Page 27


DATE LINE The Ballad of Engine 3417 by WWI troop train welcomed in Cleburne yard, 1917 or 1918 COURTESY OF THE LAYLAND MUSEUM, CLEBURNE The railroad was more than a job. It wasp spiritual essence, a romance, a family tradition, a cultural myth, a subject for story, poem, easel and song. CHECK OUT Cleburne’s Layland museum at www. T’S BEEN 20 YEARS SINCE THE SANTA FE Railroad abandoned my hometown, and I sometimes feel time-warped when I see the changes since its departure. My brain refuses to acknowledge the legal sale of booze in Cleburne, which was once dryer than King Tut’s tomb. You can buy beers and wine at H-E-B. But if you don’t want the local Soul Patrol to see you \(the town is 52 perthrough the old Central Texas Bus Lines driveway on East Henderson Street and load up secretly with the “cold beverages” of your choice. There’s a bypass now, built to divert trucks carrying saltwater and silt from the gas wells that have lately so enriched the town. Used-car lots, insurance companies, convenience stores, doctors’ offices, fast-food emporiums and the like now stand in place of the old Edwardian-era houses along North Main Street. On Henderson, at the railroad crossing, there’s an overpass, completed, illogically, in the mid-1990s, after the railroad left. For more than 100 years the railroad was the town’s largest employer. In my day, when the town’s popula tion was only 10,558, 1,500 people worked there, most of them union members. At its peak, payroll rose to _ $21 million, with more than $1 mil lion going for local property taxes. Today there are few union supporters in town, and not a single Democrat holding elected office. During the decade between the railroad’s departure and the development of the gas-drilling industry, this churchgoing town was forced to get up close and familiar with its own biblical lean years. Except for retirement checks, railroad money receded from all but memory. Virtually the only reminder was engine 3417, which retired railroaders helped relocate to Hulen Park. Over the years, I watched the engine decline along with the town, as if the spirit had gone out of them. As downtown stores closed, 3417’s paint faded. As grass grew from South Main’s sidewalks, boys threw bottles over the fence into the engine’s smokestack. As antique stores and law offices moved into vacated retail stores downtown, feral cats set up housekeeping inside 3417’s abandoned niches. Then came the millennium. Cleburne was redeemed by science, fattened by manna not from heaven, but from a mile underground, assets the town never knew it had. These deposits had been maturing for 350 million years in what might be called the Barnett Shale Bank and Trust. Each year since 2002 this geological ATM spewed millions of dollars in natural gas royalties at property owners, making them happy heirs to geologic time. The city itself came in for $5 million to $7 million a year from its own leases to augment its annual $60 million budget. By 2008, according to the town’s website, the median family income had risen from $35,481 to $42,338. The 5,000-square-mile layer of shale beneath Cleburne and other nearby towns contains 30 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, geologists say. Experts expect it to generate 110,000 North Texas jobs by 2015. All was well, it seemed, except maybe for the earthquakes. They began in the summer of ’09, seven or eight miniquakes, registering less than 3 on the Richter scale, but the first in town history. Townspeople disagree on whether pressurized-water shale-fracturing techniques caused them, but the church faithful know. They’re the anti-wet warnings of a teetotaling God. As godly letter-writers to the Cleburne Times-Review frequently remind us, we’re ever subject to the vicissitudes of the celestial disciplinarian. 20 THE TEXAS OBSERVER WWW.TEXASOBSERVER.ORG