Billy Cowart: Engineer
CIssY STEWART LALE*
O NE OF THE MANY ADVANTAGES THE TEXAS STATE HISTORICAL
Association affords its members is a new understanding of what his-
tory is. History, I learned in junior high and high school, was primarily a
listing of dates and events. In that curriculum, heroes were the only peo-
ple. There were few if any heroines. There were no common men-or
I am one of the last members of a generation who learned another
type of history: on the front porch. My grandfather, Billy Cowart, and his
friends sat on the porch and talked about their early experiences work-
ing on the railroad. It is only within the last decade that I realized that
the talk I absorbed on the front porch was oral history-a term many of
us have learned since World War II.
After his retirement, my grandfather dictated letters to my mother.
Frequently he included events he recalled from his early railroad career.
With a sense of history and family I have come to appreciate, my mother
kept carbon copies of those letters-this being a time many years before
electronic copying machines. I have augmented this information with
additional references. My emphasis is not primarily on locomotives and
the railroads, but on one man-perhaps typical of a generation that
raised itself out of the morass of the Old South through the unique insti-
tution known as railroading. Along with ranching, lumbering, agricul-
ture, and the petroleum industry, the railroads and railroaders helped
shape the development of Texas.1
In an introduction to Workin' on the Railroad, a collection of "reminis-
cences from the age of steam," the editor, Richard Reinhardt outlines
the Age of the Steam Railroad in North America, an era which lasted
104 years, nine months, and eighteen days, give or take a few weeks.
*This paper was presented as the presidential address at the March 1997 annual meeting of
Irvin M. May Jr., "Reform, 1874-1900," in The Texas Hentage, ed. Ben Procter and Archie P.
McDonald (2nd ed., Arlington Heights, Ill.: Harlan Davidson, 1992), 115.
Texas State Historical Association. The Southwestern Historical Quarterly, Volume 100, July 1996 - April, 1997. Austin, Texas. The Portal to Texas History. http://texashistory.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metapth101218/. Accessed March 12, 2014.