H. J. McKenzie Becomes Cotton Belt President, Moves Railway Offices to Tyler Texas
The Cotton Belt Under the Leadership of Harold J. McKenzie
Harold J. McKenzie, President, Cotton Belt Route
Harold J. McKenzie was a native Texan, and a graduate of Texas A&M University in 1927. Early in his career he was an engineer for the Texas and New Orleans Railroad (T&NO), chartered in 1856, purchased by the Southern Pacific in 1881, and completely merged into the SP in 1934.
McKenzie was sent to the Advanced Management Program at Harvard in 1950, and then to the Cotton Belt as executive vice-president, becoming its president on July 1, 1951.
When McKenzie became president, the Cotton Belt had its general offices in St. Louis and division headquarters in Pine Bluff, Arkansas and in Tyler.
The Northern Division, the part of the railroad north of Texarkana, had 964 track miles of main and branch lines and headquarters in Pine Bluff.
South of the state line at Texarkana was the St. Louis Southwestern Railway Company of Texas, a Texas corporation, generally called the Southern Division, with headquarters at Tyler and 611 miles of track. Of this total of 1,575 miles of track, about 15% was leased or used under operating rights.
The Cotton Belt Moves to Tyler
The Cotton Belt Building which housed the general offices of the St. Louis Southwestern Railway, 1517 West Front Street, Tyler, Texas
Placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2005 (Photograph by the author)
McKenzie immediately began a reorganization of the Cotton Belt, including the merger of the St. Louis Southwestern Railway with the St. Louis Southwestern Railway of Texas. With approval of the Interstate Commerce Commission, the Texas company ceased to exist as an operating property on March 1, 1954.
McKenzie worked quickly to ease any ill feelings within the Texas company. Early in 1953, McKenzie announced at a gathering of all the personnel from the offices in the old Cotton Belt Building at St. Louis, that construction of a new, modern $1.5 million building to house the general offices of the Cotton Belt was going to be built in Tyler, slated for completion in 1954.
He also announced that the company would take necessary steps to make the move as pleasant as possible for those following their jobs to Tyler.
He said that the company would arrange expense-paid week-long visits to Tyler for employees via excursion trains equipped with Pullman cars and diners.
The first shopping center in Tyler, the Bergfeld Center. opened in February, 1949, expanded in 1954
The company would provide assistance in selling their homes in St. Louis. He also promised assistance in locating and buying new homes in Tyler.
Those on the tours were welcomed and treated royally in Tyler by representatives of banks, real estate firms, civic groups, the Tyler Chamber of Commerce and other businesses.
Of the more than 300 employees and their family members who took the trips to Tyler, virtually all chose to make the transfer and become Texans.
They had an immediate positive impact on Tyler's real estate market, shopping centers, banking, retail stores, hospitals and churches.
Cotton Belt's air conditioned general office building in Tyler, Texas, seen shortly after dedication in 1955. Costing $1.5 million with equipment, it contained three acres of floor space and boasted a 500-seat auditorium.
The new building to house the railway general offices, at 1517 West Front Street, was dedicated on March 22, 1955.
McKenzie's Impact on the Cotton Belt
McKenzie grew the Cotton Belt into one of the country’s best run rail companies, and in a span of only 15 years doubled tonnage carried and net income, while reducing the number of employees by half. He also insisted on a high level of safety, and received five significant safety awards, including three gold and two lesser Harriman safety awards during the 1950s and 60s.
He ushered in the diesel era, and oversaw the finale of the steam engine. The inventory of diesel units from Alco and EMD in 1953 ended the steam era. The final steam run was completed on October 28, 1953, pulled by Number 502, a 2-8-0, which without publicity delivered a work train from Corsicanato Tyler. Passenger service ended on November 29, 1959, as a train on the St. Louis to Pine Bluff route ended decades of elegance.
McKenzie was also instrumental in other dealings, such as securing right-of-way for the Dallas North Tollway; its main plaza was named the “McKenzie Plaza” in his honor.
H. J. McKenzie retired from the Cotton Belt on October 31, 1969, and devoted his talents to civic affairs in Tyler including being a leader in the creation of the University of Texas at Tyler. In 1971, the Texas Legislature approved a bill to create Tyler State College, later renamed Texas Eastern University, and finally UT-Tyler. Mr. McKenzie was appointed Chairman of the Board of Regents for Tyler State College. Other honors include induction into the Texas Transportation Hall of Honor in 2004.
He was succeeded as president by R. Maurice Nall during a time when personnel were being reassigned from Tyler to other locations, and railway decisions were being transferred to Houston and San Francisco as part of SP's policy of gradually reducing the Cotton Belt's autonomy.
Smith County purchased the Cotton Belt building in 1985, and continues to use the building today.
Mr. McKenzie was well traveled, and gave speeches over a number of years in various locations, such at this St. Louis gathering ... see beginning of speech below.
Address by H. J. McKenzie at a meeting of the Car Department Association of St. Louis, September 22, 1953, entitled "Railroading in the Wide Open Spaces"