Red River Scrapbook: South into Texas
By Edward Southerland
Mar 21, 2019
Print this page
Email this article

The wooden trestle Indian Bridge was ready. On the far side of the river, rails already extended south through the canvas shanty town of Red River City and into the newly created, newly named, three-month-old town site of Denison.

At Colbert's Station on the north bank of the Red River, Dick Yost stood by with 100 laborers ready to lay the high iron over the bridge floor and hammer home the spikes to make the connection to the rails across the river. He said that he could have it done by Monday. It was Saturday afternoon, December 21, 1872.

S. W. Shellenberger, the road's assistant principal engineer, and the man in charge at Colbert's, told Yost to take his time; it would be Tuesday, Christmas Eve, before Colonel Robert S. Stevens and Major Otis Gunn, the railroad's general manager and its chief engineer would be on hand for the crossing. Yes, Tuesday would be soon enough and noon would be a fine time to set out.

Typical 4-4-0 American locomotive of the type that probably brought the first train across the Indian Bridge.

Tuesday was cold. The sky to the north had the color of slate that promised a coming norther. The wind was sharp and cutting, and it set the flurries of snow dancing as they drifted down from the clouds. The train at Colbert's Station was loaded with construction materials, heavy with rails and ties to serve as a first test of the new bridge. Stevens and Gunn were there, sharing space on an extra car added to the end of the consist and filled with a standing room only crowd of railroad officials and local VIPs eager to be in on the first crossing. There were other “passengers” of course. All manner of track layers, gandy dancers, hard cases, and other railroad hands that gravitated to the end of the track, piled onto the cars for the ride.

The fireman stoked his firebox; the conductor gave the highball. and the train rolled onto the bridge, high over the muddy waters of the Red, past Ben Colbert's ferry on the left and south into Texas. The hangers-on and pug-uglies in Red River City came out to shout curses and throw rocks at the train as it rumbled through the tent city, picking up speed to take the rising hill before it dashed into Denison four miles away.

Denison was ready. In the town, if one could properly call it a town as yet, people turned out in droves to welcome the train. They cheered and hurrahed and danced in the muddy streets before dissolving into small groups and headed for the warmth and welcome of the saloons and dance halls on Main Street and the brothels and bawdy houses a block south on Skiddy to partake of their own Yule tide celebration.

Newspaper article highlighting the 1932 re-enactment of the first train into Denison.

Christmas Day brought another first. Engine No. 15, with Pat Tobin at the throttle and the whistle tied down to produce a continuous scream, brought the first regular train over the river and into Denison. But Tobin and No. 15 were only an olio to the performance of the day before. Most of the town was either quietly keeping the holiday or too hung over or worn out from the celebration of the day before to pay much attention.

Even the local newspaper, the Denison Daily News took a matter of fact approach. The first through train from the north over the M.K.&T. Railway arrived in our city Christmas night at 7 o'clock. There were two passenger coaches and one Pullman Palace car with the train and over 100 passengers.

Kiowa Chief Santanta was on his way to Huntsville and prison for the Warren wagon train massacre when came through Denison on Christmas Day.

“Satanta and Big Tree, the celebrated Indian Chiefs, were on the train, in charge of the officers, and remained in Denison overnight. They are being taken back to the State prison at Huntsville....”

As Satanta and Big Tree, the Kiowa chiefs whose arrest at the reservation near Fort Sill and trial at Jacksboro following the Warren Wagon Train Massacre in 1871 had created a short lived hope for quiet on the frontier line, passed through Denison that Christmas, so passed the frontier. The West of manifest destiny was fading.

The eventual reach of the M-K-T from St. Louis to the Gulf.

It would live on for decades as the West of imagination, but the rails that tracked south into the interior of Texas marked a future of steel and steam. Within a year the Houston & Texas Central would push north into Denison, and more lines and more cars and more of everything that defined civilization, for good or bad, would follow in the wake of that first December crossing over the Indian Bridge.