In 1853, the Buffalo Bayou, Brazos and Colorado, or BBB&C, Railway established the first rail in Texas. The first 20-mile stretch connected the settlement of Stafford’s Point to Harrisburg—present-day Houston. BBB&C made plans to add an additional 12 miles of rail along the Old Spanish Trail, which today is called Hwy. 90.
Sugar Land plantation owners Benjamin Franklin Terry and William Jefferson Kyle wanted to benefit from the increased mobility, so they donated 2,500 acres of right-of-way—an estimated $250,000 value—to the railroad. This donation spurred BBB&C to bend the rail to pass by the Imperial refinery.
“Terry and Kyle were foresighted enough to know that the railroad would be key for the success of their operation,” said Chuck Kelly, a local historian and archivist with the Sugar Land Heritage Foundation. “They convinced the [railroad’s] board of directors to divert the line.”
When looking at the tracks today, the line follows a northern bend. If the track had not been realigned, it would have run through where Sugar Land City Hall sits today, Kelly said.
By attracting the railroad in their first year of ownership, Kyle and Terry helped “put Sugar Land on the map and opened up a new opportunity for profit in shipping the end product of the raw sugar mill, the cotton gin, and other produce of the plantation,” according to “Sugar Land, Texas and The Imperial Sugar Company,” by R.M. Armstrong.
These benefits continued to take shape through the years as Imperial’s ownership changed hands. In 1893, Edward Cunningham established the Sugar Land Railway to connect the Imperial refinery district to other regional railroads. When W.T. Eldridge came in and took over The Imperial Sugar Company, part of the acquisition was for Eldridge to retain control over the railroad. He eventually sold the rail line to Southern Pacific, which established the first Sugar Land train depot in 1903. Another depot was built in 1927, which still stands off Commerce Green Boulevard between Hwy. 90 and Hwy. 59 where it houses the Fort Bend Chamber of Commerce.
By 1907, Ike Kempner, along with Eldridge, chartered the Imperial Valley Railway—a narrow-gauge rail that ran west of town to the Brazos River and eastward to connect with the Sugar Land Railroad and down to Arcola. These lines became known as “the Sugar Road.”
As the ownership of rail lines began to consolidate across the nation, the rail along Hwy. 90 became the property of the Southern Pacific Railroad. More recently, the track was managed by the Missouri Pacific Railroad, or MoPac, until the company was merged with Union Pacific and Western Pacific in the early 1980s to form the Union Pacific System.
Although the last batch of sugar cane was shipped around 1928 and the former tracks of the Sugar Road removed from the ground, the Union Pacific rail is still in use for shipping imports and as a passenger line from California to Louisiana.
Sources: “Images of America, Sugar Land,” from Arcadia Publishing, “Sugar Land, Texas and The Imperial Sugar Company,” by R.M. Armstrong
By John Rigg