Requiem for the Tidewater Turn

Posted by Fred Frailey
on Saturday, February 27, 2016

In the larger picture of coal’s demise as a source of electric power (and railroad tonnage), what happened this week in Northeast Texas carries little meaning. But it means a lot to me and to a circle of my friends, including Nathan Bailey. So let me explain.

When I grew up in the little town of Sulphur Springs, what is now called Kansas City Southern Railway’s Greenville Subdivision, between Shreveport, La., and Dallas, was in a world of hurt. Two freight trains a day each way became one, and the track structure deteriorated to the point that train 53 circa 1971 derailed three times one day getting from Greenville, Tex., to Shreveport. It would not be long, I thought, before the rails would be taken up.

How mistaken I was. In 1976 Powder River Basin coal began being delivered by KCS to a new AEP/Swepco power plant on the Texas Sub near Pittsburg, Tex., by way of Kansas City and Shreveport. The railroad restored the second round trip of manifest freights between Shreveport and Dallas. Track gangs laid new ties and ribbon rail. Finally, one day my dad’s newspaper revealed that Texas Utilities (now Luminant) would mine a huge bed of lignite located four miles east of Sulphur Springs, to be consumed at a power plant near Winfield, Tex. KCS would deliver the lignite in 80-car trains to a siding, called Monticello, 34 miles from the Sulphur Springs loadout, which goes by the name Tugco. Texas Utilities locomotives (for a while electric motors powered by overhead catenary) took the loads to nearby Winfield after delivering 80 empties.

To power this five-day-a-week train, KCS choose six F units from its boneyard. Three were overhauled for this new service, and three were stripped of their engines, that weight being replaced by ballast. Seven-year-old Nathan was agog when the locomotives, in A-B-B-B-B-A formation and freshly painted a bright white, showed up in the Sulphur Springs house track in the closing days of 1977.

So for 38 years this service quietly went about its work. A crew based out of Greenville, 35 miles west of Sulphur Springs, came on duty in the morning, took the power to the Tugco spur, coupled to the loads and pulled them to Monticello. On the way back with 80 empties, the train did local switching, primarily in Winnsboro and Sulphur Springs. But sometimes, just east of Winnsboro, the train was left on the main line and the locomotives went down a spur several miles long to a Tidewater Oil refinery—thus, the Tidewater Turn, a name that somehow stuck even after the refinery closed.

The F units after a period of years went back to the boneyard for scrapping, replaced by a variety of newer locomotives. Nathan Bailey grew up, married, became a dad and reported to me on the comings and goings of the Tidewater Turn. I came to take it for granted. Two weeks ago I passed through Sulphur Springs and was more interested in the ***-and-span appearance of the century-old depot, with shiny new shingles on its roof, than by the presence of two 4,400-hp locomotives assigned to the Tidewater Turn that stood on the house track.

Nothing is forever. The lignite field finally became depleted, and the end of the Tidewater Turn came Wednesday. As I would expect, Nathan was there and chronicled the last run, which ironically, involved hauling 80 unloaded cars from the lignite spur to Monticello. The cars delivered, the light engines went east another 25 miles to Hughes Springs for reassignment and the crew taxied back to Sulphur Springs to tie up. You can view Nathan’s photographic chronicle of that trip here.

The Greenville Subdivision and its parent railroad will have to adjust, as I am sure they will. In a way, the Tidewater Turn helped save the Greenville Sub, arriving as it did near the line’s low ebb. Now this part of the railroad hosts Atlanta-Dallas intermodal trains and is dispatched by centralized traffic control. Its future seems secure, knock on wood. The land under which the lignite lay is again pasture for dairy cattle. Pretty soon you’ll never know there ever was a Tidewater Turn.—Fred W. Frailey

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