Hill County was established in 1853 and by 1860 the population had grown to 3,653. Towns like Brandon, Covington, Fort Graham, Hillsboro, Irene, Peoria and Woodbury had already been established, but by far the largest growth occurred in the 1880’s as the railroads came to the county. The population reached 27,583 by 1890 and peaked at 46,760 in 1910.
As the railroads moved westward, opening new territory for settlement, they were not meeting an existing market but rather were creating one. Towns sprung into being overnight along the new railroad lines and surrounding communities were settled by cotton farmers who now had an easy mode of transportation for their crops. By 1910 there were over 5,000 farms in Hill County.
Some small communities without rail connections did not survive. Other towns moved to be on the new rail lines. Where the trains ran, the towns grew.
|Train arriving in Whitney about 1900|
Railroad building began in Hill County in 1879 when the Houston and Texas Central Railroad (nicknamed "The Tin Can") built a line north from Waco through Hill County to Cleburne. In a pattern repeated numerous times, the railroad acquired land for town sites along the right-of-way.
In November of 1879, town lots were auctioned from a wagon on the site of the future Whitney depot. The town was named for Charles Whitney, the brother-in-law of J. P. Morgan and a principal stock holder in the railroad. Whitney soon became a boom town with merchants setting up tents to serve as temporary stores. Merchants and postmasters from nearby communities, such as Towash, moved their businesses and buildings to Whitney because of the growth expected from the railroad.
|Whitney Railroad Depot around 1905|
Hill County crops in 1880 were a failure, and many residents had not had bread for months. The railroad promised that the first train into town would arrive with a bushel of corn for each person in the area. Hundreds of people gathered to see that train arrive. For months afterwards the streets were lined with wagons waiting for the trains and their carloads of corn.
Aquilla was founded along this same railroad line at about the same time, and was the first town in Hill County to have a railroad depot, in 1879.
|Hillsboro Depot, 1900|
The Missouri–Kansas–Texas Railroad was begun in 1870. In its earliest days the MKT was commonly referred to as "the KT," which was its stock exchange symbol, and the railroad soon became known as "the Katy."
In 1881, the Katy built two lines running north - south through the county, connecting Hillsboro to both Dallas and Fort Worth. The railroad founded Itasca 10 miles north of Hillsboro and Abbott 10 miles south. Itasca’s railroad depot has since been converted to a museum, and the Hillsboro depot is open to the public and contains many railroad artifacts and old photos.
|South Yards, Hillsboro|
|Hillsboro Depot, 2013|
The Katy staged a prearranged head-on collision dubbed the "Crash at Crush" as a publicity stunt in 1895. Passengers from throughout the county rode trains to the site that day to watch the spectacle.
|Itasca Depot, 1906|
|Itasca Depot, 2013|
The same year that the Katy was moving into Hill County, the St. Louis and Southwestern (known as the "Cotton Belt") extended its line from Corsicana to Waco through the southeastern part of the county, and Hubbard was founded along this line. Mt. Calm, a small community across the county line in Limestone County, moved a mile north into Hill County when the railroad arrived.
In 1888, a spur was built from Corsicana to Hillsboro and a station named Mertens was established. The town of Brandon moved about a mile north to the railroad.
The Santa Fe railroad crossed the northwestern part of the county in 1881 and Blum was established.
In 1904, the Trinity and Brazos Valley railroad (nicknamed the "Boll Weevil") arrived in the county and built a station named Malone about two miles west of the existing town of Walling. Osceola, Covington and Bynum moved to the railroad.
Two years earlier, the International – Great Northern had built a loop through Walling, and the new towns of Irene, Penelope and Birome. But when the Boll Weevil came through and established the town of Malone, there were now two towns right next to each other. Controversy arose, but eventually most businesses in Walling moved the two miles to Malone.
To the west, the small ranch town of Zee Vee moved a short distance to the new railroad town of Penelope.
By 1907, the county was thriving with 172 miles of railroads and many new or relocated towns. But there were other towns that the railroad had bypassed, like Fort Graham, Massey, Jessie, Blanton, Files Valley, Peoria, Vaughn, Woodbury, Rienzi, Towash and Iverson. Over time, churches and schools in these towns mostly disappeared.
The Interurban Texas Electric Railway began operation in 1913, and provided an efficient mode of passenger transportation. Hill County residents used this service primarily to commute to work, visit, or shop in Dallas, Waco, and Waxahachie.
Because the non-electric service was primarily a rural freight line, the railroad began to suffer with the decline of agriculture. World War II increased demand for shipping and transportation, but after the war and the end of gas rationing, the need for public transportation declined.
The building of the Whitney Dam temporarily created a demand for rail service to Whitney. After all of the construction was completed, however, the railroad continued to lose money. Passenger service to Whitney was discontinued in 1950 and the depot was torn down in 1962. The final train passed through the town in 1967, and train service throughout the county substantially declined around this same time.