A HISTORY OF THE JAMES (JIM) BURNFIN FAMILY
By W. T. Block
The history of the James (Jim) Burnfin family as noted here reflects very much the fallacy of allowing all the members of a given family to die without any attempt being made to record that family's history. Hence, what knowledge of the Burnfin family survives is indeed meager, but it is deemed better to preserve even that than to allow a blank space in "The Chronicles of the Early Families of Nederland, Texas" for a family who arrived so early and played such an important role in the early affairs of this community.
Jim and Alice Burnfin moved their family of six children to Nederland from Humboldt, Nebraska, in 1902, making them one of the earliest native-born families to arrive in the Dutch colony. Jim Burnfin was the first Kansas City Southern Railroad section (track maintenance) foreman assigned to Nederland, and the family soon moved into one of the two railroad "section houses" that once stood in the 400 block of Twin City Highway.
Almost nothing is known of James Burnfin's early life except that he was born in Barbourville, Knox County, Kentucky on October 6, 1863. His grandfather, Thomas Burnfin, who was the father of the Burnfin clan in this country, arrived in New York City on June 15, 1811, aboard an immigrant ship from Londonderry, Donegal County, Ireland, when he was about 17 years old. It is assumed that Jim received whatever common school education that was available to him because the 1910 Nederland census records reveal that he was able to read and write. And surely, a certain amount of educational ability would have been required of him in the performance of his duties since he had to keep time for his crew of ten or twelve maintenance-of-way employees, who were commonly called "gandy dancers" during that early part of the twentieth century.
The 1870s-1880s was the great age of American railroad building, and Mr. Burnfin was soon caught up in that endeavor. Strangely, the states listed as the birthplace of each child are about the only record left as to where the Burnfin family was residing prior to 1902, while the father was engaged in either building railroads or track maintenance.
James Burnfin met his future bride, Alice Gouge, in Elston, Missouri. Alice Burnfin was born in Elston, near Jefferson City, on February 21, 1865, and she and Mr. Burnfin were married in Elston on March 28, 1886. The first Burnfin offspring was still-born. The family was living in Missouri in 1888, when daughter Bertha was born; in Colorado in 1890, when son Lloyd was born; in Plattsmouth, Nebraska, in 1892, when daughter Myrtle was born; in Kansas in 1894, when daughter Mae was born; and in Humboldt, Nebraska, in 1899 when daughter Alta was born. A daughter Ruth was born in 1896, but she died in Nederland in 1906 at the age of ten.
Whether Mr. Burnfin was engaged in railroad building all of those years or in track maintenance for a different railroad is likewise unclear. However, it does appear that Mr. Burnfin did not join Kansas City Southern until about the time he was sent to Nederland during the summer of 1902. (Ed.'s Note: Here is the logic for that conclusion. The K. C. S. Railroad owns no trackage in Nebraska, Kansas, or Colorado, all of its tracks being laid in Missouri, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Louisiana and Texas. In 1893, that railroad had built only its Missouri trackage to the Arkansas border at the time the company ran out of money and had to await the arrival of a $10,000,000 loan from Holland. The remaining trackage was built between 1895 and 1897. The Beaumont-to-Port Arthur tracks were built in 1895, but through travel had to await the bridging of the Neches and Sabine Rivers in 1897. Only the Missouri Pacific line runs through Plattsmouth, Nebraska, and only the Cheyenne, Burlington, and Quincy Railroad runs through Humboldt, Nebraska.)
Upon arrival in Nederland, Mr. Burnfin "had charge of the hand-car crew operating from the Nederland station to the station at Spindletop." Pictures of the Burnfin family living at the section house and of Mr. Burnfin and his "gandy dancers" on the handcar at Spindletop depot may be seen on pages 34-35 of the booklet "Nederland Diamond Jubilee."
The Beaumont "Journal" of March 4, 1906, noted the arrival of James Gardette Burnfin, the last family member and the only one born in Nederland, into the Burnfin household in 1906, the same year that ten-year-old daughter Ruth died in Nederland.
In the 1910 Nederland census, Jim Burnfin was listed as Nederland's railroad section foreman. The 1918 Nederland city directory listed Burnfin again as "section foreman, T. and Ft. S. Ry." (ie: Texas and Fort Smith Railway division of the Kansas City Southern). The 1938 Nederland city directory, however, listed Jim Burnfin as a railroad flagman, residing at 615 Williams Street in Nederland (now 316 Fourteenth, in back of what is now Rienstra Furniture). Already in the 75th year of his life, with 36 years (minimum) in the service of Kansas City Southern, Burnfin had apparently given up the much more strenuous duties of section foreman for that of a flagman.
The oldest child, Bertha Burnfin, married Pete Dawson, and they lived in Nederland for many years at the intersection of Boston and Fourteenth Streets. At one time, Dawson was a pumper at the old Texaco pump station and tank farm at Twin City and Highway 365. They had no children.
Lloyd Burnfin (1890-1926) married Ethel Connell, and they became the parents of three children, namely, James, a druggist; John Burnfin, and Mary Alice (Taylor). Lloyd Burnfin died very young when he was only age 36.
Myrtle Burnfin (1892-1987) married Jacob Nagel, and they became the parents of three children, namely, James Nagel; Homer Nagel, a longtime Nederland councilman and mayor; and Alice Ruth (Bodemuller). They resided variously in Beaumont and Nederland.
Mae Burnfin (1894-1983) married J. Earnest Williamson, and they lived out their lives at 704 Fifteenth Street, where their old home still stands. They were the parents of four children, namely, Bobbie (Griffin), Betty (Wyble), Joe, and Jimmie Lou (Weeren).
Alta Burnfin (1899-1990) married Charles Humphries, and they resided in Baytown, Texas. They also had no children. The youngest son, James Gardette "Chip" Burnfin (1906-1985), married Mary Lou Tyer, and they became the parents of three children, including two daughters, namely, Betty and Barbara (the latter deceased in childhood), and one son, Michael Burnfin (also deceased). After his retirement from Neches Butane Products Company, now Texaco Chemical, "Chip" is affectionately remembered as the school crossing guard at Highland Park Elementary School, who took special care of his little charges.
Three of the Burnfin daughters lived to remarkably old ages. Myrtle Nagel lived to be the oldest at age 95 when she died in 1987. Alta Humphries lived to age 91 and was the last family member to pass away in 1990. Mae Williamson live to 89 prior to her death in 1983. Gardette died in 1985 at age 79 after suffering a long illness.
James, Sr. and Alice Burnfin lived out their lives in Nederland, the tiny Dutch colony that they adopted as their own in 1902. Alice died first, at age 84 on November 6, 1948. Her widowed husband survived his wife by about five years, dying on September 6, 1953 at the age of ninety, and both are buried in the Magnolia Cemetery in Beaumont. They are still fondly recalled and sorely missed by a number of their grandchildren and a host of friends who still live in the Nederland vicinity.