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FreightWaves Classics/Fallen Flags: The Cotton Belt Route was a key rail line between Texas and St. Louis

New SSW power units on October 22, 1989. (Photo: Brian Rackley/

There are many people interested in former transportation companies, whether they were trucking companies, railroads, airlines or ocean lines. These companies are called “fallen flags,” and the term describes companies whose corporate names have been dissolved through merger, bankruptcy or liquidation.

Today’s FreightWaves Classics profiles another fallen flag – the St. Louis Southwestern Railway (SSW reporting mark; better known as “The Cottonbelt Route”). Although the St. Louis Southwestern is remembered primarily as a key subsidiary of the Southern Pacific, during its formative years it was an independent railroad company.

A SSW locomotive and tender in 1953. (Photo: C.W. Standefer/Commerce Public Library Collection)
A SSW locomotive and tender in 1953. (Photo: C.W. Standefer/Commerce Public Library Collection)

Early history

The SSW was founded to provide Tyler, Texas with rail service soon after the Civil War ended in 1865. In time it became a 725-mile long narrow-gauge system that connected Wyatt, Missouri and Gatesville, Texas. At the time, it was the second-longest narrow-gauge railroad in the country (behind the Denver & Rio Grande).  

The SSW began as the Tyler Tap Railroad; it was incorporated by the Texas state legislature on December 1, 1871 for the: “…right to locate, construct, own, operate, and maintain a railroad, with a single or double track, from Tyler to such a point, not exceeding 40 miles from the above town on either the Southern Pacific, Houston and Great Northern or the International Railroad, as may be selected by the directors.”  

The Tyler Tap Railroad was led by Tyler’s mayor, James P. Douglas; it was originally capitalized at $1 million. Less than two years later (May 7, 1873), the legislative act was amended to increase capitalization to $3 million and the route was changed to “…run north from Tyler by way of Gilmer, Pittsburg, Mt. Pleasant and Clarksville to some point on the Red River.”  

Texas provided additional aid; it granted the railroad a 200-foot right-of-way and a five-mile swath for the procurement of construction materials (lumber, dirt, gravel, etc.). A completion date for the railroad’s first 20 miles was stipulated for May 1875. At that time the Tyler Tap would be given further support from the state via land grants of 640 acres for every completed mile.

However, delays were more the rule than the exception because the railroad’s financing never materialized to the degree needed. This led the railroad’s promoters to abandon their plan for a standard-gauge railroad; instead, the Tyler Tap would be a three-foot, narrow-gauge railroad.

Work on the Tyler Tap did not begin until summer 1875; the first 11.1 miles were opened on October 3, 1877. It was extended further, to Ferguson, Texas, a distance of 21.5 miles. However, the railroad only operated for two years. Despite 190,720 acres in land grants, attempts to raise funds locally were not enough for the railroad to reach the Red River.  

That led Douglas and his associates to travel to St. Louis in an attempt to secure additional financing. They met Colonel James W. Paramore, who owned the St. Louis Cotton Compress Company. Paramore believed the railroad was capable of hauling large volumes of cotton for his company between Texas and St. Louis. This led to the railroad’s nickname, the “Cotton Belt Route.”   

The Tyler Tap was reincorporated as the Texas & St. Louis Railway (T&StL) on May 14, 1879.  

A brochure printed on the 80th anniversary of the St. Louis Southwestern Railway. (Image:
A brochure printed on the 80th anniversary of the St. Louis Southwestern Railway. (Image:

In addition to providing his own funds, Paramore secured additional funding from New York investment bankers. Paramore became involved in the management of the railroad, and became its president in May 1880. Douglas left the company and built the Kansas & Gulf Short Line (ironically this railroad became part of the modern Cotton Belt). 

The 1880s

Paramore sought to build the T&StL from Texarkana to Waco, where he planned to use the St. Louis, Iron Mountain & Southern Railroad (StLIM&S) to reach St. Louis.  

Construction went well, and by July 5, 1880 the railroad had been extended to Texarkana. By December, tracks had been laid west to Trinity; the expectation was that the rail line would be completed in 1881. However, Jay Gould (a robber baron who controlled a number of railroads) gained control of the StLIM&S. He stopped the through traffic agreement between the StLIM&S and the T&StL. Gould also tried to stifle the T&StL’s traffic and force Paramore to sell him the T&StL. 

A vintage SSW locomotive. (Photo:
A vintage SSW locomotive. (Photo:

However, Paramore fought Gould; he announced an extension of the T&StL toward St. Louis, as well as to the Mexican border at either Laredo or Eagle Pass. The T&StL would interchange with a syndicate working on a route into Mexico City. To the north, the T&StL would terminate at Wyatt, Missouri, which is located just south of, and directly across the Mississippi River from, Cairo, Illinois.  

At Wyatt an interchange would be established with the narrow-gauge Cairo & St. Louis (which became a component of the Gulf, Mobile & Ohio) for through service into St. Louis. You can read an earlier FreightWaves Classics article about the Gulf, Mobile & Ohio here.

With $4 million in bonds available, Paramore quickly extended the T&StL to the north and the south. While most of the growth was from new construction, the T&StL acquired the Little River & Arkansas Valley Railroad (which owned 27 miles of track between New Madrid and Malden, Missouri) in May 1881.  

During an August 12, 1883 ceremony, Paramore drove a silver spike on a new bridge that crossed the Arkansas River at Rob Roy, Arkansas. This signified the railroad’s completion between Gatesville, Texas and Wyatt, Missouri via Waco, Texarkana, Pine Bluff and Malden.  

The interchange with the Cairo & St. Louis fell through; however, Paramore made an agreement with the standard-gauge Cairo Short Line Railroad, a subsidiary of the Illinois Central Railroad, to reach St. Louis. (You can read a two-part FreightWaves Classics article about the Illinois Central here and here.)  

A Cotton Belt system map from 1939. (Image: Adam Burns/
A Cotton Belt system map from 1939. (Image: Adam Burns/

Although the rail line had been completed and agreements with other railroads were in place, the T&StL had immediate difficulties. Traffic delays were caused by a lack of adequate equipment; this issue was compounded by heavy rains during the fall of 1883. T&StL train crews that had not been paid went out on strike in November 1883.  

This caused the railroad to enter receivership on January 23, 1884. On April 1, 1885, Samuel Fordyce took charge as the company’s receiver. He increased the railroad’s revenues; employees were paid on-time. Fordyce’s efforts helped the railroad exit reorganization relatively quickly; it became the St. Louis, Arkansas & Texas Railroad (StLA&T) on May 1, 1886.  

This led to the end of Paramore’s involvement; Fordyce subsequently became the railroad’s president. Although Paramore was unable to complete the railroad’s extension to Laredo, he did establish a viable competitor to Gould.  

Cotton Belt locomotives were used throughout the Southern Pacific system. This photo was taken near Cannion, California in August 1982. (Photo: Roger Puta/
Cotton Belt locomotives were used throughout the Southern Pacific system. This photo was taken near Cannion, California in August 1982. (Photo: Roger Puta/

Becoming a standard-gauge railroad

Fordyce led the transition from narrow-gauge to standard-gauge, which improved the railroad’s efficiency and interchange. The first section to be modified was from Wyatt to Texarkana, a distance of 419 miles; the remaining Texas track was modified by January 12, 1887.  

After becoming a standard-gauge railroad, expansion across the Southwest was the focus of the rest of the 19th century. Although it never operated a substantial network of branch lines, the Cotton Belt acquired the narrow-gauge Kansas & Gulf Short Line in 1887, extending service from Tyler to Lufkin.

That was followed in July 1887 by the StLA&T’s completion of an important link from Mount Pleasant to Fort Worth that also included a branch from Commerce to Sherman. In 1888 there were three additional extensions to Argenta (Little Rock), Hillsboro and Shreveport, Louisiana.  In addition, Fordyce directed the upgrading of the rail line through the use of heavier rail.

However, Fordice and the StLA&T became financially overextended. He sold the railroad to Gould, but even Gould (whose empire was soon passed to George, his eldest son) could not prevent the railroad from entering receivership again, which took place on May 13, 1889.

The railroad exited reorganization on June 1, 1891 as the St. Louis Southwestern Railway. Although Fordyce remained president of the SSW, philosophical differences with the younger Gould led him to leave the company on October 31, 1898.  

Fordyce was replaced by Edwin Gould, another of Jay’s sons. While his father was hated across the industry for shady and manipulative business practices, Edwin did a good job leading the SSW.   

The Cotton Belt Route's logo. (Image: Adam Burns/
The Cotton Belt Route’s logo. (Image: Adam Burns/

The early 1900s

On October 15, 1900, the SSW and the St. Louis, Iron Mountain & Southern (which was controlled by the Missouri Pacific) reached an agreement for the SSW to have trackage rights directly into St. Louis Union Station.  

This was the Cotton Belt’s direct entry into St. Louis, a goal since the railroad had been founded. It was further enhanced when the Thebes Bridge was completed in 1905. This was a joint project between the St. Louis Southwestern, Missouri Pacific, Chicago & Eastern Illinois Railroad and St. Louis-San Francisco Railway.

World War I

The Cotton Belt and most other U.S. railroads were placed under the jurisdiction of the United States Railroad Administration on December 28, 1917 after the nation entered World War I. (An earlier FreightWaves Classics article about the nationalization of U.S. railroads can be found here.) Like most of the nationalized railroads, the Cotton Belt suffered due to deferred maintenance and poor management.  

The nationalized railroads were returned to private ownership on February 28, 1920, following passage of the Transportation Act of 1920. 

St. Louis Southwestern locomotive in October 1957 wearing parent Southern Pacific's "Black Widow" livery. (Photo: Electro-Motive/
St. Louis Southwestern locomotive in October 1957 wearing parent Southern Pacific’s “Black Widow” livery.
(Photo: Electro-Motive/

The 1920s

The Cotton Belt was only independent for about five years, however. On March 11, 1925 the Chicago, Rock Island & Pacific Railroad (Rock Island) gained control of the SSW. Ownership by the Rock Island lasted for less than a year; the Kansas City Southern (KCS) purchased the Cotton Belt from the Rock Island.  

That was followed by an attempt by the Missouri-Kansas-Texas Railroad (the “Katy”) to acquire the KCS and Cotton Belt. The Katy sought to form a Midwestern network of rail lines, but the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) denied the proposal in 1927. 

The 1930s 

The Southern Pacific (SP) had been purchasing Cotton Belt stock since 1919. It used the Cotton Belt as an important St. Louis connection. That led the Southern Pacific to file an application to acquire the SSW with the ICC in July 1930. The ICC agreed to the acquisition; on April 19, 1932 the Cotton Belt formally became an SP subsidiary.  

The 1990s

Although the St. Louis Southwestern lived as a corporate entity for another 60 years, it operated during that time as an SP subsidiary.  

The Cotton Belt Route grew during its last decade as a separate corporate entity because it was assigned the Rock Island’s “Golden State Route” after the Rock Island was acquired by SP in 1981. The Cotton Belt’s locomotives and rolling stock continued to be marked “SSW” and “Cotton Belt Route” until the company was dissolved in 1992. The Southern Pacific was then acquired by the Union Pacific Railroad on September 11, 1996.

A string of Southern Pacific power units at a rural grade crossing at Flatonia, Texas on May 13, 1972. 
(Photo: David Hawkins Collection/
A string of Southern Pacific power units at a rural grade crossing at Flatonia, Texas on May 13, 1972.
(Photo: David Hawkins Collection/

The railroad’s legacy

The SSW’s early years were full of financial difficulties. However, the 20th century version of the railroad was generally profitable. After it became the St. Louis Southwestern in the early 1890s, it went through several owners before the Southern Pacific gained control during the 1930s. Prior to its acquisition by the SP it was controlled by the Gould empire and then later by the Rock Island and the Kansas City Southern. 

The St. Louis Southwestern Railway was a successful, 1,554-mile Class I railroad; it had an important role handling freight and passengers between Texas and the Midwest. It still plays an important role under the Union Pacific.

Author’s note: This article would not have been possible without the resources made available by Adam Burns of Those interested in learning more about the railroads operating in North America – and those that are now “fallen flags” – should explore the American-Rails site.

A Union Pacific train. (Photo: Union Pacific Railroad)
A Union Pacific train. (Photo: Union Pacific Railroad)

Scott Mall

Scott Mall serves as Managing Editor of FreightWaves Classics. He writes articles for the website, edits the SONAR Daily Watch series, marketing material for FreightWaves and a variety of FreightWaves special projects. Mall’s career spans 45 years in public relations, marketing and communications for Fortune 500 corporations, international non-profits, public relations agencies and government agencies.