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Monday, October 28, 2013

Uriah Lott, a man who changed the fortunes of Kerr County

Uriah Lott
Some characters from Kerrville's history have wonderful names, names so unique one would think the names are fictional. To me, one of the names fitting this description is that of Uriah Lott.
In most of the late-1880s newspaper accounts mentioning him, he is simply called "President U. Lott," and while he was never a Kerrville or Kerr County resident, he had a huge impact upon our history.
Lott was born in Albany, New York, in the winter of 1842, and came to Texas after the Civil War, arriving in Brazos Santiago in 1867. He found work in Brownsville at a commission house, and by 1871 chartered three vessels to transport wool and hides to markets in New York.
He worked to improve the channel at Corpus Christi, and served as a director of the Corpus Navigation Company.
For most of his life he was interested in moving goods from point A to point B, and he made his living by capitalizing on the spread between prices at different locations, a kind of simple arbitrage.
Sometime, in the midst of his many trades, he came to realize another way to profit from those price differences: one could also charge for the transportation of products.
And so Uriah Lott got in the railroad business. Uriah Lott eventually built a railroad over 1,000 miles long, and when he started, he had $15 cash.
And though at the end of his life Uriah Lott would again be penniless, dying alone at the Casa Ricardo Hotel in Kingsville, for several decades Uriah Lott decided which communities would prosper, and which would not.
At the beginning, Lott wanted only to build a small, narrow-gauge railroad from Corpus Christi to Laredo, to haul hides, wool, horses, mules, and even copper, lead, and silver from Chihuahua, Mexico to waiting ships in Corpus Christi. Almost all of these products were hauled to Corpus Christi by ox-cart.
An bond election was called to authorize $200,000 in bonds to build the railroad, but the election was cancelled when opposition, primarily from the owners of the ox-carts, grew too strong.
Realizing the banks were not an option, unable to secure public financing, and reluctant to seek capital on Wall Street, Lott visited legendary cattlemen Richard King and Mifflin Kenedy. Lott described to the men the changes the railroad would beckon in south Texas, and both became enthusiastic supporters, and provided the necessary capital to start the railroad.
The line from Laredo to Corpus was officially called the Corpus Christi, San Diego and Rio Grande Narrow Gauge Railroad, but most referred to it as "Lott's Folly," since the project took seven years to complete.
It had a humorous beginning.
In 1875, Lott ordered his first locomotive, from the Baldwin Locomotive Works in Pennsylvania. It arrived in September, aboard the steamship "Mary," and bore the brass legend "Corpus Christi."
On Thanksgiving Day, 1875, a crowd of people gathered at "Cooper's Alley and Mesquite Street" to see Lott drive the first "golden spike" of the new railroad. A February 2012 article in the Corpus Christi Caller reports that the "golden spike," which was actually a regular railroad spike painted to look golden, was stolen that same evening.
The article continues:
"A month after the golden spike was driven and stolen, Lott sold excursion tickets, at 50 cents a ticket, to ride to the end of the track. Passengers sat on wooden benches as they rode 18 miles to Martha Rabb's pasture. By Jan. 1, 1876, 25 miles of track had been laid and the line had one wood-burning locomotive and 14 cars.
" Lott ran out of money and was forced to sell the line to the Palmer-Sullivan Syndicate and the Texas Mexican Railway acquired the project and finished the line," which finally arrived in Laredo in 1881.
But Uriah Lott learned from this first experience. His next big project was big indeed: the San Antonio and Aransas Pass Railroad. And with that new venture, Uriah Lott changed the course of Kerrville's and Kerr County's history.
Until next week, all the best.
Joe Herring Jr. is a Kerrville native who is old enough to remember trains lumbering through Kerrville. This column originally appeared in the Kerrville Daily Times October 26, 2013.

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