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The Cotton Belt was one of the lines comprising the railroad empire acquired by financier Jay Gould in the last quarter of the 19th century; according to the Handbook of Texas, "By 1890 Gould owned the Missouri Pacific, the Texas and Pacific, the St. Louis Southwestern, and the International-Great Northern, one-half of the mileage in the Southwest."
The railroad was organized on January 15, 1891, although it had its origins in a series of short lines founded in Tyler, Texas, in 1870 that connected northeastern Texas to Arkansas and southeastern Missouri. Construction of the original Tyler Tap Railroad began in the summer of 1875.
On October 18, 1903, the Cotton Belt gained trackage rights via the Thebes Bridge and the Missouri Pacific Railroad along the eastern shore of the Mississippi River to reach East St. Louis, Illinois, and then used Terminal Railroad Association trackage rights into St. Louis. The Cotton Belt also operated a yard and a locomotive servicing facility in East St. Louis, just east of Valley Junction, and south of Alton and Southern Railroad's Gateway Yard, and north of Kansas City Southern's East St. Louis Yard. They also had a freight station in downtown St. Louis. Union Pacific Railroad now operates the yard (still named "Cotton Belt Yard"), but the engine servicing facilities have been demolished.
The Cotton Belt and subsidiary St. Louis Southwestern Railway of Texas together operated 1,607 miles of road in 1945; 1,555 miles in 1965; and 2,115 miles in 1981 after taking over the Rock Island's Golden State Route. In 1925 SSW and SSW of Texas reported a total of 1474 million net ton-miles of revenue freight and 75 million passenger-miles; in 1970 it carried 8650 million ton-miles and no passengers.
The Southern Pacific Company gained Interstate Commerce Commission approval to control the Cotton Belt system on April 14, 1932, but continued to operate it as a separate company until 1992, when the SP consolidated the Cotton Belt's operations into the parent company. Cotton Belt diesel locomotives from 1959 on were painted in Southern Pacific's "bloody nose" scheme - dark gray locomotive body with a red "winged" nose. "Cotton Belt" was painted on the sides and in later years the letters "SSW" were painted on the nose.
In 1996 the Union Pacific Railroad finished the acquisition that was effectively begun almost a century before with the purchase of the Southern Pacific by UP in 1901, until divestiture was ordered in 1913. The merged company retains the name "Union Pacific" for all railroad operations. Many former SSW locomotives are used by Union Pacific today, although few still sport unmodified "Cotton Belt" paint. Most of the remaining units have been repainted into the UP scheme, while others wear patched SSW paint with a UP shield logo and new numbers applied over the SSW number.