Old photographs of
Orange usually have no resemblance to the 21st Century landscape.
But one man-made object has remained steadfast for maybe as long as
150 years--the railroad tracks in the middle of Front Street. The
tracks are visible, along with a stopped train engine, in an August
1888 photograph of a lynching on the "hanging tree" at Front and
Fourth. Through the years, pictures of Orange businesses like
Aronson Brothers and the Crescent City Bar are obviously on Front.
The railroad tracks can tell people a century later of the location.
These days, construction on a riverwalk and riverfront park is
underway, but don't look for the railroad tracks to disappear.
Orange Public Works Director Jim Wolf said the city doesn't own the
tracks and must leave them for the railroad owner.
Even into the 1960s, engines pulling a car or two could be seen
moving slowly up and down Front transporting goods and materials to
and from the shipyards on the far east end of the tracks. Trains on
Front have been rare in the past 30 years, but Wolf said the rails
have to be open for use. The city's construction contractor
currently has Front closed between Fourth and Second streets. City
Economic Director Jay Trahan said if the rail owner needs to use the
track, the contractor will remove the construction equipment,
temporary fencing and traffic barricades.
Through the years, Front Street has been paved over several times
but the tracks are left. A car crossing the tracks in some spots,
particularly at Fifth Street, will bounce from the bumps. A bicycle
crossing can be difficult. Wolf said the city has been working to
smooth out the crossings. In the past months, the city has installed
some cement at some crossings, most recently at Seventh Street. Wolf
said Fifth Street, which will be an entry into the river
development, will also get an improved railroad crossing. However,
the city is doing the work only at intersections with the numbered
Dr. Howard Williams’ history book on Orange, “Gateway to Texas,”
says the Texas and New Orleans Railroad had tracks from Orange to
Houston finished by Jan. 1, 1861. The Civil War started a few weeks
later and the railroad was used during the war until 1863. The
railroad was reformed and got new owners by the mid-1870s. A Texas
Historical Marker on Front at Third Street says the “End of the
Line” station was at the site. Goods and passengers took the train
as far as Orange and then had to take a boat to go further east. The
opposite was true for travelers in the opposite direction. They went
by boat to Orange, and then caught the train to go on the line to
The late historian W.T. Block of Nederland, a former postmaster in
Orange, wrote a story about Orange’s hanging tree in the 1800s by
the tracks. He said travelers on the trains liked to look at the
notorious hanging tree and were sometimes disappointed not to see
limp legs hanging from the tree.
Dr. Williams’ book quotes a 1936 Orange Leader article by the late
A.F. Burns: “Dick Johnson, a former sheriff, recalled that great
crowds met at the old depot on Front and Second Street every other
evening about 7 o’clock to see the mixed train come in from Houston,
with its passengers and freight. The smoking and puffing locomotive
left the following morning around 7.” The book’s appendix reports
R.M. Johnson was Sheriff from December 1902 to November 1920.
Reporter Burns didn’t say whether Johnson’s recollections came from
his childhood, which would have been years before 1902.
The surge from Hurricane Ike flooded downtown but didn’t damage the
tracks. Perhaps the Gershwin brothers could’ve composed a song for
Orange: In time the Rockies may crumble, Gibraltar may tumble,
They’re only made of clay, But our tracks are here to stay.”