Charles Simmons had sold enough liver medicine to amass a small fortune, but by January, 1900, his health was forcing him to retire at age 47. He proceeded to exchange all interests in his business and home in St. Louis for a 60,000-acre ranch in Live Oak County in south Texas. But Simmons discovered that he was not ready to retire to the slower pace of ranch life, and within a few years, he had become a south Texas land promoter, bringing settlers to the region to purchase tracts carved from ranchlands he had acquired. To bring prospective buyers to his land developments, Simmons constructed the Artesian Belt Railroad in 1908-09 with a line running south from San Antonio. Texas Railroad Commission records indicate that the town of Christine in Atascosa County was the southern terminus of the railroad, but aviation maps of the region from the 1950s show a mysterious grade extending well south of Christine, a landmark for military pilots training in San Antonio, ending in the middle of a vast rangeland miles from the nearest civilization. Like the towns Simmons founded and the railroad he created, the mystery grade appears to be...

A Road to Nowhere

Charles Simmons and The Artesian Belt Railroad

by Carl Codney and Jim King

Like a huge land-scar, a remnant of the Artesian Belt Railroad right-of-way provides an unnatural embankment among the trees north of Poteet. (photo by Jim King)
The mystery grade south of Christine, depicted on the World Aeronautical Chart, U.S. Air Force Edition, U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey, January, 1945 (revised August, 1956)

Charles Simmons built the Artesian Belt Railroad to bring settlers to south Texas, an area he promoted as "the garden spot of the world", where the "seasons never end", with "warm winters and cool summers", and rainfall "plentiful for ordinary crops properly cultivated". Perhaps it was inevitable that Simmons would trade his quiet ranch life for land promotion; it was not Simmons' nature to relax -- his neighbor once described him as "a hyperactive 'goer and doer' who could not be content with a normal pace, even under doctor's orders." And when he needed improved access to his towns, he built a railroad -- a logical means to an end -- a way of migrating home buyers to land seller. Had he lived longer, his towns and his railroad might have prospered through the force and energy of his personality. Instead, they all ended up on a road to nowhere.

Born Calvin Franklin Simmons in Iuka, Mississippi, his father, Dr. M. A. Simmons, was the inventor of Simmons Vegetable Liver Medicine, a patent medicine that sold for 35 cents per bottle. Charles took over the family business in St. Louis in 1879, but a heavy workload of defending his products against patent infringement caused a physical breakdown, forcing his premature retirement. For reasons lost to history, Simmons chose to relocate to the south Texas prairie, accompanied by his wife, three daughters, son and daughter-in-law, and two grandsons.

Ranching was a drastic change in lifestyle, but Simmons soon turned it into a working operation. It might have stayed that way had tragedy not struck the Simmons family. On 25 June 1903, Simmons' only living son died from a rattlesnake bite. The impact on Simmons was profound and he gradually lost interest in ranching. Rather than sell the ranch outright, Simmons conceived an elaborate plan for subdividing his ranch for sale to new settlers.

The plan was described in a 1906 advertising book Home, Sweet Home - A Home in Sunny South Texas for a Song. The book often mentioned the words home and railroad, and listed 100 reasons "why Texas is the grandest place of them all", including the assertion that "people are so law abiding that it takes only two days every six months to hear the criminal cases." A map in the book showed three rail lines projected to pass through the area: the Southern Pacific (from Beeville to Eagle Pass), the River Valley, Gulf & Mexican Railroad (from Eagle Pass to Aransas Pass), and the San Antonio and Rio Grande Railroad (from the Rio Grande Valley to San Antonio). The book also described how land parcels carved from Simmons' ranch would be sold. The ranch would be subdivided into 4,205 town lots and 4,205 farm tracts varying from 5 to 640 acres; each buyer would get both a farm tract and a town lot. For $120, a buyer would select a town lot and a lottery would determine which farm lot they received. A large town was planned and a $50,000 bonus in gold was offered for the first railroad to reach it.

The land sale was planned for September, 1907, but to comply with state law, it was changed to a pure auction. On the morning of 10 September, many buyers traveled via Beeville on the San Antonio & Aransas Pass Railroad, with 800 people eventually arriving at Simmons' home to inspect the property. When the auction was held, 3,698 deeds were recorded in the new town of Simmons City.

Simmons City was founded on a portion of Simmons' ranchland in western Live Oak County along the Nueces River. This all-faiths church was built in 1908 when the town had a population of 75. As recently as 1938, the local school had 115 students, but by the end of WWII, the community was a virtual ghost town. The church still stands along FM1042, a few miles south of the Choke Canyon Reservoir. (photo by Carl Codney)

Simmons moved to San Antonio in 1908 and purchased the 95,000-acre Oppenheimer Ranch in Atascosa County, to be subdivided for sale in the same manner. Two towns were planned, New Artesia and New Pleasanton, but they were later renamed Christine and Imogene, respectively, after Simmons' daughters. To reach these new towns, Simmons needed improved transportation to help attract home buyers. His Artesian Belt Railroad, named for the many artesian wells dotting the region, would begin at a connection with the Galveston, Harrisburg and San Antonio Railroad at Macdona near San Antonio and extend south to Christine. The state gave final approval to the Artesian Belt Railroad charter in November, 1908.

Track work proceeded south from San Antonio, reaching the vicinity of Somerset in May, 1909. The First Townsite Company created a new town of Somerset along the right-of-way, three miles north of the old town, to which most of the residents moved. Jourdanton was reached in September; a land auction was conducted by the Jourdanton Land Company, but this was not a Simmons venture. Rails finally reached the town of Christine on 5 October 1909. Nine days later, Simmons began a two-week land auction at the Brown Lake Ranch. Although bidders had to buy an application just to place a bid, up to five thousand people attended the auction on some days. For each farm purchased, the owner also received a lot in Christine and a smaller lot in Imogene.

The Artesian Belt Railroad was now operating over a 42-mile route from Macdona to Christine. Trackage rights to company headquarters in San Antonio were obtained on the International & Great Northern from the crossing at Kirk Junction. While Simmons developed plans to extend the rails further south to Simmons City, he made a proposal to build his own route into San Antonio and extend the line to the Rio Grande Valley -- for a $60,000 bonus. The bonus was never raised, and the plans to enter San Antonio and the Valley were dropped.

For the next year, the Artesian Belt consolidated its operations and planned for the future as more stations developed along the line. In 1910, the town of Poteet moved three miles southeast to trackside land donated by local citizens. A connecting line from Pleasanton to Poteet was proposed, but a lawsuit was filed and the project eventually failed. A rail loading point named Fruitland was created halfway between Somerset and Poteet. Fruitland was later renamed Tarbutton; when State Highway 16 was built across the tracks a mile away, the Tarbutton depot was loaded on a flatcar and moved closer to the highway.

The Poteet depot was moved a block north of its former location along the right-of-way and is currently in use as an antique store. The owner collects items related to the old railroad line. (photo by Jim King)

Jourdanton's importance also grew with the railroad. A proposal was made to move the Atascosa County seat from Pleasanton to Jourdanton and an election was held in 1910 to decide the issue. Jourdanton won, but when residents of Pleasanton disputed the results, the court records were secretly moved to Jourdanton. As a tribute to the railroads, the courthouse in Jourdanton was built in a mission revival architecture widely used for depots of this era.

In March, 1910, Simmons divorced his wife Harriet and married her younger sister, Mattie Cantrell, but the marriage was short-lived. Simmons became ill and departed for his former home of Excelsior Springs, Missouri where he died in November, 1910 of Bright's disease. This was a crushing blow to the Artesian Belt Railroad and led to a period of financial chaos as control of the railroad was turned over to the executor of his estate, the West Texas Bank & Trust Co. of San Antonio.

Simmons' death also affected the plans of Mr. S. A. Hopkins who was developing oil fields near Crowther, south of Christine. Hopkins had told Simmons he would ship up to 5,000 barrels of oil per day if Simmons extended the rails to Crowther. When Simmons died, Hopkins tried to buy the line to build the extension himself, but Simmons' will prevented selling the railroad for less than $400,000 which Hopkins believed was excessive. Instead, Hopkins formed a partnership with H. E. Hildebrand, who chartered the San Antonio, Rockport, and Mexico Railroad on 2 S eptember 1911. They began negotiations to acquire the Artesian Belt Railroad as part of this new railroad projected to run from San Antonio to the Rio Grande Valley and Mexico. Plans called for constructing a direct route from Tarbutton into San Antonio and extending the rails south to Crowther, which would become the junction for an eastern branch to Rockport (via Oakville, Beeville and Refugio) and a southern extension to the Rio Grande Valley. Financing would be provided by a British syndicate and from bonuses to be collected from towns along the routes.

The historic need for a railroad bridge in this field near Poteet is no longer evident. To passing motorists on TX16, these concrete structures probably resemble some kind of industrial Stonehenge with no apparent purpose. The bridge was probably of MoPac vintage, abandoned in the mid-60s. (Jim King photo)

Because of the problem created by Simmons' will, a judge authorized the sale for $300,000 at the request of Leon Waltham, president of the Artesian Belt. This lower price, however, was still too high, and the parties returned to court which re-authorized the sale at the negotiated price of $200,000. But the British finance committee refused to release their funding until three conditions were satisfied: extending the line from Christine to Crowther; constructing a new depot in San Antonio; and raising $250,000 in bonuses.

Surprisingly, Hopkins and Hildebrand were able to raise the full amount and proceed with a contract in March, 1913 to build the extension to Crowther. Hopkins took over project supervision for the extension and promptly announced that surveys had been completed to within three miles of Crowther. A month later, he announced that fifty teams and dozens of men were working to build the grade for the new extension as rails for the new tracks were being unloaded at Christine. He also announced plans to order two McKeen railcars to provide high speed passenger service between Crowther and San Antonio. The possibility that this new railroad might actually succeed in obtaining British funding alarmed competing railroad interests in south Texas. Much lobbying was undertaken, particularly in the British press, culminating in an abrupt decision by the syndicate to withdraw their financial support, effectively crippling the new railroad.

In parallel with these efforts, oil was discovered near Somerset in early 1913. The Dielman sand spur was constructed around this time near Tarbutton to load sand into boxcars. Passengers dreaded riding in cars behind the sand cars because they got "sandblasted". With the booming oil and sand business, the railroad assigned a switch engine to Somerset and constructed an engine house there. Also in 1913, a lignite spur was constructed south of Poteet near the Atascosa River.

Two Artesian Belt Railroad trains meet at the Jourdanton depot in 1910. (Norman F. Porter collection)

In 1917, Hildebrand and Hopkins formally defaulted on their construction contract and control of the Artesian Belt returned to the receivership of the West Texas Bank & Trust. But the bank had its own problems and soon failed. Harry Landa of New Braunfels bought the bank and then bought the railroad it controlled. In 1920, he renamed the Artesian Belt as the San Antonio Southern Railway when a new charter was approved by the Railroad Commission. The line from Macdona to Kirk was immediately abandoned, reducing the railroad's total mileage to 39 miles.

The San Antonio Southern became known as "Harry Landa's Lemon". Nevertheless, business improved on the line under Landa's leadership with growth in oil, sand, cotton and coal. Business became so good that the Missouri Pacific Railroad proposed to build their own line from Kirk to Somerset. Instead, Landa offered to sell his railroad to the MoPac, which consummated the purchase on 1 January 1927 under the charter of the New Orleans, Texas and Mexico Railroad. As the Depression began to impact business, the segment from Jourdanton to Christine was abandoned in 1933, but the remainder of the line survived. The MoPac consolidated direct ownership of the railroad in 1956 and finally abandoned the remaining portion from Kirk to Jourdanton in 1965, thus ending service on the last vestige of the route of the Artesian Belt Railroad.

The Somerset depot was last reported to be a chicken house on FM2790 northeast of Somerset. The fate of the Jourdanton depot is unknown. Christine survives as a tiny village; many early residents left after great disappointment and many lots were abandoned. (Those who stayed became known as "Simmons Suckers", a term still used good-naturedly by some descendants.) A local resident, Glenn Patterson, purchased the depot to use as his home. His niece was born in the depot and later became the owner of the building and mayor of Christine.

In the early 1980s, the San Miguel Power Plant was constructed south of Christine powered by lignite mined near the plant. A rail spur was constructed to the plant from the MoPac (ex-San Antonio, Uvalde and Gulf) line at Campbellton, southeast of Christine. This grade crossing in the rails near the entrance to the power plant exists for no apparent reason, but it actually marks the path of the San Antonio, Rockport and Mexico Railroad grade to Crowther, which was still in use as a primitive trail at the time the spur was constructed. (photo by Jim King)

It is now clear that the source of the mystery grade that appears on WWII era aviation maps was the initial construction by Hopkins and Hildebrand on the extension to Crowther under the charter of the San Antonio, Rockport and Mexico Railroad. Some rail may have been laid and work trains may have operated over this section, but the extension was never formally opened nor operated. Topographic maps confirm that the grade actually extended south of Crowther on a bearing to reach Simmons City, but construction of the Choke Canyon Reservoir in 1982 may have obliterated the final traces of where the grade actually ended.

The Artesian Belt Railroad depot at Christine was restored as the City Hall, City Library and Museum, dedicated in November, 1991. Mayor Alvie Howard Smith (who was born in the depot) and her husband David donated the building. (photo by Jim King)

Crowther never recovered from the failure to get rail service; by 1920, all of the businesses had closed and it soon reached ghost town status. Imogene was never developed, although a railroad depot was built. The only remaining building of Simmons' legacy that is still used for its original purpose is the first structure he built, the Simmons Community Church, which continues to host services for area residents on Sundays.

From the Autumn 1998 Southwest Railroad Historical Society's "Clearance Card". Used with permission.

Last Revised: 11/25/2005