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[ Transcript for: Missouri Railroad Pioneer: The Life of Louis Houck ]

Missouri Railroad Pioneer: The Life of Louis Houck Video Transcript


MR. JOEL RHODES: Well, thank you again for coming out. The book has been out for a couple years and I haven't thought much about Uncle Louis for a while. That's what I affectionately began to call him as I did this biography. This is the only biography I've ever done, so I -- I got very close to Louis over the course of the three or four years that I researched it and wrote this book. So it's like an old friend come back to -- to visit me a little bit tonight.

You'll notice that the book is actually titled, A Missouri Railroad Pioneer: The Life of Louis Houck. And from the very beginning of my research I always envisioned the title to be: The Father of Southeast Missouri. I found that -- The WPA Writer's Project Historian had called Houck that because of his contributions to Southeast Missouri and, in particular, his unparalleled role in opening the region up to in particular lumbering and agriculture and so forth.

And I always from almost Day 1 wanted to call the book that, The Father of Southeast Missouri, because it's very difficult to categorize Houck as just a railroader. He did so much. This little German was like Teutonic blur of activity. And virtually nothing he did in his very colorful life was ever done in isolation.

The railroads, obviously, are his calling cards, but he was on Southeast Missouri State University Board of Regions for 38 years, 36 of those as president. He was the man that virtually willed into existence Academic Hall, which is the huge, main building at Southeast which permanently located the University in Cape Girardeau.

He owned a pottery factory for a while. He tried to get a prison in Cape Girardeau and I'll tell you that story a little bit later. And what passed his retirement; he wrote the five volume history of colonial Missouri, which for years was the definitive historical work on the pre-statehood years of -- of Missouri.

And then, in particular, right around the turn of the 20th Century from the early 1890s until about 1912 which were his most productive years about -- when he was about 60 years old, Houck operated three railroads; all of his making. Let's see if I can -- yeah, there we go. I'll talk more about this and I've got this map here as well 'cause it's kind of difficult especially if you're not from the Bootheel to envision all these little towns and where they are.

But you can see the St. Louis, Cape Girardeau and Fort Smith Railroad, which emanated out from Cape Girardeau. As the name implies eventually trying to get to Fort Smith he actually got to Hunter, Missouri. The second is the St. Louis, Kennett and Southern and Allied Lines, which he emanated out again from Cape Girardeau. He had hoped to get it to Memphis. He got it down to Blytheville almost in Arkansas. And then the Cape Girardeau Northern, which again emanating out from the hub in Cape Girardeau was supposed to make it to St. Louis. It made it to Fredericktown.

So he got as close as he possibly could, but in total his little railroad empire was about 500 miles. And, again, this was something that he virtually willed into existence and so to try and pinpoint just one thing that he did, he was a lawyer by trade, he was a journalist by trade. He had been a journalist earlier in his life. He was a self-taught railroader more or less, a self-taught historian more or less. He was a philanthropist and he was one of the leading members not only of the Democratic Party in Southeast Missouri, but amongst the civic leaders in -- in Southeast Missouri and, in particular, Cape Girardeau. In many regards, he truly was the father of Southeast Missouri.

So I labored long and hard and I wrote this book and I told very painstakingly of how he was the father of Southeast Missouri. And the University of Missouri Press took my manuscript and they said we love the book. Two changes, one, you got to cut all that stuff out about Southeast Missouri State University nobody cares and, two, you got to change the title because the father of Southeast Missouri you can't Google that. Nobody's ever going to find out anything about the railroad and they gave me a day to do that.

I couldn't come up with a better title so they called it a Missouri Railroad Pioneer: The Life of Louis Houck. So that's how that -- that came about.

But in researching Louis' career, there are some incredible stories about American History that are brought to life. Certainly, the complexity and the sophistication of America's economy in those years when industrial capitalism was formed in the 1880s and 1890s when our modern economic system was really taking shape. Studying and researching and writing about Louis really put a finer point on that.

When I teach in my classes about the Economic Revolution, the Industrial Revolution and so forth and how our banking system and credit systems were created, it's difficult for students to understand that and it's difficult for me to understand that. But Louis' story if you read the book you'll get a real sense for how sophisticated, how complicated and how it much had matured our economic system during -- during these years.

You also -- the story of Louis Houck is a great story for -- for showing the very delicate balance between the tensions in private interest and the public good. Much of that dialectic really informed Louis as a man and as a businessman. He was constantly trying to balance what was in his best private economic interests with the overall public good of Southeast Missouri. And I don't know down around where we're from in Cape Girardeau in the Bootheel, Louis Houck is almost a mythic figure and much of that is based on this mythology that Houck built the railroads out of some senseless obligation to pull us backwards people out of the swamps in which we were living and thrust us kicking and screaming into the 20th Century and the modern markets economy. That's really not true.

What you'll find about Louis is that his commitment to the public good of Southeast Missouri went just as far out as his own private interests and no further. If things that benefited him personally helped Missouri that was great. And he would really go after that. The railroads are a perfect example of that. But if there were things that were going to benefit the region, but personally hurt him like the Little River Drainage District, Louis fought that tooth and nail, as matter of fact, to the Supreme Court twice where he lost.

The Little River Drainage District which is one of those pivotal events in the history of the region Houck's fingerprints are all over that event as well, but in a very, very negative way. So this notion as Louis as this very benevolent, accidental railroader; it's a nice story but that's not really the story of Louis Houck.

But as the name tonight implies and as the name of the book implies, A Missouri Railroad Pioneer, Louis' greatest story, I guess, is the railroading. And it's a fascinating story. It's in some cases very amusing and hopefully I'll get some laughs and if I don't I'll be very disappointed 'cause some of the stuff he did is by today's standards you'll -- it'll take your breath away.


MR. JOEL RHODES: And if the story wasn't so comical and it is. It's also quite -- quite heartbreaking because Louis virtually willed those railroads into existence. And if you've ever been to the Bootheel, especially before they drained the swamps in the 1920s and 1930, this was the upper part of the Mississippi Delta. This was a howling wilderness of swamps and marshes and lakes. There's probably -- well, no probably about it this is one of the largest wetlands in North America like the Black Swamp in Ohio or the Everglades in Florida.

If you're going to build a railroad or a series, 500 miles of railroads this is not the kind of place you want to do it. And so for as horribly constructed as his railroads were and as dangerous as they were, he did it. Nobody else did it. And there was a love affair with the railroads, a love/hate relationship to be sure. Louis said it was like riding a wolf and you know the old analogy that you better keep on riding 'cause if you fall off it's going to devour you. Louis always felt that way about the railroads. He constantly despised working in the railroads, but at the same time he had iron in his blood. He could not divorce himself from railroading. He was a railroad man through and through.

And so that's what I want to talk about tonight a little bit and tell you some stories about Louis and some anecdotes about the man and hopefully you'll get on the same page that I was when I began this biography. I'm a Cold War historian, primarily, the '50s and '60s and '70s and the Vietnam era and so this was a real stretch for me to look back at this old industrialist. And I wanted to, the whole time, get to know the person. Get to know who Louis Houck was. And I -- I was able to scratch the surface a little bit and sometimes get a little bit deeper, but tonight I'll share with you some of the things that -- that I found out about Louis.

I've got a couple of pictures here that we can -- we can start with. There, there's the map again. This is one of my favorite pictures of Louis and I'm not sure why he did this. This is not your typical costume in Southeast Missouri. He did this in the 1890s it kind of looks like Andrew Carnegie or Santa Claus, but he sent this out to friends and family. This was his official portrait. This is when he wrote the five volume history of -- of South- -- or pardon me, of Missouri. This was his official author's portrait and, I think, he -- he really enjoyed that.

One of the things -- well, I'll get back to that. That's his handwriting. That's a whole story in and of itself. The thing about Louis is he was born in 1840. Louis is a second generation German. His father Bartholomew had come to Germany as a printer and Louis grew up as a German printer. He didn't learn to speak English until he was in his early 20s and he spoke with a thick German accent throughout much of his life. He was very fluent in German. Many of his letters were in German and he spoke it especially when he got a little bit angry.

And when John was talking about, well, we get bigger crowds when we talk about German topics. I said really boom the fact, Houck's a German. He's a German through and through.

He's not your typical German though. For one thing, he was a teetotaler, which was a little odd. He also remained in the Democratic Party and refused to fight in the Civil War although he turned 21 the year the war began. He saw the war as a Republican endeavor to be fought properly by Republicans. He grew up in Illinois and this put him at odds with the German community there. There was some unpleasantness about Louis' political views. His copper headedness (sic) and he eventually flee -- or fled, pardon me, to Missouri and found his way to Cape Girardeau in 1869.

Now, the thing about Louis is that he has one of those personalities and those minds that take all the best and worst qualities of a politician or a salesperson. Louis had a very magnetic personality. He had a remarkable memory. He could be very persuasive, very charming when he wanted to be. He had piercing blue eyes, a very magnetic handshake; he was very dynamic, very persuasive. He also -- and one of the things that I found quite fascinating about Louis is that he had the soul of a historian. He may have had the mind of a lawyer which is what he was and a damn good one according to Jay Gould or at least if you believe that -- that story.

But he had the soul of a historian, which means, for those of you that aren't historians, it means that we kind of live in this really weird, liminal world where historical events are constantly taking place in our -- in our minds. As I'm talking to you, right now, there are battles and -- and sessions of Congress going off in my mind.

And Louis lived in that world of nobility and knights and Napoleonic battles and so forth. And that informed so much of who he was, but Louis was a very shrewd, a very cunning businessman and he grew up in an era when men of vision, men with real entrepreneurial instincts, men with an iron will bent modern technology to that will and built our country as we know it. Guys like John Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie, Jay Gould, J.P. Morgan. Houck is a little vernacular, provincial version of that and he's got a good German flavor in there as well.

And so in tracing his story, it's very much an American story, but is a uniquely Houck story in the part of him as this shrewd businessman and part of him is this dreamer, this dreaming historian. And Houck's also one of those guys that he's always looking for an angle. You can never trust him. He's never particularly on the level. He's always looking for an advantage. He's pretty slippery. And I decided that probably the best adjective that describes Louis Houck is prickly. He's not a very loveable character. You're going to come away from this book and probably come away from this tonight thinking, what an SOB. I don't like this guy at all.


MR. JOEL RHODES: You know he's not a very nice guy. But one thing Louis had a philosophical problem with paying his bills. He hated to pay his bills. He hated to pay his payroll and this went equally for magazine subscription or for locomotives. He thought that paying your bills in a timely fashion and maintaining good credit was just a waste of money. He thought that he could make better use of his money through investing it.

And so Louis has a lot of enemies. I looked through the Houck archives down at Southeast Missouri State University for about three years and I was struck by the fact that I bet 75 percent of the paper trail he left were angry people wanting money; employees wanting money, business people wanting money and so forth.

But Houck also had a real passionate commitment to Southeast Missouri as a region. It was his adopted home, but he seemed to truly come to his affection for the region quite honestly. And he tried to do things that would naturally promote Southeast Missouri. And, like I said, the real genius of Houck probably not only was he a great self-promoter, but when he was able to convince Southeast Missourians that a victory for Louis Houck was also a victory for Southeast Missouri that's when he was at his finest.

Throughout the 1870s, he just couldn't find the right combination of regional promotion. He couldn't find that scheme that was going to boost the region and boost Louis Houck. He got married in 1872 and to say that Louis married well, again, he's born in 1840; 1872, he's 32 years old, to say that he married well would be a tremendous understatement. The woman he married, Mary Hunter Giboney Houck, was the only surviving daughter of two of the largest landowning families in Southeast Missouri.

Together Mary was responsible for seven to 8,000 acres in Southeast Missouri and Southern Illinois. Not only that, Mary lived in this castle, this palatial castle, which is still there. It was built in 1825, Elmwood. She was the only daughter that reached maturity so she became the mistress of Elmwood. She was used to running the plantation that was Elmwood. She was used to bossing and managing the slaves on her plantation. And for Louis to encounter Mary in the early 1870s; here's a second generation German lawyer who's struggling to carve out a practice in Cape Girardeau. She must have seemed like royalty. She must have seemed like -- like a queen. And when he married her the regional promoter was married to the personal promoter as well. Their marriage is a fascinating part of Houck's story because it's not a typical Victorian marriage. Their relationship was very much a partnership most often of a business variety.

She was tough as nails. She was every bit as headstrong and as shrewd as he was. And she was every bit his equal. And because she had the money and Louis had the vision, often times they complimented each other quite well. Louis always relied on Mary not only for her input about business decisions, but probably more importantly for the money to advance his business decisions.

Mary was always the largest stockholder and stakeholder in all of his railroads, often time putting up those thousands of acres of land as collateral and even in some occasions putting up Elmwood itself as collateral.

Their wedding, very much against her father's wishes to be sure. Mary's father thought that Louis was at least two or three rungs below his daughter on the -- on the socio-economic ladder. It was not really the social event of the season, but it was a defining moment in Louis' life because it gave him the ability to pursue some of these schemes.

I'll give you a typical Houck scheme. Mary owned most of the land south of Cape Girardeau along the river including a big rock quarry, a limestone quarry, which today is a big cement factory right down there on that exact same location. In the 1870s Louis found out that the State of Missouri wanted to open a branch penitentiary. The penitentiary here was old by that time and quite overcrowded and the Governor was going to take bids on a new branch penitentiary. So Louis, as a moneymaking venture for himself, but more importantly this is what he told the people of Cape Girardeau, "This will be a great economic boom for the town if we get the branch penitentiary put here." They had already tried to get the university there, but Louis said, okay, the university would be good. A teacher's college would be good, but a prison; the enrollment will be steadier. It's a much better economic development tool.


MR. JOEL RHODES: So he offered the State of Missouri a 100 or so acres in south Cape Girardeau in Cape County to build the branch penitentiary. There were no strings attached. This was a very benevolent gift to the State of Missouri. And the State of Missouri eventually had to -- had to decline. There was some shady dealings going on, but here was Louis' reasoning. Convict labor was still very legal back then and he thought, if we put the penitentiary on Mary's quarry we'll get the convicts to quarry that limestone for free and then we'll be able to sell it. That's a perfect Houck deal.


MR. JOEL RHODES: Unfortunately, it didn't quite -- didn't quite come to pass. But, like I said, throughout the 1870s whether or not it was the university or a pottery factory or the branch penitentiary Louis was always looking for an angle. And by 1880, he found the perfect one and that was railroading.

Louis became convinced that railroading not only held the key to Southeast Missouri's future, but also held the future for him. You see he was cash poor, but land rich. If he was able to open the region to railroading he could ameliorate the former while eradicating the latter. He would be able to take advantage of all of the land and finally parlay that into some money as well.

The problem was it was very difficult for Louis to get a start in railroading. There had been a railroad that had started earlier in the 1870s that tried run a line between Cape Girardeau and Delta, which is a little town. I've got a laser pointer here. Cape Girardeau is here. Delta is right here. It's about 15 miles away. It's not very far. But this railroad had failed to lay that track between Cape Girardeau and Delta. The reason Delta was important is because the Missouri Pacific ran through Delta as did the Cotton Belt. So this would be a 15 mile spur that would connect Cape Girardeau to these larger railroads.

The problem is the Depression in the 1870s had wiped them out. And they had laid about two miles of very rusty track and the company had gone bankrupt. But Louis thought that -- that's the way to go. So Louis bought four books about railroading; how to build a railroad, how to engineer a railroad, again, he's a lawyer. In 1880, he's 40 years old looking for a career change and he reads these books and he thinks; how hard can that be? I can build a railroad. It can't be that hard, right? I could do that. And he reads that if you have a good crew, you can build a mile of track a day. He thought, wow, I can do this. It can't be this hard.

And so he goes to Mary and he says, Mary, I think, I can build a railroad. I think this is really the ticket that we've been looking for. It'll help the region. It'll help us. This is -- I mean, this is a moneymaking venture. And Mary's skeptical. You know, Louis is not a railroader. He's never worked outside of an office in his life. He had never even ridden a horse until he got to Cape Girardeau.

This is -- and if you ever go down to Cape Girardeau there's this river wall where we have these beautiful murals and Houck is this giant, strapping revolutionary figure, this very heroic figure with a big pickaxe over his should and he looks so big and strong. Houck's about 5'6", Mary's five feet tall and never weighs more than 100 pounds in her entire life. They're little people. They're diminutive people. And he wears big glasses. He's not -- he's not the tycoon type. He doesn't look like Jay Gould or John Rockefeller, but he says with your help, Mary, I think, we can do this. And Mary says, okay, we'll do it.

And all his friends tease him. Yeah, you'll be back at the law office here in a couple of months. This is really bad. So he starts. And, again, he's been reading that he can lay with a good crew a mile of track a day. Fifteen miles, I've got five months. This is going to be a snap. It's not. It's very difficult. Houck is an incredibly poor judge of railroad talent. He begins to hire people; not only laborers, but also engineers and so forth who affectively lie to him. Oh, yeah, I've got lots of railroad experience. I've worked on them for years, hire me. Uh-huh, they had no more experience than he did; hired a bunch of Irish, not the best railroad workers in Southeast Missouri.

Louis is a teetotaler. The Irish are not. In turn, presents problems for him in that regard. Plus, this is a howling wilderness. I mean there are not only wild animals, wolves literally, but it's overgrown. It's a jungle, its swamps, there's poisonous snakes down there. It looks like Africa to Louis. The fact of the matter is they lay three miles in almost four months. They are completely overmatched.

Louis is despondent. He has gambled and he has lost. It's early December and they are still almost ten miles away from Cape Girardeau. This is a disaster. And then Mary comes out. She rides out from Elmwood, which is not that far. This palatial estate and for Louis, I mean, here's his princess who lives in this castle, which really -- really appeals to that historian part of his personality. And she said, Louis, look you don't understand how to boss crews of men in the field. I do. I've done this as a young girl and so Mary riding her mare up and down the railroad line she begins to whip these guys into shape. And they start to make some progress.

And she tells, Louis, give them a cash bonus. Silver dollars, take a bag of silver dollars out to the site every day. That'll get them going. Sure enough it does work and they start to lay track furiously and by New Year's Eve they're within eyesight of Cape Girardeau. They're almost there. They're like 200 yards away. They have made up so much ground, so quickly. Now, the ground's frozen and they're very, very cold and Louis says we're going to make it. I'm going to let these guys go home for the day and we can come back tomorrow and finish this. And Mary says, Louis, look do you know what day it is?

Look at your laborers, Irish, again. They're not coming back. This is New Years Eve. They're going into the saloons. They're not going to come back tomorrow. You keep them on the job. Give them an extra bonus and that's exactly what he does. And so at two a.m. on January 1st, 1881, a day is etched in the history of Cape Girardeau and Southeast Missouri Houck's trains roll into town for the very first time.

Now, the old mythology was -- and when I came to Cape Girardeau I found this story fascinating, was that Louis as he was approaching Cape Girardeau ran out of rails. He didn't have enough and so he ordered his men to go behind him and tear up the rails that they had already laid and lay them in front so that they could actually go into Cape Girardeau. It's an apocryphal story, not exactly true. But it makes for a great, kind of amusing anecdote in -- in that regard.


MR. JOEL RHODES: From these very unremarkable 15 miles of track over the next 30 or 40 years between 1880 and 1920 Louis creates about 500 miles of railroad in Southeast Missouri. Three separate lines that eventually he hoped would emanate out from Cape Girardeau in all directions.

These Houck roads as they were known and they've all got their own little individual names, but they were collectively known in Southeast Missouri as the Houck roads. For as poorly constructed as they were and they were poorly constructed these are the arteries that brought civilization and modernization to Southeast Missouri.

In particular, it was the southern system; the St. Louis, Kennett and Southern and Allied Lines, which Louis built between 1891 and 1902, which opened up the Bootheel to lumbering. Within a generation Houck was the main mode of transportation for some of the largest sawmills in the world. McCormick and Deering, C.A. Boynton, Himmelberger and Harrison these were the largest sawmills, certainly in the United States. Guys like T.J. Moss and William Brown who provided railroad ties to most of the United States during these years of intense railroad building. They all relied heavily on Houck's railroads, but why -- I said before Louis never really got the hang of railroading.

He built a lot of railroads, but he built them in some of the worst conditions possible and he never really overcame his limitations as a railroader. For one thing, Louis was always short on time. Many of the deals that he cut, he had to cut based on a time schedule, like that first one. He would say if I can do this in a year. If I can do this in eight months, you'll pay me more. And if I don't meet the deadline then I'll have to pay you more. So he was always pressed for time. He was always pressed for cash. Louis never overcame that cash poor, land rich dilemma.

When he died, he only had about $20 in cash. He had about 40,000 acres in the United States and in Cuba and in Jamaica, all over. He liked the Caribbean for some reason. The little German really liked the -- the tropical climate. But Louis was always pressed for those two things. And he never really understood the nuances of railroad construction.

For instance, Louis didn't like to pay for anything brand new. He always liked to buy things that were used. That was true for locomotives and rolling stock. It was also true for rails and ties. What he couldn't steal from his friend, T.J. Moss, then he would actually create himself. The railroad workers would cut them out of the -- the hardwoods there in Southeast Missouri and actually hew them and put them in place right there on the spot. But the rails were something different.

And Louis usually relied on the Missouri Pacific to provide his rails for him. Now, he thought this was a pretty good deal because the Missouri Pacific they were in the railroading business, too. Hey, you do it, I do it; let's be partners together. He found out pretty quickly that Missouri Pacific was predatory, not really on his side. And so what the Missouri Pacific sent him, and this seemed like a sweet deal to him at the time; they sent him their used rails, the rails that had been broken, the rails that had been bent, the rails that they couldn't use on the Missouri Pacific. And instead of sending him cash, the Missouri Pacific took stock instead and Houck became very leveraged and beholden to the Missouri Pacific.

And so Louis' railroads kind of looked like if you took a bunch of rails, some of them used, some of them broken, some of them three feet long, some of them 16 feet long and you took some ties -- and the way that the law was in Missouri you had to have at least six inches in between your ties, but that's a lot of ties everybody and it would easier sometimes if you didn't have to use so many. So sometimes Houck would fudge a little bit and sometimes the ties were five, six feet apart.


MR. JOEL RHODES: The rail- -- the Missouri Railroad Commission, and I spent a couple weeks here at the Archives, when I was researching the book and I found this information here. The Missouri Railroad Commission says, "Best we can tell Houck's railroads are nothing but two strips of rust on a right-of-way."


MR. JOEL RHODES: Now, it's also very difficult to cut the swamps out on the right-of-way. You were supposed to have them cut out about 30 feet on each side, so they train could very easily pass between the trees and the brushes and the brambles and so forth. Sometimes Houck just couldn't do that. Sometimes he only cut that out about eight feet. And so what happened is when the trains actually went through Southeast Missouri the engines were constantly being whipped by these braches. And Houck didn't really want to spend the money on a fancy passenger car. You know, that was kind of really pampering his -- his passengers and so the early passenger cars on the Houck lines were just flatcars with -- with chairs nailed to them.


MR. JOEL RHODES: And so you're sitting in Houck's cars and you're getting whipped by the branches as you're going through. And it's incredibly bumpy as it goes along in that regard.

There's lots of sloughs, lots of marshes, lots of lakes in Southeast Missouri and it takes a lot of time to create an actual regulation trestle. Louis didn't want to do that. It also takes a lot of time to actually pull stumps. Cutting down the tree -- cutting down a Cypress tree, that was actually the easy part. It was actually pulling the stump out so you could create a dump and a right-of-way on that that was a lot of work.

So what you were supposed to do is cut the tree down and then you would dump gravel -- a dump and then you would put the ties on top of that then the rails on top of that. The dump is to keep the ties from rotting. It's to allow for drainage and so forth. Louis found that to be frivolous and it was much more expedient just to put the ties on the ground and to nail the -- the ties despite the rails right to the ties.

And to pull out a Cypress stump that would take a long time, so often times Houck just went in between him. And so his railroads weren't -- weren't actually straight in a classic and engineering since. And instead of creating trestles as I said before often times Houck would just fell trees. He would just cut down Tupelo trees and he would spike the rails directly to the trees. I'll give you some -- some ideas here and these are not some of the worst of the -- of the Houck roads. This is the very first engine, which he named after his father-in-law, Andrew Giboney. This is down by Blomeyer, right outside of Delta. This is along the original 15 miles of Houck railroad. In true Houck fashion this railroad -- or pardon me. This particular locomotive, which he bought used, of course, did not go into reverse.


MR. JOEL RHODES: Whenever it went into reverse it jumped off the rails and so they didn't have a roundabout and it made rail travel a little bit difficult at least initially with that. This is the original engine that rolled into Cape Girardeau in 1881.

This picture probably bears a little bit of -- a little bit of explanation. You'll notice that this is one of Louis' favorite poses. He likes to stand with his walking stick and his coat and so forth and oversee his empire and so forth.

Because much of this part of the world was under water at the time, Louis also engaged in draining operations. The problem was the Missouri State Legislature had said as early as the 1870s that the counties were not allowed to trade railroad companies land for railroad work. That had really gotten the counties in a bind and railroad companies like the Missouri Pacific really fleeced a lot of the Bootheel counties out of thousands of acres of land. And so to protect the counties from themselves essentially the Legislature placed a ban on counties actually giving land to induce railroad development, but it wasn't illegal to give land to companies who were going to drain the land.

And so Louis, in true fashion, thought, okay, wait a minute. A normal dump can be like six to eight feet tall, but if I made it a little higher like 12 feet that's not a dump anymore for my rails that's a levy. And so he said I'll make my dumps a little higher. This is what he tells Pemiscot and Wayne County, I'll make the dump a little higher. We won't call it a railroad, we'll call it a levy and we'll use it to drain and then you can give me that land.

So he acquired about eight to 9,000 acres from those two counties to build a railroad through the counties and make a levy district out of it as well. Eventually, the Supreme Court of Missouri says, look you can call it whatever you want, but it's still a railroad. It's not a levy. You're not draining these counties. Give them the 9,000 acres of land back. This is one of those dredging projects. Louis is draining the swamps/building his railroads.

This is one of my favorite pictures. These are African American tie hacks along the -- the Houck roads. Louis always had a longstanding battle with labor in his railroad days. For one thing, like I said, he didn't like to pay people very much money. And he was constantly irritated about different ethnic groups. Now, I'm Irish. I'm fifth generation Irish, so this kind of spoke to me a little bit, but Houck had a problem with African American laborers and Irish laborers.

The thing he didn't like about African Americans is they wouldn't work when it was cold and he couldn't get a days work out of them. He said the Irish won't work when it's hot. He said, at least, the African Americans will go off and fish, but the Irish and they stay around and they get drunk and they tear stuff up and they set fires.


MR. RHONDES: And so he could only rely on Greeks and Italians eventually, but this irritated him to no end because when he hired Greeks and Italians they would bring them down by steamboat from St. Louis and he had to hire their interpreter. He's like, wait a minute. I got to pay their interpreter, too. He hated that because the interpreter wasn't doing a days work, but, yet, he was there to communicate. So Houck was always in sideways with -- with his laborers.

And the thing that really irritated him about the Irish is they had this nasty habitat of hiding bottles of liquor along the rail route. So as they're working Houck would see these bottles stuck in the weeds everywhere where the Irish were slipping off. So Houck's always had a problem there.

This is a pretty typical Houck scene up by Perryville. Derailments were very, very common. Again, you can imagine with all those liberties taken. There was a line on the Southern system down by Morley and Morehouse, which was locally known as the "pea-vine" line because it was so crooked and because it was always such an adventure. Houck never gave you any type of refund. If the train broke down you walked the rest the way, you know, I'm not guaranteeing you anything. You kind of take it upon yourself to ride the Houck railroads.

Along the "Pea-vine" line was a particularly dangerous trestle, which locals called the "crazy trestle". And the reason they called it that is because it was one of Houck's engineering marvels where he fell these two, three, four trees, Tupelo trees, and then he spiked the rails directly to the trees as they crossed this slew. And in going over it the engineer would call, we're going over. And that was your cue to hang on to your seat for dear life. And it's kind of like a log ride, I guess, at Silver Dollar City because the people described it as they went out over the trestle the weight of the locomotive and the train would bend the trees down into the water.


MR. JOEL RHODES: And so water would splash up onto the passengers and then as you got over on the other side of the trestle the train would then hop up and everybody would jump in their seats and so forth. And it was indeed the "crazy trestle". But, again, although he wasn't a very, very good engineer and always people were irritated by this. You could imagine if you bought a ticket on the Houck line and then had to walk the remainder of your journey that probably irritated you. If you worked for Houck that probably irritated you 'cause he wouldn't pay you.

He made a lot of enemies. He's a beloved character, now, but at the time this very prickly, little German was not much of a beloved character to be sure.

These are some great pictures from the 1880s of the -- of the Houck roads and you can really get a sense of the fledgling lumber industry in -- in Southeast Missouri. These are actually pretty good bits of his -- of his first line. You can see the standard number of ties actually on there as well.

Again, this is a particularly isolated part of the -- of the world. Not a hot bed of civilization until Houck's Railroads connected to the rest of the world. Funny thing about these pictures; these pictures were actually taken as part of a litigation in 1886 proving that Houck was a good railroader. Somebody had sued him and so these pictures were part of his collection to prove that the roads were actually up to code in -- in many regards. That's a pretty good trestle. That's over Mingo Swamp. This is in the southern part of Cape, the Scott County Road.

This is Advance, like many little towns Advance actually was a product of the -- the Houck roads. It wasn't a company town, but when Houck was running the first line down towards Bloomfield, Missouri there was a farmer that would not sell him the right-of-way at a decent price. The guy wanted like a buck twenty five and acre and Houck thought that was outrageous. So to punish him Houck ran the railroad about two miles away from this little town of Lakeville.

And so the citizens were caught in a real dilemma; do they stay in their little town of Lakeville or do they move a couple miles away so that they can be on Houck's railroad. The dilemma was that if they stayed, they would probably die off. If you didn't get a railroad, you weren't going to make it. And so they moved the town and they called it Advance to show that they were advancing just the way Houck's railroads were.


MR. JOEL RHODES: Down in Southeast Missouri we say it Advance, it's not Advance. But it's kind of a heavy emphasis on the first syllable. This is in Advance. That's the remarkable thing I found about Houck and I like to make some fun of him and some sport of him, which would make him irritated to be sure. But the fact of the matter is for as poorly built as these railroads were, he built them. He did what nobody else was able to do. And it came at a tremendous toll to him physically and emotionally. The one moment when I found -- closest to Louis, I was looking at his memoirs that he jotted down towards the end of his life. He never published them, but he jotted them down. And he said that at one point when he was building the railroad between Kennett and Caruthersville in a particularly horrible part of Southeast Missouri he just walked out and saw the construction, saw the wilderness, saw what he was up against and he just sat down and he cried. Which is a hell of admission for stoic little guy like Houck, but then in true Houck fashion he said that passed after a couple minutes and I got up and adjusted myself and I got on about the business of building railroads and so forth.

This is Crowley's Ridge. The first line in particular ran south of Crowley's Ridge. This is in the sawmill town of Brownwood, which is still there. This is Brownwood the company town itself. You can see the plank sidewalks because most of it's under water. And this is approaching Brownwood.

This is a fantastic shot. It you've been to Cape Girardeau lately you know that Southeast Missouri State has opened a new performing arts center in the last couple of years at the Old Vincentian Seminary, which is right here. These was the original line in 1881 that Houck's railroads actually entered Cape Girardeau right here. Here's where it all -- all began.

To give some idea, and I got to wrap this up 'cause I know I'm running out of time I always get a little longwinded at this part of the program, to give you some idea about what happened to these railroads 'cause none of them exist anymore.

I promised I would say something about that. Houck's handwriting is atrocious. It's terrible and for a researcher the only thing I could ever decipher was his signature there. And there's a great story that circulates. I don't know if it's a myth or not, but it's a great Southeast Missouri folktale. Houck was legendary for how eligible his handwriting was. And I can vouch for that reading thousands of pages. It's difficult under the best of circumstances.

And Houck didn't like typewriters. He refused to allow his secretaries to get a typewriter. It's a new fangled invention, didn't like that. Didn't like cars either; he refused to own a car. He always said if a horse fell on you it can get up. A car falls on you not so much. Anyway the old story in Southeast Missouri was that Houck purchased some land from a farmer and he wrote out a bill of sale on a piece of paper on a stump and he gave it to the farmer and the farmer couldn't make heads or tails out of it. It was just gibberish like that. And so for the rest of his life the farmer used that as a pass on Houck's railroads. He would just present it to the conductor; the conductor couldn't read it so the guy got free rail travel.

I'll tell you one more story and I'll finish this up. To kind of draw to -- to a conclusion; the very first line that runs from Cape Girardeau to Hunter, Houck eventually lost that to foreclosure and the Frisco purchased it. It became part of the Frisco system. The second line was the only line that he ever sold at a profit. He sold that for two million dollars to the Frisco Company in 1902. He probably should have rested on his laurels, but instead he took that two million dollars and built the third system which goes from Cape Girardeau up to Fredericktown. That's the only one of the three railroads that just virtually ceased to exist. It went bankrupt and Southeast Missouri reclaimed the road and reclaimed the rails.

The story of the first railroad, the legal battle in particular is the last Houck story I'll tell you. I told you that the Missouri Pacific, which was owned by Jay Gould, the man who is probably chief amongst all the robber barons of that era. The man who John Rockefeller once said was the most shrewd and ruthless businessman I ever knew, pretty high praise coming from -- from John Rockefeller. The Missouri Pacific because it traded Houck in worn out rails for stock, eventually came to own a huge chunk of Houck's railroad.

And in 1893, they moved to foreclose on his railroad because Houck didn't pay them the money he owed them either. And so in court, the House of Gould, Jay Gould and his son struggled to -- to take away Houck's first railroad. Down in Bloomfield, Missouri, the lawyers for the Missouri Pacific had the local judge, Judge Wear, appoint a receiver for Houck's railroads, this first one. Once a railroad goes bankrupt then a receiver is appointed to reorganize it. They picked a guy named Eli Klotz who was sympathetic to the Missouri Pacific.

Houck then in true Houck fashion and very, very shrewd went to the common pleas courthouse in Cape Girardeau and he said, look they -- they foreclosed on my railroad and they're trying to appoint a receiver over in Bloomfield where the railroad runs through also, but if you're going to appoint a receiver shouldn't the court appoint a receiver that knows the railroad. This guy Eli Klotz he has no familiarity with my railroad. Can't we appoint a receiver that at least is familiar with our operations? And the judge says, well, who do you have in mind? And Houck said nobody knows it better than I do. How about appointing me as the receiver? It's called a friendly receivership and within a generation this was a pretty common business tactic.

Houck was one in the first in the country to try it and it worked. So then on the day that they went to trial to see actually who was the receiver 'cause the judge in Bloomfield had appointed Eli Klotz receiver. Judge in Cape Girardeau appointed Louis Houck receiver. There's some conflict there. So they were going to resolve it down in Bloomfield. Judge Wear was going to hear both sides of the story and appoint just one receiver. And Louis, instead of allowing this to transpire, pulled some strings and on the morning that they were going to hear this case Judge Klotz (sic) -- or pardon me, Judge Wear and couldn't her the case and so the judge -- or pardon me, the lawyers down in Bloomfield appointed a special temporary judge named George Houck, which was Louis' brother to hear the case.


MR. JOEL RHODES: He obviously ruled for Louis. Louis then sued the Missouri Pacific and said your hostile takeover violates the 14th Amendment to the Constitution which says that no state can deny you your life, liberty or property without due process of law. And the judge, the Supreme Court in Missouri said, well, that's not really true because they haven't denied you anything. He said I wasn't talking about me. I'm talking about my railroad. You've violated my railroads 14th Amendment rights. That was a pretty crafting bit of legal maneuvering there to say that the corporation has the same rights as the individual.

Again, he's about a generation ahead of himself in that regard. Eventually, the court didn't buy that. And they foreclosed on his railroad and Eli Klotz eventually showed up at the railroad offices in Cape Girardeau to take over physical possession of the railroad and Louis said, okay, I'm beat. You got me. You can have everything in the railroad, but I need a receipt for everything in the office. Every piece of paper, every file cabinet; you've got to write out a handwritten receipt 'cause I don't know what you're going to take. You might steal stuff from me.

And Klotz says, look you've got thousands of pieces of paper in your file cabinet this could take years. And Louis said, well, you better get started.


MR. JOEL RHODES: And so he was able to -- to stay one step ahead of the -- of the law in that regard. Eventually, what's interesting the Missouri Pacific line did not get that first railroad; Houck eventually did beat Jay Gould in 1896. This had wound its way up to the U.S. Supreme Court a couple of times. And finally, in the end, the U.S. Supreme Court and the Missouri Supreme Court allowed Louis to keep that railroad.

And Jay Gould has said to have told Louis Houck, "I've seen your railroad, sir, and I can tell you you're a damn poor railroad man. But this is the only time I've ever been beaten in a court of law. You're a hell of a lawyer." Great story.

MR. JOEL RHODES: Jay Gould died in 1892. This was supposed to have happened in 1896, so not exactly -- not exactly true.

But I will tell you -- I will leave with one particularly funny story. Louis always liked to say that I built my entire railroad empire on a nickel and then he would reach in his pocket and say and here's the nickel.


MR. JOEL RHODES: Thank you very much.