Drawing of the “General Sherman,” the first locomotive in Texas.[1]

Buffalo Bayou, Brazos, and Colorado — the First Railroad in Texas

The expansion of railroads across the United States was instrumental in the process of westward expansion and economic development of remote areas. This held true in Texas, where railroads revolutionized production and transportation across the vast state.

The BBB&C was issued this certificate[3] for 640 acres for completing five miles of rail from Harrisburg.

While the short-lived Republic of Texas managed to grant charters for a handful of prospective railroad endeavors, it may surprise some that it was not until 1851 that construction began on the first railroad in Texas: the Buffalo Bayou, Brazos & Colorado Railroad (BBB&C). While the need and desire for a railroad was strong during the Republic and early statehood eras, investors were hard to find, and many of the earliest granted railroad charters were never developed beyond the conceptual phase. Lacking the finances to fund railroad construction, the government turned to the General Land Office and the public domain of Texas. The Land Office was instructed by the Legislature to issue land scrip certificates to railroad companies to incentivize construction.[2]

Portrait of Sidney Sherman.[6]

The principal visionary of the BBB&C was a man named Sidney Sherman, a hero of the Texas Revolution and the man credited with the “Remember the Alamo” cry at the Battle of San Jacinto.[4] Sherman wanted to begin construction of his railroad in Harrisburg, a vibrant and important natural port city located on the banks of Buffalo Bayou. As a former cotton merchant in Kentucky, his vision was to link this port with the fertile plantation lands, mostly growing cotton, that were serviced by both the Colorado and Brazos Rivers. Overland transport options were limited. By creating a railroad link between these rivers and Harrisburg, Sherman envisioned a lucrative business that would more efficiently transport cotton and other goods to and from the main port in Texas.

This 1880 map of Throckmorton County shows a large block of surveys that were located by the BBB&C Railroad Company as payment for laying miles of track.[5]

In March of 1847, Sherman acquired all of the unsold town lots in Harrisburg from the Harrisburg Town Company. Armed with this investment as a tangible foundation for new company stock, Sherman successfully secured financing from investors in Boston.[7] On February 11, 1850 the third Texas Legislature granted a charter to the ‘Buffalo Bayou, Brazos and Colorado Rail-way Company’ that granted them:

“[T]he right of locating, constructing, owning and maintaining a Rail-way, commencing at any suitable point on Buffalo Bayou, between Lynchburg and Houston, in the county of Harris, and thence running by such course, and to such point at or near the Brazos River, between the towns of Richmond and Washington inclusive.”[8]

This 1854 map of Harrisburg shows the BBB&C cutting directly through the portion of town south of the intersection of Brays and Buffalo Bayous.[9]

Work began on the railroad in the spring of 1851 when an engineer from Boston, John A. Williams, began a survey on the banks of Buffalo Bayou in Harrisburg.[10] In late 1852, the first locomotive engine, named the “General Sherman,” arrived in Texas having been purchased second-hand in Boston for $3,250[11] and work laying track was in full swing. By August of 1853, twenty miles from Harrisburg to Stafford’s Point[12] was completed, thus marking the first working stretch of railroad (and only the second west of the Mississippi)[13] in Texas.

Possibly the first Texas Railroad Map, showing a stretch of the BBB&C from Harrisburg to Richmond.[14]

Reaching Stafford’s Point was a milestone, but there was still track to be built. By December of 1855, the railroad was extended another twelve miles to the east bank of the Brazos River just opposite the town of Richmond. By fall of 1859, the track reached Eagle Lake and by fall of 1860 it reached Alleyton, about eighty miles from Harrisburg on the Colorado River, opposite Columbus. At this point, Alleyton represented the western terminus of the railroad with future plans to then build onwards to Austin. However, the onset of the Civil War halted all construction on the railroad after just a few miles of grading from Alleyton to La Grange, en route to Austin.[15]

During this lull in construction the citizens of Columbus, only a couple miles from Alleyton on the opposite bank of the Colorado River, decided to seize the opportunity to build a stretch of railroad linking Alleyton with the banks of the Colorado, just opposite Columbus. These citizens feared that if the railroad went from Alleyton to Austin, Columbus would suffer economically so they created this link to ensure their town’s relevance. By 1867 they completed a bridge over the Colorado and thus Columbus usurped Alleyton as the western terminus of the railroad.[16]*

Sidney Sherman, leader of the BBB&C project, received a 640 acre donation for his service at San Jacinto.[17]

In 1868, the railroad was sold and the name was changed to the Galveston, Harrisburg and San Antonio Railroad (GH&SA). After the sale, the route was extended from Columbus to San Antonio instead of Austin. This railroad later extended from San Antonio to El Paso where it hooked up with the Southern Pacific as they built eastward. Thus the original BBB&C railroad, in addition to being the first railroad in Texas, became a key segment in the nation’s transcontinental route from the Pacific Ocean to New Orleans.[18]

Enlarged portion of “Traveller’s Map of the State of Texas” showing the full extent of the BBB&C Railroad from Harrisburg to Alleyton. Note the railroad passes through Stafford’s Point and Richmond and passes close to Eagle Lake before terminating at Alleyton.[19]

The land scrip certificates that were issued to the Buffalo Bayou, Brazos and Colorado Railroad Company as compensation for their work remain in the archives of the General Land Office. The surveys were located throughout the state, often in large blocks, which can be seen on the GLO’s historical county maps. These documents tell the story of a much different Texas, before railroad construction helped create one of the largest economies in the United States, and the land itself was Texas’ greatest resource.

*Correction: A previous version of this article misidentified the Colorado River as the Brazos. We apologize for the mistake.

[1] Weiskopf, Douglas L., Rails Around Houston. Charleston: Arcadia Publishing, 2009; Drawing courtesy of the Houston Metropolitan Research Center, Houston Public Library.

[2] Several laws providing scrip for building railroads were passed, beginning in 1854. Although the exact provisions varied, generally a specified amount of land was provided for each mile of rail constructed. The Constitution of 1876 provided 16 sections (640 acres to a section) per mile. Railroads were required to survey an equal amount of land to be set aside for the state (later designated for the use of funding the public schools). To prevent the railroad companies from accumulating monopolistic land holdings, they were required to sell off their land at specified intervals.

[3] Certificate #378 for the Buffalo Bayou, Brazos, and Colorado Railroad Company, 3 March 1860, HOU S-385, Texas Land Grant Records, Archives and Records Program, Texas General Land Office, Austin, TX.

[4] Sherman arrived in Texas in the winter of 1835 from Kentucky along with a force of about 52 militiamen whom he outfitted and commanded. At the Battle of San Jacinto, Sherman led the leftmost wing of the Texian forces. (San Jacinto Museum of History).

[5] [Detail], Sam P. Matthews, Throckmorton County, Austin: Texas General Land Office, 1880, Map #4079, Map Collection, Archives and Records Program, Texas General Land Office, Austin, TX.

[6] Image courtesy of the San Jacinto Museum of History.

[7] Briscoe, P., “The First Railroad in Texas,” The Quarterly of the Texas State Historical Association (1904), Volume VII, No. 4, pp. 281–282

[8] Gammel, H. P. N., The Laws of Texas 1822–1897 Volume III. Austin: The Gammel Book Company, 1898.

[9] [Detail], William Kirby, Harrisburg, Texas, L.H. Bradford and Company, 1 April, 1854, Map #3044, Map Collection, Archives and Records Program, Texas General Land Office, Austin, TX.

[10] Briscoe, P., “The First Railroad in Texas,” The Quarterly of the Texas State Historical Association (1904), Volume VII, No. 4, p. 282.

[11] Weiskopf, Douglas L., Rails Around Houston. Charleston: Arcadia Publishing, 2009.

[12] Stafford’s Point was a small settlement that had been established around the vast plantation owned by William Stafford. Once the BBB&C began stopping at Stafford’s Point, the small settlement quickly grew and became known later as Staffordville and then Stafford, as it is still known today.

[13] Werner, George C., “Buffalo Bayou, Brazos and Colorado Railway,” Handbook of Texas Online, June 12, 2010.

[14] Voise, Trace d’une partie Chemin de Fer de Galveston à Houston et Henderson, Texas, Etats unis d’Amérique, Paris, 1857, Map #93905, Holcomb Digital Map Collection, Archives and Records Program, Texas General Land Office, Austin, TX.

[15] Briscoe, P., “The First Railroad in Texas,” The Quarterly of the Texas State Historical Association (1904), Volume VII, No. 4, pp. 283–284.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Donation certificate #8 for Sidney Sherman, 14 March 1838, MIL D-428, Texas Land Grant Records, Archives and Records Program, Texas General Land Office, Austin, TX.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Chas. W. Pressler, Traveller’s Map of the State of Texas, New York, 1867, Map #93906, Holcomb Digital Map Collection, Archives and Records Program, Texas General Land Office, Austin, TX.

Save Texas History

Articles from the Texas General Land Office Save Texas History Program

Texas General Land Office

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Official Account for the Texas General Land Office | Follow Commissioner George P. Bush on Twitter at @georgepbush. www.txglo.org

Save Texas History

Articles from the Texas General Land Office Save Texas History Program

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