No Christmas season in Denison would be complete without thinking of the city’s beginning. Our gate city was that first Christmas in the new town in Texas when the Katy Railroad chugged into town.
Actually, it was Christmas Eve 1872, when the work train sent to test the strength of the newly laid tracks and bring supplies to town became the first train into town. For a lot of years, I had gotten confused, much to the consternation of my editor, Claud Easterly. I had every thing happening on Christmas Day. I hope that I now have it straight.
The first “official” train did arrive on Christmas Day with very little fanfare, but the crowd actually greeted the work train on Christmas Eve after hearing its whistle blaring. So, there actually were two “first trains” to cross the Red River and huff and puff their way up the hill to the four month old frontier town of Denison.
Mr. Easterly knew Pat Tobin, the engineer on the work train that was sent to bring in a couple of cars of material to the end of the line in Denison. When Mr. Tobin was in his 80s, he told Mr. Easterly, who then was a young cub reporter, the circumstances of the two trains that Christmas.
For years, the story of who engineered which train and when the “first” train actually arrived had been reported in different ways. It seems that back then, they were as confused as I was.
About 50 years after that first Christmas in Denison, Mr. Tobin set the record straight in Mr. Easterly’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. Then at the young age of 19, he was made an engineer assigned to a work train carrying materials from supply bases to tracklayers at the end of the line as it headed toward Denison.
By December 1872, the line had been extended past Colbert where the new supply base had been established. That Christmas Eve, Mr. Tobin was called to deliver the supplies to the end of the line that had reached Denison.
That put him at the throttle of the first train across the Red River Bridge and on to Denison. He said that workers were literally laying the last tracks as the train arrived.
As Mr. Tobin neared Denison, he said he tired down the whistle to let the town know that the first train ever to enter Texas from the north was near. By the time he arrived at the Denison station, nearly everyone who could hear the blaring whistle was at the station waiting to see and cheer the arrival of the train.
There was no program because the arrival of the train was a complete surprise. Residents were expecting the first train on Christmas Day. The celebration that erupted was spontaneous.
The first scheduled passenger train, No. 15, a tiny, diamond-stacked, wood-burning locomotive, arrived the next day on Christmas night, running 12 hours late because of bad weather. It missed out on 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 that carried about 100 passengers.
An interview at Christmas time in 1942 by Jack Maguire with R.L. Anderson explained a little about that first Christmas Day in Denison in addition to the train’s arrival.
Mr. Anderson said he remembered that day as vividly as 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.
Denison still was a sprawling frontier settlement of tents and wooden buildings when the 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 a few blocks down North Houston looking for turkeys. At a little creek that meandered toward the Red River, 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 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 more murders were chalked up, according to Mr. 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 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 Mr. Anderson’s stocking were a few coins in various denominations.
After the big Christmas dinner, Mr. Anderson said he joined several other young people to wait at the station for the little engine to arrive from Oklahoma. “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 with the arrival of the Katy’s finest passenger train, “The Texas Special.”
By 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 trains, we’re still praying for the men and women fighting for their country.
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 column. The views and opinions expressed here are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Herald Democrat.