A group of Eagle Lake businessmen and planters chartered the Cane Belt Railroad on March 10, 1898. Large acreage of sugarcane was grown in the area, and the railroad was needed to move the cane and other agricultural products to market. The charter was signed by William Dunovant, president; William T. Eldridge, vice president; and Thomas Boulden, secretary-treasurer. Other members of the board were John W. Thatcher, Perry Clark, Osburn Green, and E. P. Newsome, directors; Rudolph Greenbaum, William Jasper McGee, and Frank P. Herbert. The capital was $15,000. The principal place of business was Eagle Lake.
The charter called for a railroad of ten miles from Lakeside on Eagle Lake through the Colorado riverbottom to Bonus, where Dunovant owned a large plantation. Agricultural products, including sugarcane, rice, cattle, and vegetables, were the principal cargo. In 1908, 5,000 cars of sugarcane was shipped to the refinery at Lakeside, which processed more than 70,000 tons of cane that year. Sulfur and oil were other important commodities.
Soon after receiving the charter the Cane Belt purchased a mile of track from Eagle Lake to Lakeside from the Galveston, Harrisburg and San Antonio Railway, and construction of the line to Bonus was completed on November 11, 1898. A charter amendment approved on June 9, 1899, permitted an extension north to Sealy, to connect with the Missouri, Kansas and Texas Railroad for access to northern markets, and south to the Gulf Coast, eventually terminating at Matagorda. On July 18, 1899, shareholders approved issuance of bonds at $12,000 a mile ($1.2 million). Lincoln Trust Company of St. Louis, Missouri, purchased the bonds.
The extension north to Sealy and south to Wharton was completed in 1900. In 1901 the railroad established a major facility in Wharton County at Lane City, named for Jonathan Lane, president of the Cane Belt. On June 30, 1901, the Cane Belt arrived in Bay City, just in time to collect a $13,000 bonus from the town. The line reached Matagorda in 1903. The choice of Matagorda as a termination point was a fortunate one, as it offered access to the huge sulfur resources discovered at Gulf Hill in 1919. In 1931 the Gulf Hill deposit was exhausted, but another large sulfur discovery near Boling in Wharton County stimulated the construction of a new line of thirty-four miles connecting the old Cane Belt at Lane City with the main line of the Gulf, Colorado and Santa Fe at Thompsons. At its peak the road had 145 miles of track. In 1940 the Eldridge-to-Bonus segment of about five miles was abandoned.
The railroad was profitable from the start. Net earnings for the fiscal year ending on June 30, 1901, were more than $20,000. By 1902, however, an uneven cash flow, construction debt, and friction among the principals contributed to financial problems, and the road was near insolvency. On November 11, 1903, the Cane Belt was sold to the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe for $1.6 million. The purchase price included $850,000 for stock and assumption of $750,000 of outstanding bonds. In 1926 the Railroad Commission established the value of the Cane Belt at $2.5 million. Evidence presented at the hearing indicated an actual value of close to $3.5 million.
The AT&SF operated the Cane Belt as an independent road until the Texas legislature passed an act on April 11, 1905, that allowed it to lease or sell the road to another of its operating companies, the Gulf, Colorado and Santa Fe. The Cane Belt was leased to the GC&SF on July 1, 1905, and operated under lease until December 1948, when it was merged into the GC&SF.