gunpowder plant.

  9. Pingback: Centennial Mayhem Produces A Railroad Surprise | Rice History Corner

  10. Pingback: A Visit to U of H Leads to Railroad Excitement | Rice History Corner

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