The Day The Railroad Arrived |
Historic Event Took Place 99-Years Ago
A brand new and highly promising era chugged into Palacios 99 years ago when 33-year-old engineer J. C. "Jake" Wilkerson drove the first train into town on June 29, 1903.
June 29 in that year was a Monday and the thinly populated site on the bay was called Trespalacios. The name would be changed to Palacios on March 3, 1904, due to a post office up on Tres Palacios Creek that was also called Trespalacios.
When Wilkerson pulled back the brake handle on his puffing engine to bring the train to a halt amid the happy welcome, it was the eagerly awaited climax to the foresight, and money, of the Palacios City Townsite Company.
The second of three railroads to be built in Matagorda County was the New York, Texas and Mexican Railway (Tex-Mex), which built a line from Houston to Victoria. A branch line was added, from Wharton to Bay City.
In March 1902 construction began westward from Bay City and by March 31 the rails had reached Markham. From there they went thru Furber and Midfield. At Midfield, plans were to build the line parallel to the coast toward Corpus Christi.
However, plans were changed at Midfield and construction headed due south.
The Palacios City Townsite Company had given the railroad company a $25,000 bonus to make their fledging townsite the destination. The Townsite Company had surveyed its land into lots in 1902 and had sold its first two lots to James W. Powell in December of that year. However, the company knew the future of their town probably depended on getting a railroad.
After the southward turn at Midfield, the line passed thru Blessing and Pheasant Switch before engineer Wilkerson could drive his train into Palacios on that June 29 date--a construction that took about 15 months to build the railroad from Midfield to Palacios.
As a result of the coming of the railroad, the Townsite Company--also in 1903-- built Hotel Palacios to accommodate the anticipated visitors and possible settlers. Between 1903 and about 1920, excursion trains brought hundreds of "immigrants" at reduced rates to be shown the area and the lands available for purchase. Many of the "immigrants" came from the Midwest--Kansas, Nebraksa, Ohio, Iowa, Illinois, etc. Some of the visitors stayed to become the city fathers and matrons.
Other excursions were established over the years for those who wanted to come to the seaside for a holiday of swimming, sailing and picnicking. The original, and beautiful, pavilion built on Palacios' bayfront in 1904 became a popular destination.
The first two-week encampment for the Baptist Young People's Union (BYPU) was held in the summer of 1906. The railroad made possible the use of the BYPU's Palacios site and attendees used the railroad for many years to travel from points in Texas and adjoining states.
In 1926, Camp Palacios (later to become Camp Hulen) was established two miles west of Palacios as a summer encampment training site for the 36th Division, Texas National Guard. As recorded in Vol. 1, Historic Matagorda County, "An extension line was made from the tail of the wye (used to reverse directions of the train) to the campsite. Trains, sometimes 20 a day, brought in troops, weapons, vehicles, horses and supplies for the training session and returned the participants to their homes after the encampment ended."
Railroad traffic into Palacios continued to boom in World War II. The Federal Government took over Camp Hulen in 1940 and turned it into an Anti-Aircraft Replacement Center. In addition to materials and equipment, the railroad brought thousands of troops to Hulen, plus the spouses and families of the soldiers. Toward the end of the war, Hulen was used to house prisoners of war.
During the years following World War II, railroad use began to decline with improved highways and the love of the automobile. Regular passenger service for Palacios was discontinued in the 1960s, although freight service did continue.
The last large scale use of the Palacios Branch, which had become a part of the Texas & New Orleans Railway (T&NO) came in the late 1970s. The branch was "spiked" (meaning: use discontinued, but track not torn up, nor railroad abandoned) in 1983. It wasn't too long, though, before the track disappeared into the fading part of Palacios history.
Today, the lone immediately noticeable trace that a railroad once existed in Palacios is the Southern Pacific caboose, parked on rails, in Railroad Park, on the southside of Main Street, and remains of the loading dock.
Engineer Wilkerson didn't just drive the first train into Palacios, but he became one the town's pioneer and leading citizens. Born at Indianola to German immigrant parents in 1869, Wilkerson was one of five brothers, plus the father, who were railroad men.
After the inaugural run to Palacios, he moved his family here in 1903 where they lived in a tent for nine months, as no houses were available. He built his first house, on Eighth Street, himself. Later he bought a home at 500 Welch, which remained in the family until 1984.
Jake and Lena (she also born at Indianola) Wilkerson had nine children. Daughter Ruby, born in 1903, was reportedly the first baby born in Palacios.
Wilkerson served on the City Council, with many of the city's early progressive moves taking place during his tenure in office. He was also involved in civic, church and social activities.
After having the Palacios to Wharton run for several years, there was a change in train service and Wilkerson moved to Wharton in 1931, where he died on June 16, 1936. At that time, the Wharton Spectator printed the following:
"Jake Wilkerson made his last run Monday of this week when he came back to Wharton from Palacios. His engine was side tracked and the steam allowed to go down after he finished his day's work——and Tuesday morning at 2:00 o'clock the Great Dispatcher called Jake for another run, and he responded the summons and took on his new run."
He was buried in the Palacios Cemetery. Mrs. Wilkerson died in 1958, and was also buried in Palacios Cemetery.