Sunday, September 21, 2014

Found: The Lost 1889 Cotton Belt Rail Yards On Panther Island!

In 1889 the St. Louis Southwestern (Cotton Belt) Railroad arrived in Fort Worth and immediately started hauling the freight in and out as well as a few passengers. Not the first or even the second railroad in the city, the Cotton Belt however was known for its links to many great agricultural areas and the population centers that processed and consumed them.  It was known as the "Cotton Belt" for a reason.
1889 W. B. King Fort Worth Map-Cotton Belt Yards <click to enlarge image>
The rails came down from Carrollton and Grapevine terminating in a reservation in the Trinity Bottoms along the eastern bank of the West Fork of the Trinity and extending past the confluence with the Clear Fork as the 1889 map above shows,.  A small wooden passenger station and a separate freight station were built as well as maintenance buildings and a turntable.  Yard access was by a small bridge just below the confluence and around 1892, the "Wire" suspension bridge.  The steep North Main "Iron Bridge" was also used when it was available between repairs.

1922 Cotton Belt Yard House-Left Center-<click image to enlarge>
The Cotton Belt yard house is shown above at left center peeking between the large fuel tank on the left and the Fort Worth Light & Power smokestack base on the right.  Taken in 1922 at the height of one of the frequent floods, this illustrates why this was not an ideal area for a rail terminal. In spite of that, these yards handled large amounts of freight traffic. And, until 1899 when the new T&P passenger station was built, boarded passengers for St. Louis, Memphis and other southland destinations.

USGS Flood Plain Map-1915  <click to enlarge image>

After World War II and with the expansion of the TESCO power plant, these original 1889 yards began to sink unnoticed into obscurity. The main freight handling had been taken over in 1915 by the large facility on East 6th street in downtown Fort Worth. The yards still served the warehouses and scrap metal dealers along the old main line and stored freight cars. The switching lead still existed to service the rails in Houston Street laid down by the Cotton Belt in the early 1930's as part of a business development program.  The 1915 USGS flood plain map above still shows a large number of tracks, a turntable and other facilities including the yard house.

1932 T&P Switching Map <click image to enlarge>
Following the Trinity River channelization and levee building of the late 1950's most of the old yard and its facilities were obliterated.  Literally covered over in the area near the TESCO power plant. The original 1889 main line as far south as SW 5th Street and a few spurs were still in existence as late as 2012 when the Trinity River Vision program began clearing the entire Trinity Bottoms area. Much of which was covered with rubble and had polluted the soil several feet deep.

Railroad Archeology & Preservation!

Cotton Belt Turntable Pit Artifact - 2014- <click image to enlarge>
In August, 2014 I received a call from the site manager of a company that was decontaminating and cleaning a 100 foot wide  pit just off of SW 5th street close to the levee. It was in reference to something they found during their excavation.  After some discussion, we both felt that this was probably part of the old Cotton Belt turntable pit that shows on the maps.  My guess is that it was a simple brick guard wall around the turntable and did not have any part in supporting the turntable itself. The excavation was about 4' deep and about 50' across. The brick wall showed about 2' above the excavation. A few days later, in a similar discussion with the Environmental Manager for the Union Pacific he reached pretty much the same conclusions.  The UP acquired the Cotton Belt many years ago and still owns the land. 

Cotton Belt Backfilled Excavation-2014 <click image to enlarge>

When asked whether it would be possible to save this historic pit wall, the UP Environmental Manager suggested that they could just as easily backfill the excavation with the pit wall intact instead of demolishing it.  Which when I checked, they seem to have done. After hearing many horror stories, the professionalism and interest everyone showed in this historic artifact was very impressive. And much appreciated, since now there will be a chance for display and possible use at some future time. Thanks to the Union Pacific and TRV management for their consideration.

Not everyone will think that this old pit wall is worth conserving or even recognizing.  After all, there are bigger TRV things in play.  A simple descriptive marker to be placed at n appropriate spot as the development continues would be nice.  Here is another suggestion that would be even better:

As the TRV develops, the 800+ acre Panther Island mass is too large to describe to visitors.  Obviously it will have to be subdivided into districts of one name or another.  What if..  the three blocks north of NW 5th to about 8th or 9th street were to be called the "Cotton Belt Yard" District? Historically appropriate, catchy, easy to say and remember. Just get on the Trolley and say "let me off  at the Cotton Belt Yards". 

Aerial TXU-Cotton Belt Turntable-Trinity River-Cotton Belt Yards-2014
As the TRV continues to clear the area north of the TXU power plant continues, more railroad history is coming into view.  This is posted land. But driving on N. Throckmorton which is a public road, a large number of tracks embedded in concrete as well as laying on open ground may now be seen. These were invisible in the past. Some may be old historic yard tracks.  Others industrial sidings that were covered by buildings. It would be interesting to know what they were.

Cotton Belt Yards - Looking North 2014

Cotton Belt Industrial Tracks - Looking West

2014 Aerial of Cotton Belt Yards-FWWR On The Northwest
The development of Panther Island will eventually obliterate the few artifacts that are left of the Cotton Belt Yards. It is to be hoped the TRV management and the developers will give some thought to making sure that this part of Fort Worth history is not left unmarked and forgotten.


  1. Great detective work, Pete. Already few people notice the long scars in the streets where railroad tracks once were. Already the term "Cotton Belt" is something people pay no attention to on old maps. No one listens to the term literally and wonders where it came from. It came from Fort Worth's history. Long let us remember that.

  2. Nice work Pete - a lot of long asked questions answered

  3. Very interesting article! I'm glad the pit wall was saved.

  4. Thanks for the excellent and informative article. A friend and I have been doing some research on this area and the Cotton Belt's place in it. You have answered some longstanding questions for me. I would love to see a nod to the Cotton Belt when it comes time to name the neighborhood.

  5. Ken Buckner-ArkansasJanuary 7, 2015 at 5:25 PM

    Great work. I grew up in Pine Bluff in the 50s and 60s surrounded by the Cotton Belt and CB families. After becoming active in the restoration of the 819-a labor of love by so many people-I became fascinated in the history of the road. I was surprised at how much printed material is still out there. Thank you for your effort. I'm light on knowledge of the Texas history other than than Tyler to Texarkana. Anyone that would Send your "stuff" Would make me greatful.