By Chris McGregor
Former Staff Writer
Anyone with the good sense of a stump knows that war, in its fashion, has a peculiar way of disrupting even the most princely of aspirations. Take Salado for instance, and in particular, Salado around the outbreak of that historical melee, World War I.
The roses, to paraphrase the poet, were not fattening on the vine for the small community. The old Austin to Waco stageline, its heyday a thing of memory, had removed with it much of the traffic and esteem garnered some decades before. Gone were the cattle drives, the days when the great bovine herds fed, watered, and hooved their way down what is now Main Street on the trail to Abilene and the northern stockyards.
And that same path, the old military road, which had heard in its day the pounding of Union drums after the capitulation of Southern rebels, a presence that perturbed locals to the point of Judge George W. Tyler writing that “for a time there was no law but military law,” was now itself in disuse.
Dignitaries no longer made pilgrimages to the Shady Villa, as Sam Houston once had, and the oft-romanticized college closed for good in 1885. The grand old building, the physical embodiment of what boastful Saladoan’s pointed to when they dubbed their village the “Athens of Texas,” had burned to the ground twice already, in 1901 and ‘02, and would flame-up again in the 20s, never to be rebuilt, the same skeleton the town was becoming.
In short, a shadow hung over the once lustrous pall of Salado. Times were bleak, and bleaker still, if future prospects be gauged. “Basically, the town leaders were scared to death Salado would die,” said Fred Springer, long-time Salado resident and railroad authority-in-residence.
There seemed only one course of action, only one contrivance of gallant enough import, which of course, was to somehow finagle a railroad to come through Salado. Bartlett and Holland had one, and the Gulf Coast and Santa Fe literally put Temple on the map. By 1910, Temple was no longer derisively known as “Ratsville” but rather, enjoyed a bustling economy with a population exceeding 10,000.
Salado’s was no more than a few hundred, and that brass ring Temple waved looked mighty tempting. And it just so happened that little Salado had a big brother on its side, for Belton, the county seat, still bristled over losing its prominence amongst Central Texas towns, especially to Temple, and Belton’s pockets ran much deeper than Salado’s. And it was precisely that, the lure of big money, that enticed railroad investors to lay track.
Then came a gentleman of uncertain origins by the name of Col. L.E. Walker, and things got interesting. He was president of the proposed Quanah, Seymour, Dublin and Rockport Railway Company, and in him rested Salado’s iron horse salvation. At the time, Rockport was tussling with its neighbors, Aransas Pass and Corpus Christi, for the designation of deep water port, which, if and when applied, would translate into oceans of money. The other three towns in the company name, Seymour, Quanah and Dublin, lay in opposing corners of the state, and this rail line intended on connecting all of them. In so doing, it would criss-cross the heart of Texas, hence its rather burly sobriquet, “Middlebuster.”
So where does Salado enter the equation? Tyler writes in his definitive History of Bell County that the “charter did not call for the line to run through Belton but…Belton businessmen did not intend to be left off the line.” The Belton Commercial Club, counting Tyler as one of its hard-charging members, invited Walker to come and meet with them, which he did, and shortly thereafter an agreement was established, one that, had it reached fruition, would have forever altered the development and history of Salado.
Walker agreed to not only bring the line through Belton, but to actually headquarter the company there, and build a hospital. All locals had to do was raise a paltry hundred grand. The Commercial Club accepted Walker’s bid in under a minute, and Tyler notes that many Salado citizens eagerly hopped on the bandwagon with cash in hand to help speed the process, for Salado, with its handful of mills and gins, would have been worth the stop for the train company. It’s almost certain a depot would have been constructed. “It definitely would have caused an economic boom of sorts,” says Springer.
Its original charter was dated April 13, 1910, and preparations for its construction were quickly undertaken. Had it succeeded, its track would’ve crossed Royal Street, paralleled Main, and hammered smack-dab through Mill Creek. But it didn’t. It didn’t even come close.
While surveying and initial construction, such as grading, were being done in Salado and Belton, Col. Walker was away in Europe securing the final, crucial investors in London and Brussels. Then, 1912 came and hit the enterprise, well, like a locomotive. The Balkan War broke out, which threw the European market into a tailspin. Animosities from that conflict helped to precipitate World War I, which in turn, effectively ended all financial help from stateside and abroad. Without it, the railroad had no chance of being completed. And so ended Salado’s short but eventful tryst with those “magic carpets made of steel,” as Willie Nelson sang.
Believe it or not, a few backyards in Mill Creek still clearly bear the mark of that ambitious, but aborted, rail line, identified by the unnaturally large lumps of earth that served as the grade. Parts are still visible near Sue Whistler’s Twelve Oaks Mansion on Center Circle, as well. Most remains have been long since levelled off, however. The best example, though, is found just north of town, on the archaic Old Toll Bridge Road which crosses the Lampasas River. On the river’s north bank, an unaltered grade section stretches nearly 100 yards on private property, a tangible reminder of what might have been.
All this for a town whose present is so clearly a result of not having a railroad. If life is, as we’ve been told, but a poor player, strutting and fretting about, it seems that, occasionally, something fortunate emerges from all that posturing. Like Salado never getting a railroad, for example. The town, for sure, has had its ups and downs, one curtain closing while another one opens. 85 years ago, missing out on that railroad probably seemed the nearest thing to catastrophe the townspeople could imagine.
Now, we can say, unlike the walls of Verdun or the dense forests of the Somme, Salado was actually preserved because of the war. An irony, true enough, that blasts like the horn of a distant train, only passing through, on its way to some place else.