The Ballad of Engine 3417

Dateline: Cleburne


It’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 percent Southern Baptist), you can pull through 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 population 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 million 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.

More jolting for many in town has been the fact of diminishing gas royalties. In 2009, gas prices began dropping as competing shale deposits began showing up in other states and Canada. Between July 2008 and August 2009, prices fell from $13.58 per million BTUs to $3.25 per million BTUs, according to the Times-Review. It was the inviolable law of supply and demand closing down the spigot. The result was job cuts and royalties slashed up to 60 percent.

Now that the gas industry in Cleburne is fizzling, will it light out for greener pastures, as the railroad did? Even if it does, the effect will hardly rival the economic and social derailment caused by the railroad’s departure.

The railroad was more than a job. It was a spiritual essence, a romance, a family tradition, a cultural myth, a subject for story, poem, easel and song. What gas industry-related tunes are there to replace “I’ve Been Workin’ on the Railroad,” “The Orange Blossom Special,” or “The Atchison, Topeka, and the Santa Fe?” What gas-field movie rivals Murder on the Orient Express or Strangers on a Train?

The trains that left the Cleburne yards, including the last one on Oct. 1, 1989, not only inspired art, but promoted community, friendship and family. My classmate, retired switchman Bill Shehorn, said five starters on Cleburne’s 1956 district-championship football team were born of fathers who worked with the railroad, himself included.

We were all hooked up, it seemed, like the cars in a hundred long trains. My grandfather was a railroader, as were my wife’s father, grandfather and brothers. Her uncle W.F. Stepp worked on 3417 as a machinist and general foreman. “That engine made a living for a lot of people in this town,” he told me once. His father had been a carman, his daughter an extra board call clerk and his son an engineer.

Cleburne was headquarters for one of the largest repair facilities on the line between Galveston and Chicago. More than 500 engines and 6,000 boxcars were repaired here each year. Its infrastructure, comprising 232 acres and 67 miles of track, had its own fire department, telephone system and water supply from six deep wells producing 800,000 gallons a day. There was a Harvey House restaurant, built in 1894, above the depot at Border Street and East Henderson.

On the way home from junior high school, I used to stop and rest at that depot every day with classmate William Parnell. His dad, an old-time boilermaker, worked on 3417. Today there isn’t even a plaque to signify that the depot or Harvey House was there.

Railroaders generally blame government deregulation and mergers and the shift to the trucking industry in the 1980s for the closing of train yards in small railroad towns. Retired conductor Tommy McGee, another classmate, now drives a water truck part-time for one of the gas-drilling companies. He said the Santa Fe had been moving toward contract labor for a long time, but accelerated “when Reagan busted the air traffic controllers union. They knew we were better workers, but the cheap, non-union labor was just too much of a temptation.” These days the Burlington Northern Santa Fe in Fort Worth—now owned by Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway Inc.—contracts the work to Gunderson Rail Services, which is owned by the Greenbrier Cos., a nationwide boxcar concern.

Since the trains had always been there, we thought they would go on forever. Retired trainman Melvin Burt, a classmate dating back to Santa Fe Elementary, told Times-Review columnist LaRue Barnes how his grandfather participated in the 1922 Cleburne railroad strike, and how his father washed dishes for the Harvey House in 1922 before hiring on at the repair shops seven years later. Other railroading Burts include Melvin’s brother Jerry and five cousins. One cousin, R.P. Benson, another of my classmates, rose to the office of superintendent.

Cleburne and its retired railroaders have kept their heritage alive and beautified the town with gas money. The Santa Fe’s symbiotic kinship with the community can be seen in engine 3417. It’s now asbestos-free and shining with a new coat of paint, and the grass no longer grows through South Main’s sidewalks. The trash is gone from the engine’s smokestack, and the original high school building near downtown has been renovated as the Guinn Justice Center. Interloping cats no longer raise families in 3417, and a restored Johnson County Courthouse is open for business.

There’s a new theater, The Plaza, on South Main Street, where White’s Auto used to be. The historic Liberty Hotel on South Caddo Street has been restored. Buffalo Creek has been cleaned up and walking paths added from Hulen Park through downtown, and even along its east fork all the way to the railroad yards, in my old neighborhood.

When times take a turn for the better, it can be easy to forget the bad. So engine 3417 continues to stand on display as a reminder to future generations of the local lesson in corporate loyalty and largesse. The Santa Fe contributed greatly to Cleburne for more than a century, but it highballed it out of there when it felt like it, because a corporation never drops roots deeper than the bottom line.

Author, reviewer and radio commentator Tom Dodge writes from Midlothian.