December 24, 1872, is a day that has special meaning for Denison, Texas. That was unofficially the beginning of the town. Hailed as Christmas Day when the first Missouri, Kansas & Texas train chugged into the depot on Main Street, in reality is was on Christmas Eve.

December 24, 1872, is a day that has special meaning for Denison, Texas. That was unofficially the beginning of the town. Hailed as Christmas Day when the first Missouri, Kansas & Texas train chugged into the depot on Main Street, in reality is was on Christmas Eve.


Claud Easterly, Denison Herald editor emeritus, who interviewed the engineer on the work train that came in on the eve of Christmas, corrected me numerous times when I wrote that the first train arrived on Christmas Day. He once told me that I was determined to bring that train in on Christmas Day. I had read that designation so many times, I believed it until Claud convinced me different.


Workers still were laying the rails as the day was about to arrive, so on Christmas Eve a work train, piloted by Pat Tobin, was sent into town to test the solid strength of the rails that just had been laid. That train also brought supplies to town and became the first train to arrive.


When the residents of Denison heard the whistle of that inaugural train as it chugged into town, they headed to the depot to meet the spectacle. The official welcome had been planned for the next day, but few people ventured out on that occasion since the work train had upstaged its arrival and became the unofficial first train to cross Red River and huff and puff its way up the hill to the four month old frontier town of Denison.


Claud knew Pat Tobin, the engineer on the work train that was sent to bring in a couple of rail cars of material to the end of the line here. When Tobin was in his 80s, he told Claud, who was a young cub reporter at the time, the circumstances of two trains that Christmas.


For years the story of who engineered which train and when the first one arrived had been reported in different ways. It seems that back then they were as confused as I was.


It was about 50 years after the arrival of both trains that Tobin set the record straight in Claud’s interview. He said that he was a native of Chicago who had been sent south because of an illness. He joined a Katy construction crew when the line had been built as far south as Atoka in Indian Territory. Then at the young age of 19, he was made an engineer assigned to a work train carrying materials from supply bases to track layers at the end of the line as it headed toward Denison. Tobin was the grandfather of a later Denison mayor, Tobin Williams, and was the great-grandfather of the late Ann Paulsen, who operated the Ceramic Arts Center here for a number of years.


The young engineer was placed at the throttle of the first train over the Red River Bridge on that cold and blustery day. He said that workers were literally laying the tracks as the train arrived. Tobin identified others on the train as Herb Kelvin, fireman; John Murphy, conductor; and Ed Vineyard and Con Sullivan, brakemen.


Tobin said that as he neared Denison, he tied down the whistle to let the town know that the first train to enter Texas from the north was near. By the time he arrived at the station on Main Street, nearly everyone who could hear the blaring whistle had gathered to see and cheer the arrival.


There was no program because the arrival was a complete surprise. Residents were expecting the train the next day so the celebration that erupted was spontaneous.


The first scheduled passenger train, No. 15, a tiny, diamond-stacked, wood burning locomotive was 12 hours late arriving because of bad weather. It missed out on all the fanfare that would have greeted it on that historic occasion and the engineer’s name has been forgotten through the years.


The train consisted of two coaches and a Pullman palace car carrying about 100 passengers.


Denison still was a sprawling frontier settlement of tents and wooden buildings when settlers took time off to celebrate Christmas that year. A resident, R.I. Anderson told a Denison reporter, Jack Maguire in 1942 that he remembered the day as vividly as if it had been yesterday. "The turkey and venison dinner was the best thing of all," he said as he remembered getting all he could eat.


Although Anderson was just a boy, he said his job that holiday was to help provide meat for the dinner. He joined others in walking a few blocks up North Houston looking for turkey. At a little creek that meandered toward Red River, it only took about an hour for them to find enough turkey and venison for what he called "a king’s banquet."


Back in town residents attended church services in the two or three wooden churches. Gifts were not elaborate, but more practical like clothing. The girls might have received calico dresses and the boys would have been given home-spun breeches. Men gave each other whiskey and the saloons were busy all day.


The town already had a reputation and that day two or more murders were chalked up, according to Anderson, who said that he found one of the victims with a bullet through his head, lying in the alley behind what now is Chase Bank.


The Andersons, like most of the other settlers, had a Christmas tree, but no lights or fancy trimmings. Cranberries were strung bead fashion and popcorn balls and colored bits of calico were the only decorations. In Anderson’s stocking were a few coins in various denominations.


After the big Christmas dinner, he said he joined several other young people to wait at the station for the little engine to arrive from Oklahoma. "We didn’t realize that we were seeing history in the making," he said.


History repeated itself at Christmas 1932 when Denison celebrated its 60th anniversary of the Katy’s entry into Texas when the arrival of the railroad’s finest passenger train, "The Texas Special."


That Christmas in 1942, 70 years after the first arrival, trains arriving at the station were carrying troops and supplies to a nation at war. At home, Denisonians were foregoing the usual tinsel and glitter holiday for a day of quiet, simple celebration, praying for the troops fighting for their country.


Except for the absence of the Katy in Denison, now, after 71 more years, we still are praying for the men and women serving our country in foreign lands. Let us hope it is a peaceful holiday for us all.


Donna Hunt is former editor of The Denison Herald. She lives in Denison and can be contacted at d.hunt_903@yahoo.com.