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Interurban 608

Interurban was the word for mass transit
By Wanda Orton Published Baytown Sun September 19, 2009


Back in the day, mass transit wasn’t part of the vocabulary. Locals just referred to the interurban, a popular mode of transportation that connected Baytown with the Big Town.

Passengers from here and Highlands rode the clickity-clack rails to Houston to work and play, traveling on the Houston & North Shore Railroad interurban. While it was no Oriental Express or even close to the svelte passenger trains speeding across the U.S.A., the interurban filled a need for getting back and forth to Houston.

Personally, I have only a vague recollection of riding on the interurban, but I remember the depot on East Texas Avenue next to Wilkenfeld Furniture Store and the station across from Harbor Drive in the vicinity of the Baytown Refinery. I’ve seen photos of the Highlands station but don’t recall that one.

Again, I’ve picked the brain of Distant Cousin Dale to learn more about this facet of transportation history. Dale W. Crawford, who served as president of the Transportation Club of Houston in 1990-91 and president of the Rail Traffic Association of Houston in 1994-95, enjoys researching Texas history in general and railroading in particular.

He said the Houston & North Shore Railroad was chartered on June 27, 1925, as an interurban railroad to operate between Houston and Baytown/Goose Creek. (This was more than 20 years before consolidation of the Tri-Cities of Baytown, Goose Creek and Pelly.)

Construction on the Houston to Goose Creek line was completed in 1927. Original plans for building a branch line from Highlands to Crosby never materialized.

Harry K. Johnson, a well-known developer in Highlands, created the railroad. “The railroad was chartered as an interurban railroad,” Dale said, “but the carload traffic was too lucrative to ignore. In 1927 the railroad started moving carload freight.”

Interurban service extended between Goose Creek and the Union Station in Houston, with the Houston and North Shore interurban tracks ending at Market Street in East Houston.
 

Interurban 602

“From there the Houston Electric Co. Lyons Avenue streetcar line was utilized to reach downtown Houston,” Dale said. “In 1931 the streetcar line was discontinued ending interurban service at Market Street. Transportation to downtown was then provided by buses.

“In 1948 rail buses were substituted for the electric cars. This service operated until 1960 at which time it was discontinued. “

Johnson had sold his railroad in May 1927 to the Beaumont, Sour Lake & Western Railway, a subsidiary of Missouri Pacific. Years later the Missouri Pacific System merged with the Union Pacific in 1982.

The Houston and North Shore original route to Baytown was through Channelview, then northeast to Highlands and to Coady, and then turned south to Baytown.

“Today, the trains originate at North Shore Junction which is slightly west of Loop 610 North, following a route slightly north of I-10 through Highlands and then south to Baytown,” Dale said.

He noted a period in Texas history in the early 1900s when electric interurban service was a significant factor in transportation. North Texas was home to the largest group of interurban carriers. There were two interurban carriers in Southeast Texas. The Jefferson County Traction Co. operated over 20 miles from Beaumont to Port Arthur from 1913 to 1932.

“The last interurban railroad to be built in the United States was the Houston & North Shore,” Dale said, noting it served the nation well during World War II and subsequent conflicts. “The railroad served the San Jacinto Ordnance Depot, Humble’s Baytown Refinery and other war industries in the area. It moved thousands of tons of refined petroleum products, as well as thousands of cars of munitions.

“This little short-line railroad ended up being a vital element of the Union Pacific System, the largest in the United States.”

Wanda Orton is a retired managing editor of The Baytown Sun.

 

Ever been to Buster Crossing? 
By Wanda Orton  Published Baytown Sun September 30, 2009

“After we moved from Baytown to Highlands in 1947, we lived very near the railroad,” Gene said. “I remember the old steam locomotives and the electric interurbans. I loved to wake up in the middle of the night by the sound of trains passing by. I would lay there in my bed and count the rail cars going by. One time I counted over 100 cars.”

Gene said his family’s rent house was less than 100 yards from the railroad tracks at Buster Crossing. “How it got that name I have never known and probably never will. We boarded the interurban at Buster Crossing. If you were coming from Baytown, you told the conductor that you wanted off at Buster Crossing. When I would get off the interurban, I was home.

“Thompson Road was almost an extension of old Market Street. As you would drive north on Thompson, the first road you would cross was Jones Road.  The next was Battlebell. After making a left turn onto Battlebell, the first right turn would be Buster Crossing. That section of Battlebell ran parallel to the railroad tracks.

“Our house was on the north side of the tracks. Only a few of the railroad crossings had names. On the north side at that time were only two houses -- ours and the Millers, not recognizable as such today.”

The Harrisons lived a mile from downtown Highlands.

“The old Highlands railroad station was on Main Street between San Jacinto and Cherry streets. It faced Cherry Street. The open area around the railroad station was the scene of many after school fights. Some were better than what we used to see on TV. All clean fights. No kicking, biting, et cetera. No one wanted to be known as a dirty fighter.”

Gene said he will never forget the beautiful old Iron Horse steam locomotives. “When the diesel engines replaced them I was heartbroken.  Same thing when the electric interurbans were replaced with ugly modern replacements.”

When his family first moved to Highlands, it was a different world. Gene recalled it was “a serious rice farming community. Two paved roads. No stop signs. No traffic lights. Every family had gardens, raised their cattle and milked their cows, raised chickens and had pigs and hogs. This was a sustainable life way out on Battlebell Road.

“The railroad gave us many hours of entertainment. During good weather, we would walk home from school on the railroad tracks. We became expert at walking on a rail without falling off. We picked dewberries along the sides of the tracks every spring. We caught fish in the ditches on the sides of the tracks. The fish came from rice field farms water overflow that came from the Highlands Reservoir. Wild animals, birds, and snakes were a part of our every day lives.

“A few times during the summer, I would manage to get a dime or quarter from my parents to ride the interurban to Baytown to visit some of my school friends. I would go in the morning and come back in the afternoon.

“Safety in those days was never a problem. Can you imagine a kid doing that today?”

Wanda Orton is a retired managing editor for The Baytown Sun.

 

Take me home!