South Plains & Santa Fe Railway Company
The railroad that settled Texas’ Last Frontier
The construction of the railroad through central Cochran County was a significant event in the settlement of Texas’ Last Frontier, not so much because it brought settlers into the area, but more because it provided a means for shipping commodities out of the county. In the early 1920s, most of the large ranches were being subdivided into smaller ranches and farms. The landowners realized that in order for their marketing efforts to be successful, a rail line would be needed to ship agricultural products and livestock out of the area. Three new townsites were also established along the new line.
In 1924, landowners in Hockley and Cochran counties began an organized effort to get the South Plains and Santa Fe Railway (owned by the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway Company) to build a 63-mile branch line west from Lubbock to the Texas-New Mexico state line. The landowners offered to give the railroad the right-of way property plus a $1-per-acre assessment from landowners adjacent to the right-of-way in return for the railroad constructing and operating the line. The railroad originally planned to locate stations along the way at 5-mile intervals, but that would later prove to be impractical. In Cochran County, four such sites were designated–Whiteface, Chipley, Lehman, and Bledsoe. The end of the line was just west of Bledsoe. Chipley never took hold, but the other three townsites began to blossom and eventually schools were established at each one of them.
Construction of the line from Lubbock to Bledsoe was completed with the arrival of the first train in Bledsoe on December 1, 1925. The railroad had originally planned to extend the line to Roswell, New Mexico to connect with another Santa Fe line. The plan was abandoned and the rail line became a dead end–Bledsoe becoming the end of the line. Train service consisted of mixed trains supplemented by specials as needed. The mixed operated between Crosbyton and Bledsoe, with a long layover at Lubbock enroute. Two trains were involved, departing opposite terminals in the morning, remaining away from home overnight, and returning to the home terminal the next evening. The mixed trains handled freight, passengers, express, and mail and a good many things unheard of in the company headquarters. Stories abound of railroaders delivering newspapers, medicine, and other things to trackside houses. Often regular train crews knew and were known by trackside observers almost as family.
The rail line was constructed during 1925 under the charter of the Pecos and North Texas Railway. The P&NT reduced construction costs by being skimpy on the amount of ballast (crushed rock) used for the road bed. Under the thin layer of ballast was nothing but the local sandy-loam soil to support the track. That didn’t work out too well. As the weight of the train moved down the tracks, the ties would press into the thin ballast and sandy-loam road bed, causing depressions to form. After the train went by, the rail would spring back up. This resulted in some precarious track behavior as the train moved down the line. It was especially bad between the last section of track between Lehman and Bledsoe. The railroad workers nicknamed it the “sand railroad.” Needless to say, the local railroad section gang spent a lot of man hours tamping up the low spots.
According to an account by former Santa Fe agent Ed Jennings, the following railroad facilities were located in Cochran County:
WHITEFACE: Agent’s and section foreman’s house, depot, windmill and water tank, and stock pens.
LEHMAN: Agent’s and section foreman’s house, depot, and section gang living quarters.
BLEDSOE: Agent’s house, depot, and stock pens. The turnaround wye for the steam locomotives was also located here.
Mixed trains had to run more or less on schedule, so when cattle had to be loaded usually a special train took the task. During the oil boom, special trains ran regularly to handle nothing but oil patch business. They ran out from Lubbock with supplies for the field and returned with empties, transacting no other business enroute. Train crews occasionally found sand dunes blocking the tracks, whereupon in later years a brakeman would hitch-hike to town and arrange for a bulldozer to clear the way. In places, sand has been repeatedly shoved aside until, mixed with tumbleweeds and other vegetation, permanent dunes flank the rails. In places these dunes extend for miles and give the impression that the railroad is in a long cut, although the roadbed is actually above the level of the surrounding plain.
The first grain elevators along the line were built of wooden framing with sheet-metal sheathing. The one at Bledsoe was incorporated into a later expansion and still stands, but the one at Lehman has succumbed to the forces of time. Within a short period of time, the Santa Fe-affiliated Terminal Building Corporation of Texas built more substantial round, steel elevators along the line. Most of them, even the ones at Lehman where the line was removed, are still in service. Though the end of the line was Bledsoe, the branch line was designated the Lehman District in railroad timetables.
The South Plains and Santa Fe Railway was merged with the Panhandle and Santa Fe Railway in 1948. A matter of semantics and management consolidation, as both railroads were already owned by the AT&SF. Regularly scheduled train service was terminated in 1955, and operated on an as-need basis from that time forward. The AT&SF abandoned the portion of the line between Whiteface and Bledsoe in 1984. In 1990, the Lubbock-to-Whiteface portion of the line was sold to the Seagraves, Whiteface and Lubbock Railroad (SWLR). SWLR was purchased by shortline holding company RailAmerica (RA) in 1995. RA then renamed SWLR to West Texas and Lubbock Railroad. RA sold the WTLC to Chicago-based Permian Basin Railways on May 25, 2002, and the company still operates the line between Lubbock and Whiteface.
Sources: Southwestern Spoke By Bob Burton, Santa Fe Historical Society, http://www.atsfrr.net/resources/burton/Spoke.htm .
Cochran County Legacy: Texas Last Frontier 1924-1986 ( Morton, Texas: Last Frontier History Book Commission, 1986).
Elvis Eugene Fleming and David J. Murrah, Texas’ Last Frontier: A History of Cochran County (Morton, Texas: Cochran County Historical Commission, 1965).