The Saint Louis Southwestern Railroad (STLSW, or Cotton Belt) began life in 1877 near Tyler, Texas as the Tyler Tap Railroad. The citizens of Tyler longed to be connected to a main line railroad. This hope came to life when Major James P. Douglas returned from war. Major Douglas held a particular interest in the fruit industry in East Texas, and he saw the need for increased infrastructure in the area in order to grow the industry. Major Douglas petitioned the Twelfth Legislature of Texas to pass a special act of incorporation granting to him and others the right to locate, construct, own, operate, and maintain a railroad, with a single or double track, for a distance not exceeding 40 miles from Tyler to connect with some other railroad, to be selected by the directors. This was granted in 1871, and a narrow gauge line of three feet was built and operated with one locomotive.
Unfortunately the tiny railroad ran into financial trouble, and in 1879, Douglas went to a group of investors located in Saint Louis. The group was headed by James W. Paramore, the owner of the St. Louis Cotton Compress Company. Paramore was looking for a way to ship his cotton into Texas. Paramore agreed to terms with Douglas, and in 1879 the Tyler Tap Railroad was reorganized as the Texas & St. Louis Railway. The track from the Tyler Tap Railroad was extended to St. Louis in the north and Texarkana in the south, with the plan to extend to Waco by 1881.
Paramore had visions of extending his new railroad. He received permission to run in Arkansas and Missouri, but he needed help on the Arkansas end of the venture. He recruited Samuel W. Fordyce, who immediately began searching for a suitable route through his home state. Fordyce came up with a route through Texarkana, Camden, Pine Bluff, Clardon, Jonesboro, and Birds Point, Missouri. Construction began in 1881 using rails imported from England, and white oak ties, and was completed in 1883. The Texas & St. Louis Railway was again reorganized as the St. Louis, Arkansas and Texas Railway in 1886, and began the change to standard rail on October 18 of that year.
The St. Louis, Arkansas and Texas Railway then began acquiring short lines to expand its track mileage. In 1891, the St. Louis, Arkansas and Texas Railway was reorganized as the St. Louis Southwestern Railway Company (STLSW or Cotton Belt). The Cotton Belt continued absorbing short line railroads through 1918, greatly expanding its presence in the area.
Progress caught up the Cotton Belt as they held an important section of track for the Southern Pacific, connecting parts east of Texas with the Pacific during the 1920s. The SP began consolidating it’s operations in the late 1920s in order to strengthen its position in the Southwest. In July, 1930, the SP filed an application with the ICC seeking to acquire control of the Cotton Belt through ownership of a majority of its capital stock. The plan went through, and in 1932, the Southern Pacific purchased sufficient stocks to complete control of the Cotton Belt.
The SP continued to operate the Cotton Belt as a separate entity until 1992, when the SP consolidated Cotton Belt’s operations into the parent company. During this span, Cotton Belt locomotives were painted in Southern Pacific paint schemes, but with “Cotton Belt” or “SSW” markings. Then in 1996, the Union Pacific railroad finished the acquisition, merging both companies into the UP, and remarking locomotives as UP for all railroad operations.