“At a time when the dirt roads or trails across the county were often impassible, railroads provided the important method of moving people and products—particularly sawmill products and produce of every kind,” said Larry Foerster, chairman of the Montgomery County Historical Commission.
Between 1871 and 1873, the Houston and Great Northern Railroad—later becoming the International and Great Northern Railroad Company—began its south-to-north run from Houston to Palestine, Texas, according to the Texas State Historical Association.
Conroe’s founder Isaac Conroe took the I&GN from Houston in October 1881 and opened his sawmill near what is now Beach Airport Road at Hwy. 105 east. He built a wooden tram from his mill to meet at the I&GN railroad, and the junction became known as “Conroe’s Switch,” Foerster said.
In 1885, the Gulf, Colorado and Santa Fe Railroad system extended its track from Navasota to Montgomery eastward through Conroe, thus creating a junction with the I&GN at Conroe’s Switch.
Conroe’s Switch quickly became known as the city of Conroe, with downtown Conroe growing around the railroad west of the tracks. Numerous other sawmill communities began settling along railroads in the mid-1880s, including Tamina, Egypt (now Honea-Egypt Road), Clinesburg (now Fostoria) and Keenan, Foerster said.
While lumber continued to be the city’s reigning commodity, commerce staples, such as cotton, vegetables, livestock and tobacco—along with Conroe gaining the county seat in 1889—lured residents to Conroe into the 1890s, Foerster said.
Railroads were also a means of passenger travel for early residents, said Gertie Spencer, local historian and former chairwoman of the Montgomery County Historical Commission.
Born and raised in Conroe, 83-year-old Spencer said she took an east-to-west train—then called the “Doodlebug”—to visit her grandparents.
“I did [take the Doodlebug] from Conroe over to Montgomery because my grandparents lived over where April Sound is, and I’d ride the train over to Montgomery, and they’d pick me up there,” Spencer said.
Spencer said she also remembers industry workers taking the Doodlebug train to get to work across the county and high school football teams loading up on the train for games.
In the 1930s, the sawmill industry, which had been affected by the Great Depression, petered out and gave way to oil industry, Spencer said.
As the mid-1900s brought the normalization of vehicles, and construction on I-45 continued north through Conroe, passenger travel on trains saw a significant decline, Foerster said.
Today, trains pass through Conroe daily, carrying goods and products from various other railroad systems.
“In my view, there will always be a place for railroads,” Foerster said.