by Murry Hammond
By the time the Cronin family purchased the struggling Bartlett Western Railway on May 6, 1916, the name of Thomas Cronin had been a familiar one in Texas railroad circles for nearly 40 years. During his time Thomas Cronin was associated with the International-Great Northern, the Houston, East & West Texas, and by one account, the Bastrop Railroad.
Thomas B. Cronin was born in Ballyheige, Ireland on May 3, 1843, the son of Philip and Julia Stiles Cronin. The family moved to the United States in 1850, setting up residence in Sedalia, Missouri. Tom Cronin's railroad career began at eight years of age as a water boy, and by the age of seventeen he was foreman over a railroad construction gang of one hundred men, laying rails for the Missouri-Pacific Railway at Sedalia, Missouri. After a stint in the Union Army during the Civil War, he married Margaret Donahue, a girl from Cronin's Irish hometown of Ballyheige, and over the next few years three children were born to the union, Philip, Marie and Ida.
In 1870 Tom Cronin hired on with the International-Great Northern Railway as a contractor in charge of construction. His first project was the construction of the I.-G.N. line from Rockdale to Austin. To avoid forfeiture he pledged the laying of one mile a day, and many days he doubled his own estimate. When he reached Austin as scheduled, the I.-G.N. rewarded him with a section of land and $3,000 cash. Cronin's popularity in the company combined with his reputation as being an "indefatigable worker", caused Cronin to rise through the ranks of the I.-G.N. A promotion to General Superintendent necessitated a move from Sedalia to Palestine, Texas, where the family would make their home for the next 40 years.
The Cronins prospered in Palestine. "Colonel" Tom Cronin, as he was known by this time, became one of the town's largest property owners, including owndership of the town's water works. Son Philip attended medical school and acquired his M.D., while daughters Ida and Marie studied music and art, respectively, in Paris. Marie returned to Palestine and established herself as a respected and successful painter, while Ida became extremely active in various music and community organizations, including the establishment of the Palestine Public Library.
At some point in the early 1890's Colonel Cronin left the International-Great Northern to hire on as General Superintendent for the narrow-gauge Houston, East & West Texas. When the HE&WT decided to convert their line to standard gauge in 1894, Cronin was called on to mastermind the conversion, and this event would be known as Cronin's greatest feat as a railroad builder, to convert the entire line of railroad in one day without a train missing a schedule. The story of the conversion is worth relating here, as it it one of the great feats of railway engineering.
The first task for the work crews was to widen bridges and trestles, and replace the narrow-gauge six-foot ties with eight-footers. The extra length of the ties extended to the west side, to accommodate the moving of the west rail only. Master Mechanic A. S. Grant employed about 100 men to remodel and convert most of the company's existing rolling stock to standard gauge specs, while in addition the company purchased eighteen new Rogers locomotives and 200 (300 by another account) freight and passenger cars. The company now had a fleet of new or remodeled equipment ready to be put into service the minute the rails were widened.
Finally, on July 29, 1894, the great challenge of converting the entire railroad had arrived. A force of 1,000 men was employed, composed of regular section crews, casual workers, and convicts under guard. These were divided into 32 gangs of 35 men each, and 4 gangs of 50 men. They were distributed at distances of 6 miles apart, the four gangs of 50 men being placed 13 miles apart. Each group had a special task. In interviews conducted by Robert Maxwell with an old-timer involved in the changeover, "the actual track moving was accomplished after the regular passenger trains, each with narrow-gauge equipment had passed each other a little south of Lufkin.
Working behind the trains, one group pulled the outside spikes from the left rail, the second group moved the freed rail into its new position without loosening a joint, and the third fastened the rail down temporarily by spiking every third tie. In the meantime the group boss was busy with a spanner checking the gauge."
By the end of the day the trains had completed their regular schedule and the job of changing the gauge was completed. The work trains, according to another veteran employee, had gone out that morning with narrow gauge equipment carrying standard gauge flat cars upside down, piggy back. When the job was completed the standard gauge cars were placed on the tracks and the narrow gauge cars rode home upside down, piggy back, on the standard gauge cars. The next morning the passenger trains, this time with standard gauge equipment, departed on schedule.
The entire changeover had been accomplished in one working day at a cost of $300,000. The next month, the whole railroad family was invited to a fish fry at San Jacinto springs to celebrate the event." In all, 232 miles of mainline and another 54 miles of sidings were converted on this day.
The year 1894 was not all good for Tom Cronin, as the family lost their mother Margaret, who passed away on December 11. Margaret was a very strong and influential presence in the family, and her passing affected the family greatly.
At some point after this event Thomas Cronin returned to the International-Great Northern, where he worked until his retirement in 1915. A railroad man at heart, Cronin did not want to get out of railroading altogether. Surviving correspondence in the Texas Railroad Commission archives reveal that he made serious inquiries into purchasing several roads, including the Port Bolivar & Iron Ore, and the Texas State Railroad, but it was the idea of resurrecting the struggling Bartlett Western Railway that interested him most.
On May 6, 1916 the purchased was finalized, the stock of the company being divided between Cronin family members Philip, Marie, Ida, and Ida's husband William Branagan. The Bartlett Western was now a family railroad, and the entire Cronin family except for son Philip, who by then had a medical practice in Houston, prepared to make Bartlett their new home.
After finishing their affairs in Palestine, Tom Cronin, daughters Marie and Ida, Ida's husband William Branagan, and nephew Thomas Wolfe arrived in Bartlett in August, setting up residence and began the task of winning the confidence of the citizens of the little junction town. The amiable Cronins soon made many friends.
Under Thomas Cronin and his son-in-law William Branagan, the Bartlett Western improved both in its service and in the care of its equipment. Bridges and roadbed were restored, locomotives and the BW's big "trolley"-style car the "Texas" was overhauled, and the famous four "Gospel" stops were established. Cronin intended on extending the BW in both directions, to the east with a connection with the Southern Pacific at Cameron, and to the west with a connection with the Santa Fe at Lampassas. Cronin sought financing to begin the extensions, but investors evaporated on account of World War I, and a deal that Cronin had negotiated with the Southern Pacific's vice-president Scott for second-hand rail fell through when Scott passed away in 1919. A second plan to extend the I.-G.N. north from Georgetown to Jarrell, and for the failed "Middle Buster" railroad to extend tracks across the BW at Jarrell never advanced further than the drawing board.
Always dreaming of expanding the railroads of Texas, Cronin sought to purchase the financially depleted Texas State Railroad in 1919, and extend the railroad to his BW at Bartlett. Cronin's plan was to get the TSR into running shape, then start the process of extending the route to the BW at Bartlett. The legislature was persuaded to sell the line to Cronin, but for unknown reasons the purchase never materialized.
Cronin continued to ponder ways to extend his little railroad, but the business of keeping the BW financially and physically afloat amidst flood-damage repairs and equipment maintenance kept investors away and Cronin distracted for the remainder of his years. Tom Cronin finally passed away after a bout with cancer on the morning of August 16, 1926.
Tom Cronin left a legacy that can still be traced along the many hundreds of miles of mainline railroad that were born under his watchful eye. While he lived his life as a mover and promoter of large-scale railroading, he was nonetheless just as proud of the little BW. A story that is still passed around the Cronin family goes that Cronin once had his annual pass returned from the president of the mighty Pennsylvania Railroad, who remarked that he would never find the opportunity to ride on such a dinky little railroad as the BW. Cronin sent back a reply that stated, "The BW may not be as long as the Pennsy, but it's just as wide!" The industry had lost one of its great athletes.
Railroad Gazette, September 6, 1894.
Interviews with Tom Cronin, Ed Cronin, and Virginia Lawson.
Unpublished manuscripts and material in the collection of the Cronin family.