By A. C. Greene
In its hey-day you stood in line to get a coach seat on the Abilene & Southern Railway.
There are a hundred stories told about the road and its builder, the fabulous Morgan Jones.
There are stories about the time he carried crackers and cheese for his lunch when he went to Hamlin on a stockholder's inspection tour.
How he ordered dry toast for breakfast at the old Grace Hotel and the waitress put butter on it because she felt sorry for “that old man.”
And there are warm, human tales about the railroad itself.
Tales about the bustling little community of Iberis where a whole coach full of passengers would sometimes alight.
A woman, well past her middle age, blushed like a school girl as she told of eloping on the A&S to get married in Anson.
“I got to Abilene and there was my daddy waiting at the station,” she laughs, “but he decided to let me go ahead.”
Although it has been the property of the Texas & Pacific Railway for 22 years, the A&S is still called “Morgan Jones' road'' by most people.
The old financier himself died in 1926, but he seems very real and alive when you ride the A&S and listen to the conductor, or the engineer and fireman telling about his ways and famous notions of “thrift.”
“I remember how he carried his lunch in a paper sack with him when he was out on the road,” a veteran railroader on the Wichita Valley told me in Anson as we passed the old A&S cutoff to Hamlin. Him with no telling how many million dollars, and he made me divide an apple with him because he didn't bring enough to eat."
The story of Morgan Jones has never been fully told. By the time he came to Abilene to build the A&S he was a legendary figure in the railroad field. He was more familiar to Wall Street and the financial interests of the East than he was to citizens of the section he helped to build.
Many of his accomplishments were unknown even to those who knew him well.
Besides the A&S, he built the Fort Worth & Denver Railroad, the Wichita Valley and thousands of miles of road outside Texas. He also built the original Fort Worth streetcar system — a horsecar line.
He built more than 1,000 miles of railroad in this state — greatest mileage of any road builder in Texas. There is hardly a road in North Texas that he did not have an interest in.
Born in England, he rose to importance in his field immediately after the Civil War.
He had few pictures made and allowed few interviews for the press. He often said he lived by two beliefs: “I never got left, and I avoided lawsuits and quarrels.”
In all his long life he never dissipated. “All my friends who dissipated have died and gone on,” he used to say as he neared the 80-year mark.
His will bequeathed $30,000 to Hardin-Simmons University and $10,000 each to Abilene Christian and McMurry Colleges. His estate was estimated above a million dollars.
He worked hard at the job of running the A&S, after he moved to Abilene. Two days before his death, at the age of 86, he visited his office in the old Abilene & Southern depot, at South Second and Cherry Sts.
He died April 11, 1926 in the home of his nephew, Percy Jones, at South Sixth and Amarillo Sts. He made his home at the Grace Hotel for many years.
At his death two rail cars of officials came to Abilene for the funeral.
The Abilene & Southern was a longstanding dream with the Abilene citizens around the turn of the century.
Work started at 7 a.m., Jan 6, 1909, near the present Wichita Valley station on South Second Street in Abilene.
J. W. Taylor was in charge of a crew of 10 men who started laying rail. A small group, Morgan Jones among them, saw the beginning. However, a reporter at the scene was irked that “not a baker's dozen were on hand.”
The line was built south to Ballinger and north to Hamlin. From Anson to Abilene, trackage was shared with the Wichita Valley.
Passenger trains from both directions used to run twice a day. Abilene was the division point, where travellers changed for a through trip from end-to-end on the line.
One famous shipment which most Abilenians will never forget was a trainload of new Chrysler automobiles.
Percy Jones, nephew of the founder, says It was covered from one end to the other with big banners— 14 cars of gaily painted bunting.
Another nephew. Morgan Jones, Sr., now a financier in Abilene, worked for the road for a number of years. He also helped his uncle, the original Morgan, survey and build several other railroads.
Other ex-employees of the A&S are scattered up and down along the line from Hamlin to Ballinger. Several of the men from the northern division were transferred to the south end when the Anson-Hamlin run was abandoned. But others lost out completely. They'd Just hern where they were too long to chance they said.
Bradshaw and Ovalo are A&S “babies" ... they were built by the railroad Ovalo was located a little off the line, but pulled up stakes and moved over to be near the rails.
Tuscola came a little later. Today it has a neat-as-a-pin little station which is kept open a few hours a day.
And where was the fair little "town" of Iberis. Well it's long gone now, but you don't have to be too old to remember where it was. Drive out along the San Angelo highway until you come to the Camp Barkeley cut-off. Just a few hundred yards up from where the A&S crosses this road stood Iberis. It wasn't too much at anytime . . . Just a center where farmers could catch the train.
The big general merchandise store, however, was famous all over the county. It stood in vast and solitary splendor for many years after the trade and people had forsaken Iberis and gone to Abilene.
Now it has "Just disappeared." Iberis was laid out by the railroad promotors in town lots and was visualized as a thriving city . . . perhaps another suburb of Abilene. For a while it almost made it ... but nobody seemed to want to build. So it died.
Today there is absolutely nothing left of the wagon stop at Iberis.
For years the A&S was conceded to be one of the richest short-line railroads in the United States.
In 1927 the line was sold to the Texas & Pacific Railway and has been owned by that firm since. It is the only line owned by T&P that still uses its own equipment marked “Abilene & Southern,” not “T&P.”
The rolling stock consists of a single 2-8-2 engine, the No. 20, and a big red combine car.
A combine car is the “Dagwood Sandwich” of railroading. It's about everything rolled into one.
The A&S combine, No. 52, is used for passengers (white and colored), express, first class freight and caboose. It really goes back to the “good old days.”
It’s certainly not like any railroad car you’ll see many places today. The back entrance has a screen door on it, like a porch.
It is equipped with coal oil lamps which are still used, and a coal stove. On the lid these words are cast in iron:
“If I am good please tell others about it.”
The windows are screened, and there are plenty of seats.
The coach is a venerable thing, priceless from a historical viewpoint. The stations, now handling more Western Union work than selling tickets, are straight out of World War I.
At Winters the express cabinet is marked “Wells-Fargo Express Co.,” a name a lot of people thought was a Hollywood invention — it's been so long out of the picture.
Schedules are arranged and met on a leisurely scale. The train leaves Abilene every morning except Sunday, from the back of the T&P freight office. Six-thirty is the usual time.
When it arrives in Ballinger depends on how much work is to be done. If there is a lot of switching and pickup to make, Ballinger is reached about 11:30a.m. Usually there isn't that much, so 10:30 generally marks the entrance.
Coming back is another story. The little Number 20 really gets up and gets.
At Winters the train is sometimes cut in two to let automobiles through. There are signs of once-great activity in this Runnels County town. The A&S has more sidings here than any other place.
J. C. Jarrell, who says he's “the works" at Winters sells a ticket now and then for Bradshaw, Ovalo, or Tuscola.
“Some people ride all the time . . . they know just about when the train's coming through and it goes right by their house."
Abilene, of course, is the heavy- traffic end of the line. And in Abilene are most of the improvements and new trackage. The most ambitious A&S project concerns the new industrial sections in South Abilene. The north-south highway being built will emphasize the new development.
Wheat and Cotton brought freight revenues booming each fall.
For a few years a motorcar made a “doodlebug” run on the A&S but it disappeared a short time after the road went over to T&P.
Passengers on the A&S are not a source of revenue. Like most roads, it has always depended for freight service to keep running.
Railroad men say the best advertising a road can have is a happy rider. However, the A&S, competing with fast highway buses, has sighed reluctantly but had to almost forget there are such things.
It's a road, though, that nobody feels like a stranger on. He can't . . . the crew take him right in and make him almost another part of it.
The road is far from dead or being in danger. Recently several hundred yards of new track were laid for the new industrial section south of Abilene. But it's not the line it used to be by a far, far piece.
Thirty years ago people rode the A&S like a streetcar. The Hamlin — Abilene division hummed with two passenger trains a day and several freights. Hamlin, at the time, had four railroads and considered itself a rail center.
Then in the late 1920s, the A&S engaged in a long battle to try and gain permission from the Interstate Commerce Commission to extend their line from Ballinger to San Angelo. For a while it looked like they might make it. It had been the original purpose, some believed, of Morgan Jones to build south and west from Ballinger.
But the little road lost and, although the idea pops up at Chamber of Commerce meetings and civic gatherings every so often, it’s about buried now.
Losing the fight seemed to be a lost straw for the A&S. It's never stirred much since.
In 1937 Abilene, Hamlin and Anson engaged in another bitter court debate with the ICC which was fruitless. Permission was given the T&P to lop off the Hamlin branch of the line. This section had been called Abilene & Northern or the A&S Northern Division. The rails were torn up beginning Feb. 8, 1937, but the old dump still parallels the Anson-Hamlin highway.
Stations are maintained at Tuscola, Bradshaw, Ovalo, Winters, Hatchell and Ballinger. Abilene, larger than all the other cities on the line put together, has none.
The roundhouse is located east of the Western Cotton Oil Mill in Abilene.
Passenger traffic will always be lame, probably, and the A&S will continue to steam out trailing clouds of memories rather than day coaches.
But many people still love to think about and remember when the A&S was Abilene’s darling.
“You know,” said one man, nearing 50, “I’d about forgotten it still ran ... or does it?”
“Yes sir, it was a farmer’s road. Built for them to use. Most of the passengers were farmers, and I was a farmer’s boy.
“You should have seen it then!”
List of Illustrations:
"No. 20, pride of the Abilene & Southern, makes a water stop at Winters. Behind her is Combine Coach No. 52 — a railway car the like of which you seldom see nowadays."
"Crew members of the A&S’s “one train daily” pose for Don Hutcheson, Abilene Reporter-News photographer. Left to right are Brakeman Ben F. Hardin, Engineer H. E. Turner, Fireman R. V. Henderson, Conductor J. E. Lawson and Brakeman Claude Self."
"One of the track gangs that keep the A&S high iron in good shape is shown below. John Dodson, far right, is foreman. Others are, left to right, A. L. Yarger, C. W. Clements and E. D. Lewallen. They’re all of Ovalo, an A&S station.
No. 52, with its passengers, sits aside while the A&S engine picks up a string of empties at an industrial siding at Abilene. Passengers on mixed trains often get a first-hand view of railroading like this which travelers on streamliners never see.