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Arthur Edward Stilwell, Railroad Entrepreneur and Visionary


From the San Angelo Standard-Times.,1897,SAST_4950_3376374,00.html

Deal revives old train to Mexican coast
By Ross McSwain

December 5, 2004

The railroad that refuses to die is ready for a comeback, according to a news dispatch from Fort Stockton recently published in a Dallas newspaper.

That is good news for much of West Texas. Hopefully, the historic railroad route to Los Mochis and Topolobampo on the Mexican west coast will prove beneficial and profitable for the new operators, South Orient and Texas Pacifico Transportation, a subsidiary of Grupo Mexico.

According to the news report, firms will start shipping goods on the line before year's end between Fort Worth and Presidio, then on to Topolobampo via Chihuahua and La Junta through the Sierra Madre mountains.

Freight is being hauled on the line from Fort Worth to San Angelo via Brownwood, where the South Orient Railroad begins its 382-mile journey through 11 West Texas counties to Presidio and Ojinaga on the Rio Grande, where it connects with Ferromex, the national Mexican railroad.

Since the 1900s, railroad builders have sought a faster, cheaper way to move grain and other commodities from the Midwest to the Pacific Ocean. The pursuit of that dream has eluded most who have tried, except for dreamer-developer Arthur Stilwell, though it did not happen until after his death.

In the late 1890s, Stilwell suffered a disastrous and humiliating defeat when stock manipulators managed to seize control of his first railroad, the Kansas City Southern. The KCS route was the shortest from Kansas City, Kan. to the Gulf of Mexico, terminating at Port Arthur, a Southeast Texas town built by and named after Stilwell.

It wasn't long before Stilwell conceived another railroad to start at Kansas City and terminate at Topolobampo in Sinaloa, Mexico, on the Gulf of California. He was unaware this Mexican port was one of the finest natural harbors on the western coast of North America.

The job would not be easy. The proposed line would cover 1,600 miles with track running through Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, the Chihuahua desert, the Sierra Madre mountains and Copper Canyon, which equals the Grand Canyon in size and spectacular beauty.

Stilwell went to Mexico City to seek a charter for the Mexican portion of the route. He was surprised when the Mexican president welcomed him because the head of state also was planning to build such a railroad to the west coast. A deal was made in which Mexico would pay Stilwell $5,000 for each mile of rail put in place. The year was 1900.

The Orient Railroad in Texas was originally chartered as the Colorado Valley Railroad, providing a line from Colorado City to San Angelo in 1897. This was changed in 1900 in a series of charter amendments in which the Colorado Valley was authorized to build a railroad from San Angelo to the Rio Grande and from Sweetwater to the Red River, a total distance of 550 miles. The railroad changed its name to the Kansas City, Mexico and Orient of Texas on Sept. 16, 1905.

Construction started in Sweetwater in 1904 and reached the Red River in 1909. The line from Sweetwater to San Angelo was completed in September 1909 and was extended to Girvin in February 1912. This gave the company 630 miles of railroad in the United States, but the incomplete system could not generate enough local traffic.

Thus, the Orient entered receivership on March 9, 1912. Although the receivers completed the railroad from Girvin to Alpine the following year, the railroad continued to be unprofitable.

In 1922, there was talk of abandoning the line, but on May 28, 1923, Santa Rita No. 1 blew in at Big Lake. Subsequent oil discoveries in Crane, Reagan and Upton counties brought a flood of business, and the line experienced its first profitable year.

With the increase in earnings, the line became attractive to another railroad, so it was sold on Oct. 19, 1928, to the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe. The new ownership quickly disposed of the Mexican segments, but continued to operate and improve its West Texas holdings.

In 2001, Texas Pacifico paid $3.5 million to lease the South Orient for 50 years. Its parent company, Grupo Mexico, is investing $10 million or more to rehabilitate the South Orient line, including construction of a new Presido customs facility. Initially, weekly runs are planned. They will increase as traffic rises.

The newly revived railroad has much appeal: U.S. trade by rail with Mexico has been booming, train crossings in Laredo and El Paso are suffering lengthy delays, and rapidly expanding trade with China also would benefit.

Problems remain, however. The line has experienced much deterioration over the years and needs some $50 million or more in repairs. An even greater expense will be replacement of thousands of ties so the line can utilize heavier rails, which would allow carrying heavier loads at faster speeds.

Saving the Orient has been a major challenge for West Texans and others, but the railroad is needed. Hopefully, someday we can take a train ride to the Mexican west coast as we did once a long time ago.


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