Cleburne Times-Review, Cleburne, TX

John Watson

September 11, 2011

John Watson: Taking the night train to Galveston a memorable experience

What could be more interesting to a teenager than spending a few days each summer on the beach at Galveston? I got to spend my time on the beach back in the 1950s.

My first trip to Galveston was in 1956, when I was 15. Mother, dad and I rode the train, as dad was working for the railroad and we could ride the train free. After finding a place for me to stay, mother and dad came back home.

I spent two months in Galveston that summer, much of it playing on the beach. Stewart Beach, on the east end of the island was “the” place to be. If things got dull on the beach I would walk over to the north side of the island and ride the Port Bolivar Ferry. You often got to see some of the large freighters going up the Houston Ship Channel while riding the ferry.

The Naval Destroyer USS Beale docked at Galveston over the Fourth of July weekend. The public was invited to come on board on the Fourth. Getting to go aboard a naval destroyer was quite exciting to a 15-year-old. There was one problem. I went on board about mid-afternoon, wearing loafers with leather soles. The steel deck was getting pretty hot by this time of day, and it wasn’t long before my feet started feeling the heat. It didn’t take long for me to find the way below deck and check out that area while my feet cooled off.

The USS Beale is a Fletcher-class destroyer, the second ship of the U.S. Navy to be named for Lt. Edward Fitzgerald Beale (1822-93). The USS Beale served in the Pacific during World War II.

After these two months in 1956, I was hooked. I spent several days each summer in Galveston over the next three years. At that time dad had what was known as an annual pass, similar to a credit card. All I had to do was get on the train, show the pass to the conductor, and I was on my way to Galveston.

During this time there were four passenger trains a day coming through Cleburne. The Texas Chief had two trains, one northbound and one southbound, that came through about 20 minutes apart between noon and 1 p.m. Then, there was what we called the mail train which came through between midnight and 1 a.m.

The Texas Chief only made three stops after leaving Cleburne and they were Temple, Houston and Galveston. The mail trains stopped at every town that had anything that looked like a depot, not so much to let off and pick up passengers, but to drop off and pick up mail.

If the town did not have a depot but was large enough to have a post office, someone from the post office would meet the train at a designated spot with their outgoing mail. There would be a pole by the tracks with a hook on it for the mail sack to be hung on. There was a hook on the mail car that stuck out just far enough to catch the loop of the mail sack just under the hook on the pole and take the sack off the pole.

The train would slow down to about 20 mph as they came to a mail drop and as the hook was removing the mail sack from the pole, the mail handler in the mail car would toss the bag of incoming mail to the postal employee on the ground.

The mail train is the one I rode. After getting on the train just before 1 a.m., I would sleep until sun-up, which usually occurred a while before arriving in Houston. I usually carried a snack for breakfast, which I ate going from Houston to Galveston. The train usually arrived in Galveston around 7 a.m., and I would head for Stewart Beach. This would give me a full day to play around on the beach before catching the train back home that night.

These trips were very inexpensive. At noon I would eat at the snack bar at Stewart Beach, which consisted of a hamburger and coke. The burger was 50 cents and the coke was 25 cents, which was more expensive than they were in town but it saved a long walk. I would usually go back to the concession stand about mid-afternoon and get another coke, making my expenses at Stewart Beach $1.

I would usually head back to the depot about an hour and a half before time for the train to leave. There was a small café across the street from the depot where the train men ate. They had a great deviled crab plate for $3.85, which I usually got. The train left about 6 p.m. and arrived in Cleburne just after midnight. This brought my total day’s expense to just under $5, making for a very inexpensive 24-hour trip to the beach at Galveston.

 I always had a few dollars extra with me and often went shopping for souvenirs at some of the shops along the seawall.

I believe it was in September 1958 that we heard of a hurricane in the Gulf of Mexico, just south of Galveston. I had never seen a hurricane and decided this would be my best chance to see one. As I was getting ready to catch the train, mother asked, “What will you do if the hurricane hits while you are there?” I told her, “I’ll go to the depot and go to some of the upper floors. It supposedly survived the 1900 hurricane.”

When I got to the beach the next morning the sky was heavily overcast and the surf was coming in extra high. We could see the hurricane sitting out over the waters of the Gulf. It must have been 20 or 30 miles out, but it appeared a lot closer. There was a ring of clouds circling the eye, they were rolling over and over as they circled. These clouds were very low over the water, appearing to be no more than 100 feet; however, at that distance they could have been up 1,000 feet. Beneath these clouds everything was an eerie dark green color and you could see the rain pouring down.

The train was crowded as it pulled out of the station that night. Everyone was leaving the island before the hurricane hit, and that was all everyone was talking about. The hurricane hit the west end of Galveston Island early the next morning.

That was one trip that I did not take a camera and I have regretted ever since not taking any pictures of the hurricane.

John Watson is a Cleburne resident who can be reached at texastraveler@sbcglobal.net.

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