At the start of the 19th century, there was no Texas as we know it today. Rather, west of Louisiana—the French colony-turned-state at the conclusion of the War of 1812—was a dry and rugged patchwork of native American and Mexican-held lands. After two rounds of war with Mexico and a period of independence, Texas became a U.S. state in 1845.

This was fortuitous timing, for the most critical innovation in wood preservation technology, the Bethell pressure treatment method, had just been invented in 1836, and was poised to help develop the wild countryside.

Transporting Cattle: The “Cattle Drive” Solution

Beyond the bustling port of New Orleans, Louisiana, where fur, cotton, sugar, corn, and tobacco were traded between European markets and inland cities along the Mississippi River, waves of pioneering settlers traveled to Texas for the opportunity to own land. Cattle ranches and small farms started to dot the landscape in the mid- to late 1800s.

But Texas’ rivers were shallow and prone to flooding—nothing like the waters of the Gulf of Mexico or the Mississippi, which could host steam ships. The only means of transportation across the Texan landscape was on horseback or in horse-drawn carriages, following the meandering paths carved out by the Spanish and Native Americans, and by crossing small rivers on local ferries.

Cattle ranchers knew the land best, since they led treks known as “cattle drives” to other territories hundreds of miles to the north and west to sell their livestock. Cattle driving flourished in the post-Civil War era, as the meatpacking industry grew and Stockyards cropped up across America’s interior, in cities like Fort Worth, TX, Kansas City, MO, and Chicago, IL.

1835 Map of Texas, Library of Congress.

Cattle drives took from a few weeks to upwards of 3 months and were highly dangerous for both cows and the “cowboys” who led them. This skilled trade was learned by working one’s way up from “wranglers” and “drovers” at the bottom of the 12-person crew to “pointers” and then to “trail boss” at the top. Between violence from native American tribes, stampedes of frightened animals, disease, and the challenge of simply keeping everyone fed on the road, it’s no wonder their experiences became the stuff of legends and are used to symbolize the unique American experience to this day.

Railroads Replace Cowboys

The cowboy lifestyle existed because there was a lack of safe, efficient transportation on the western landscape, so when railroads made their debut in Texas in the 1850s as a way to transport goods inland from the Gulf of Mexico, it marked the beginning of the end of cowboy culture.

The Cowboy era started, according to historians, in 1866 when 260,000 head of cattle first crossed the Red River in North Texas. At that time, approximately 500 miles of track were clustered around Houston. However, by 1873, the Houston and Texas Central Railway extended to Dallas and crossed the Red River—an American version of “crossing the Rubicon”. From then on, more railroads crossed into Texas, connecting it to national rail lines from other states:

  • Union Pacific’s Missouri-Kansas-Texas Railway entered Texas from the north in 1872
  • The Texas and Pacific Railway Company acquired the Southern Pacific and the Memphis, El Paso and Pacific and established a line from Texas’ northeast border with Arkansas to Dallas and Fort Worth
A Geographically Correct Map of the State of Texas,” 1878. Published by Woodward, Tiernan & Hale for the Texas & Pacific Railway Company.

Along with the growth of railroad networks, cattle drivers found that landowners in states and territories along their trails were becoming fed up with Texas steers eating up their grass. By 1885, the Kansas legislature had made the entire state off limits to Texas cattle.

Meeting Demand for Pressure-Treated Crossties Across Texas

Just two years later, in 1875, the United States’ first commercial wood-treatment facility was constructed by the Louisville & Nashville Railroad company in West Pascagoula, Mississippi, to creosote-treat timbers that had been attacked by a shipworm that destroys underwater pilings called teredo. But when the L&N bought the New Orleans, Mobile & Texas Railroad in 1881, it pivoted to pressure-treating crossties due to rising demand for wooden crossties that could last in all types of environments, including the extremely hot and arid land of Texas.

No wonder the 1880s marked the end of the cowboy lifestyle—by then cowboys no longer needed to “drive” their 2,000+ head of cattle across uncharted territories. Cattle farmers simply herded their livestock to nearby railroad stations which connected thousands of miles of creosote-treated tracks to be transported to stockyards in a growing number of northern cities. Most farmers could handle a trip to the “railyard,” thus ending the cowboy’s rough-and-tumble lifestyle. A few decades later, though, the television would enable the whole country to experience what it was like to be a cowboy in that brief—but dramatic—time before railroads.

Modern-day “cattle drive” at historic Fort Worth Stockyards.

Note: This article was originally published in the March/April 2024 issue of Crossties Magazine, a publication of Railway Tie Association.