The Southwestern Historical Quarterly, Volume 101, July 1997 - April, 1998 Page: 304
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Southwestern Historical Quarterly
easily be recouped by the branch lines' modest business. The second
problem for many of the branch lines is their dependence on a select
few bulk shippers, primarily quarries, chemical plants, grain elevators,
lumber mills, and the like. It is not uncommon for a Texas branch line
to have but four or five shippers that originate traffic, and in many cases
most of the tonnage is generated by only one or two of these. When the
natural resources are depleted, plants relocated, or farming practices
changed, the branch line operator is left with a stranded investment.
Some Texas branches are still operated by the trunk lines, which can
respond to the loss by abandoning the lines. But independent compa-
nies, the so-called "short line operators," find themselves at risk of bank-
ruptcy when such circumstances arise.
The Cane Belt Railroad Company line from Sealy to Matagorda is a
typical example of a branch that has been under both short line and
trunk operation. Built as an independent short line to serve the sugar
and rice industries, it was attached to a trunk line in 1904, and its origi-
nal traffic base was eclipsed within twenty years when sulfur was discov-
ered nearby. The sulfur deposit is now depleted, and the last mine along
the line closed in the early 1990s. Most of the track has been abandoned
and removed, save for a small portion that serves the needs of two chem-
ical plants in Matagorda County. This traffic is of sufficient volume to
have sustained the interest of the trunk line carrier, now the Burlington
Northern Santa Fe Railway Company, which continues to operate the
remaining portion of the branch.
As this century opened, many branch lines like the Cane Belt were
promoted and constructed as revenue-generating connections with
trunk lines. But most of the speculative projections for revenue-generat-
ing traffic proved to be ill-founded; the best-laid infrastructure plans of
1900 were doomed to inadequacy by revolutionary changes in the trans-
portation industry. The industrialists of that time had a nineteenth-cen-
tury perspective on the relatively slow pace of change in methods of
commercial transportation and could not have foreseen the rise of the
automobile and the construction of paved roads to connect every city
and village in the state. As a result there are thousands of miles of aban-
doned railroad right-of-way across Texas, land that was once needed to
accommodate the transportation of both passengers and freight but that
is now slowly being reclaimed by the elements. Depots and the remains
of bridges occasionally lie derelict and crumbling, mute testimony to the
failed dreams of their builders. A viewer of the physical remains of these
commercial endeavors can glean but little of the degree of financial and
emotional investment that were necessary to construct and operate
them. The story of the Cane Belt line is perhaps more dramatic than
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Texas State Historical Association. The Southwestern Historical Quarterly, Volume 101, July 1997 - April, 1998, periodical, 1998; Austin, Texas. (texashistory.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metapth117155/m1/373/: accessed April 27, 2017), University of North Texas Libraries, The Portal to Texas History, texashistory.unt.edu; crediting Texas State Historical Association.