When I started thinking about what I would write as for my Wednesday column, I began looking for information about Christmas in 1872. Then I had a logical thought. Why not write about the first Christmas in the town named Denison that was founded in 1872. An event took place that Christmas that has become the very foundation of the town’s history.
The Katy Railroad had just brought the first passenger train from the north as a Christmas gift from the railroad to its new “baby” and to all of Texas. This took place just three months and two days after the first lots were auctioned on what became the town’s Main Street.
The arrival of the train had been anticipated for several days and workers were literally laying the last track up until three days before Christmas.
The plan was that Katy General Manager Robert S. Stevens and Chief Engineer Otis B. Gunn would come from Sedalia, Missouri, to Colbert’s Station across the river, the last stop in Southern Oklahoma and on Christmas Eve they would be aboard the work train that would test the rails and come on into Denison.
On Dec. 21, S.W. Shellenberger, one of the engineers responsible for building the end-of-the-track, was at Colbert Station in Oklahoma and announced that the bridge across Red River had just been turned over to him and that it was ready for the iron. John Scullin and Dick Yost, who were in charge of track laying for Shellenberger, said he had 100 men standing by, ready to go to work and that the bridge would be ready by the night of Dec. 23. Shellenberger said he wanted to cross the bridge on Christmas Eve.
Jack Maguire writes in his book “The Katy’s Baby,” that by Christmas Eve 1872 the weather had been become biting cold. The sky was overcast and snow flurries looked like a “blue norther” was on its way.
Ignoring the weather, the construction train was piled high with rails and ties to test the solid strength of the new bridge and with 100 workers aboard, it headed south out of Colbert Station.
The private car of General Manager Stevens was crowded with railroad officials and city leaders who wanted to make that first trip. The car was attached to the rear of the train. Work cars were covered with railroad men, Native Americans and others who wanted to hitch a ride into Denison.
V.V. Masterson said in his book, “The Katy Railroad and the last Frontier,” that all eyes turned to Colbert as the train reached the middle of the river. There, below and a little to the east, was Colbert’s ferry, still crowded, still busy, but doubtlessly doomed.
Across Red River from Colbert’s ferry, the rowdies who lived at Red River City lined the tracks to shout insults at the train. They had thought the Katy’s railhead in Texas would be in their little community.
As the engineer took the hill from the river toward the new townsite, Engineer Pat Tobin, a 25-year old, tied down the whistle to alert the countryside that the first train ever to enter Texas from the north was on its way. Nearly everyone who could hear the whistle headed to the station.
Since this was a work train, there was no formal greeting or organized program. The town folks were expecting the train on Christmas Day and the Christmas Eve entry took them by surprise. However, the crowd turned out en masse, as word spread that the train was chugging to a stop at the Katy Depot on Main Street. The crowd cheered, then spontaneously headed toward the handful of saloons to celebrate the first train’s arrival.
During construction of the line, a very young Pat Tobin, a Chicago native who had been sent south because of an illness, had been at the throttle of the work train carrying materials from supply bases at Atoka to track layers at the end of the line.
Much later, in the mid 1930s, Tobin told a then young Denison Herald reporter, Claud Easterly, that on Christmas Eve the call came to deliver a couple of cars of material to the end of the line, when workers reached Denison.
Therefore Tobin was thrust into the limelight to pilot that first train across the new Red River bridge and on into Denison.
Twenty-four hours later on Christmas afternoon the train that was planned as the first one into Denison chugged into town. The engine was pulling two coaches and a Pullman Palace car, arriving at 7 p.m., 12 hours later than scheduled A small crowd braved the cold, but there was little fanfare. The name of that engineer has been lost to history.
Few of the town people realized that among the 100 passengers were Santanta and Big Tree, famed Indian chiefs, who were being taken to state prison at Huntsville. Santanta was a Comanche chief who had represented his tribe on March 2, 1847, when he met on the banks of the San Saba River in the Hill Country to sign a peace treaty with John Muesebach, founder of Fredericksburg. Big Tree was a Kiowa whose crime had been attacking wagon trains in Young County and killing seven people.
Tobin told Easterly that just north of the depot he had to slow the construction train to a crawl behind workmen still were spiking the last rails.
In an interview at Christmastime in 1942 by Jack Maguire, R.L. Anderson told Jack a little about that first Christmas Day in Denison in addition to the train’s arrival.
Anderson said he remembered that day as vividly as if it had been the day before. “The turkey and venison dinner was the best thing of all,” he said as he remembered getting all he could eat.
Denison still was a sprawling frontier settlement of tents and wooden buildings when settlers took time off to celebrate Christmas.
Although he was just a boy, he said his job that holiday was to help provide meat for the Christmas dinner. He joined others in walking toward Red River. He said it only took about an hour 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 may have received calico dresses and the boys got homespun breeches. Men gave each other whiskey and the saloons were busy all day. My grandmother said she always got a piece of fruit and maybe a piece of candy in her stocking.
The town already had a reputation and on that day two more murders were chalked up, according to Anderson. He said 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 more of the other settlers had a Christmas tree, but there were 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, Anderson said he joined several other young people to wait at the station for the little engine to arrive. “We didn’t realize we were seeing history in the making,” he said.
History repeated itself on Christmas 1932 when Denison celebrated its 60th anniversary of the Katy’s entry into Texas. The Katy’s finest passenger train, “The Texas Special” arrived that day.
Then at Christmas in 1942, 70 years after that first train came into town, 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.
An editorial by then-about-to-retire Easterly in the Sunday, June 25, 1972, Denison Herald expressed his feeling that “with the pioneer spirit of 1872, Denison enters into its second century on a new frontier — ready for the challenges of the Space Age. That edition was the newspaper’s largest to that date with 206 pages.
And a Space Age it has been. Little did those early pioneers realize that 100 plus years later there would not only be horseless modes of travel, but people would be talking around the world, first by telephone wire, then by signals bounced off satellites orbiting the world, and today by who knows all the modes of communications we have.
Except for the absence of trains, now many years and several wars later in we still are praying for the servicemen and women fighting to keep our country safe country.
My wish to all of you it that you have a blessed Christmas.
Donna Hunt is former editor of The Denison Herald. She lives in Denison and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. She has been a longtime contributor to the Herald Democrat with her bi-weekly column, which appears in the Wednesday and Sunday editions. The views and opinions expressed here are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Herald Democrat.