The Oil Game: Down Where The Trains Stopped

 

Buck Kilgore’s old mule barn has served as the boomtown’s depot for a long time.

The barn was ready to hold passengers and baggage as easily as it did mules, cattle, and hay.

New Danville had exactly what Jay Gould needed: land, plenty of land.  Besides, Gould told himself, those homesteaders who occupied the farms around New Danville would not be nearly as difficult to deal with as the rich and powerful of Jefferson had been.  They needed his railroad as badly as he needed a strip of their farmsteads to hold his steel rails.

Jay Gould approached Rayburn Hamilton and his son-in-law, Slade Barnett, with a proposition to buy land.  It was, he said, his dream to build a railroad from East Texas to El Paso, then on to California.  He had reached Longview, and the tracks were moving steadily westward toward Willow Springs.   All Jay Gould needed was the right of way that stretched across their land.

Hamilton and Barnett carefully weighed his offer, then decided that they would rather see cattle grazing and crops growing on their farmstead than let some outsider’s smoke-belching railroad cars run roughshod over the soil that kept their families fed.  Their land, they figured, was just too valuable to sell to the International and Great Northern Railway.  Jay Gould negotiated hard, but neither farmer would change his mind. The Wizard of Wall Street had hit a dead end.

There were miles of endless prairie stretching westward, just waiting for his railroad.  But Gould could not get there. Jefferson had slowed him down. New Danville stopped him cold.

Constantine Buckley Kilgore, as shrewdly as ever, made his move. He privately informed Jay Gould that he would donate a strip of his property, covering fifteen acres, which was more than enough land to bring the railroad through the edge of Rusk and Gregg Counties.  Of course, the tracks would miss New Danville by about four miles, but that did not particularly matter to the Wizard of Wall Street.  All he wanted or needed was empty land to hold his rails.

Jay Gould sent surveyors to look over the terrain, and they wired back, “Everything is okay.  However, there’s a mule barn in the middle of where we’ll be laying the tracks.”

Gould wired back, “Move the damn thing.”

A few minutes later, he sent a new wire. “On second thought,” he wrote, “move the barn over beside the tracks, and we’ll call it a depot.”

Buck Kilgore certainly didn’t mind Jay Gould using the mule barn as long as the International and Great Northern Railway had interest in building a town on land where none had stood before.  It all made good business sense to the Wizard of Wall Street.  He promptly bought a hundred and seventy-four acres from Buck Kilgore, paying him fourteen hundred gold dollars in cash, as well as giving the Justice of the Peace a note that called for the delivery of another fourteen hundred gold dollars within the next six months.

The barn, as ready to hold passengers and baggage as easily as it did cattle and hay, was surrounded by eighteen blocks that would form the grid of a townsite.  Buck Kilgore, showing his good faith in the venture, took the first lot, deciding that it was his duty and no doubt his responsibility to build a home near the tracks. There was some discussion about a name, but few in a town that had only one family were opposed to calling the new and primitive hamlet “Kilgore.”

***

News of the oil strike out on Mrs. Lou Della’s place began spreading through East Texas as soon as the first drop of oil touched the ground.  Ed Bateman and Malcolm Crim rushed to Kilgore but found they couldn’t make a telephone call, or even send a telegram.

Oil scouts and speculators had beaten them to town.  Crim would say, “Ed couldn’t get into the depot to send a wire because people were lined up ahead of him for forty yards.  And the telephone operator wouldn’t answer because there were so many calls coming in already.”

They had to drive to Longview before finding a phone they could use.  An oil company was waiting to hear from Bateman and may have well been the last oil company in the country to learn about the gusher.

In Kilgore, the Railway Telegraph would remain open twenty-four hours a day until midnight, March 29 in 1936.

***

 Mayor Roy H. Laird thought that, at least by 1937, Kilgore should be blessed with a new depot, and he petitioned Missouri-Pacific officials for a modern passenger station.  The depot had long been the consternation of the town.

It was originally nothing more than Buck Kilgore’s old mule barn, and few thought it much better than a barn now.  But no one in authority at Missouri-Pacific was interested. No one in authority ever had any interest.

Kilgore would spend the next half-century and longer complaining because, no matter how wealthy the oil-bearing woodbine sand beneath town might be, it didn’t have a station any more sophisticated than the little wooden building down beside the tracks where the trains stopped.

My novel, Back Side of a Blue Moon, is based loosely on the oil strike that turned Kilgore into one of the richest little towns in Texas. Please click HERE to find the book on Amazon.

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