El Dorado News-Times, Monday, May 20, 2013
Railway history: On track since 1906
El Dorado & Wesson Railway offers historic look back at local industry
By Allison Gatlin
(Editor’s Note: The following article is the 29 th in a series on established El Dorado businesses that have been in operation for 40 years or more.)
Before there were air brakes, there were burly men paid to sprint the tops of the cars, setting hand brakes in a mad dash to stop the speeding train. In that era, lumber, petroleum and asphalt were kings of the railroad and the El Dorado & Wesson Railway was nearly 10 miles long, running into the latter name sake where it often transported passengers.
President Jack Reynolds followed in the footsteps of his grandfather, Hugh Decimus Reynolds Sr., the first Reynolds to become involved with the railway when he was named general manager at age16. Constructed in 1874 by the Adams & Newell Company as a 6-mile shortline, the railway became E&W on Jan. 1, 1906, after the purchase a year previous by the Edgar Lumber Company, which operated a sawmill in Wesson. At the turn of the century, lumber comprised most of E&W’s hauling until Lion Oil joined the fold shortly after, expanding business to include crude oil shipping along an expanded 10-mile line, Reynolds said. To date, Lion Oil remains E&W’s largest customer.
The Reynolds family has been involved with E&W since nearly the beginning, Reynolds said. Named general manager in 1916, Hugh Decimus Reynolds Sr. was later responsible for organizing a group of investors to purchase the bankrupt shortline in 1929, shortly before the stock market crash later that year. "He had the foresight to get out of the market before the market crash of 1929," Reynolds said. "[He] had a group of investors lined up to take advantage of a couple of things they knew were going to be floundering through all of this." What followed were years of prosperity in which E&W rode out a spike in fuel needs during World War II and the Korean War by using 64 employees to run train service 24 hours per day, seven days a week, Reynolds said.
In those days, E&W hauled more than 150 carloads of fuel per day, he said. The paperwork involved was extensive, he added. "If you can imagine, the only adding machines that you had at that time had a crank on them and had multiple rows of numbers and manual typewriters and carbon paper," he said. "So if you made a mistake you started over. So it took several more people in the office."
Running such a large operation also involved a massive maintenance crew, Reynolds said. Nowadays, employees number six, including three fourth generation Reynolds family members. Operations have also dwindled somewhat with the closures of the Wesson sawmill, which also effectively closed off the Wesson portion of the line and passenger transports, and the ConAgra feed mill in 1992, which Reynolds estimated cut revenue 35 to 40 percent.
Today, E&W serves Lion Oil, Railtran Inc., Great Lakes, Tetra Tech and Deltin on a 5.5 mile shortline, Reynolds said. Decreased operation has come with a tighter grip on spending, he said. "We have been effected by the economy as negatively as anyone else," he said. "With a bad economy comes an attitude that you need to kind of rein in your spending and we’re dependent on our customers for our income so if their business is bad, so is ours." He added, "When their business is in the doldrums, so is ours."
And though E&W has managed to remain viable, the railway still faces a number of challenges beginning with safety concerns and ending with cost, Reynolds said. "Safety is No. 1, government intervention and ever changing rules is No. 2, cost containment is No. 3," he explained.
Governed and controlled by the Federal Railroad Administration, E&W faces a "bureaucracy of rule makers" who don’t necessarily do the same kind of hands-on work as those operating shortlines, Reynolds said. However, E&W is able to minimize the number of mishaps it has by following a self-imposed 10 m.p.h. speed limit, he said. "Because of the physical nature of our location, we have a lot of hills and it just doesn’t do us much good to try to get a running start," he said. "We have a customer every mile and it takes you so long to get up to speed that you wind up wearing out your breaking system trying to get slowed back down."