The Southwestern Historical Quarterly, Volume 100, July 1996 - April, 1997 Page: 416
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Southwestern Historical Quarterly
"It began," Reinhardt writes, "on a Saturday morning in August, 1829,
when a self-assured young mathematician, recently out of Columbia
College, climbed onto an outlandish, piston-driven carriage, took a firm
grip on the throttle, and rattled away, with a hiss of steam and a creak of
wooden rails, into the forest of Eastern Pennsylvania. It ended, symboli-
cally, on the opening day of the second year of the Century of Progress
Exposition in Chicago in May, 1934, when two stream-lined, petroleum
powered passenger trains, the first of their kind in the world, rolled onto
an enormous outdoor stage while several thousand spectators roared
with excitement. Technology had overreached technology: the Age of
the Diesel had begun."2
Thirty-five years after the advent of the age of the steam railroad, Billy
Cowart was born, on August 19, 1864, in the house built by his great-great-
grandfather on the Flint River, twelve miles out from Americus, Georgia.
His father, John D. Cowart, was a physician who had been wounded in the
Civil War. His mother was the former Nannie Carson Moore, sister of one
of the leading silversmiths in the South. They named their son John Wilkes
Cowart, the middle name for members of his mother's family. After the as-
sassination of Abraham Lincoln by John Wilkes Booth the following year,
the boy became John William Cowart. Family members always called him
"Will." He signed letters asJ. W. Cowart, but to those who knew him during
a lifetime on the railroad, he was Billy Cowart.
The Cowart family plantation was within miles of notorious Anderson-
ville Confederate Prison. We do not know whether that contributed to
the family's decision, but in March 1866, the Cowarts moved to land
they owned near Town Bluff on the Neches River in East Texas. Two
other children, a boy, Frank, and a sister, Maude, were born in East
Texas. Billy Cowart recalled few events from his early childhood. He re-
membered his first pair of pants made by his mother from an old wagon
sheet so Billy could ride a mule to a nearby mill to have a sack of corn
ground into meal. Water was low, the mill was slow, and it was dark be-
fore the seven-year-old boy returned home. Billy Cowart remembered
that night ride through the piney woods all of his life.
He also recalled his mother's grief at the loss of the twelve place set-
tings of silver that had been part of her dowry. The flatware, crafted by
her brother, had been engraved with her full maiden name. In 1872,
John D. Cowart swam a mule across the Neches River to treat a family
with yellow fever. He developed pneumonia and died on February 2 of
that year. Nannie Cowart died three years later on July 4, 1875.
Richard Reinhardt (ed.), Workin' on the Railroad- Remznzscences from the Age of Steam (Palo Alto,
Calif.: American West Publishing Co., 1970), 13.
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Texas State Historical Association. The Southwestern Historical Quarterly, Volume 100, July 1996 - April, 1997, periodical, 1997; Austin, Texas. (texashistory.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metapth101218/m1/494/: accessed August 19, 2017), University of North Texas Libraries, The Portal to Texas History, texashistory.unt.edu; crediting Texas State Historical Association.