The Varnish
By Edward Southerland
Jul 30, 2018
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He knew the schedule and would keep an eye on the clock. Most days, if he wasn’t busy with a customer, and if the weather wasn’t something to be avoided, he would step out of the lumberyard’s office just before the appointed time and walk the half block over to the depot to watch her roar by.

The Special over the road.

My grandfather didn’t bother with the long freights or the other passenger trains that rumbled along past the picnic grounds and the pond where the trains had once stopped for water, past the station agent’s little office in the Leonard depot where the telegrapher’s Morse key resonated against the empty Prince Albert Tobacco tin. The only train that brought him out was The Texas Special—the high varnish of the Missouri-Kansas-Texas Railway. 

In a very special way, it was his train. In time, when I would visit in the summer and spend the day at the lumberyard, climbing in the lofts and digging in the dunes of the big concrete sand and gravel bins, I too would wait for the red and white streamliner with the long string of silver cars filled with people going to places far away. I’d stand alongside the track and wave at the engineer, who would always wave back. 

For me, like my grandfather, the train was a magic carpet worth of Aladdin. I rode it once. It was in the early '50s when, with my grandparents, we caught the train in Denison and rode a coach car through the night to St. Louis, where we changed to the Alton’s Ann Rutledge for the trip to Illinois to spend Thanksgiving with my uncle. At least I think we road The Texas Special. It might have been the Flyer, or the Limited, but I just can’t imagine my grandfather taking any train but his favorite.

In a time, from the turn of the last century into the 1960s, there was no finer way to travel from middle America to the booming southwest than the trains wearing the red and white livery of the M-K-T. The first of note on the line was The Katy Flyer, whose inaugural run was in 1896. By 1905, the Flyer was advertised as the fastest way from St. Louis to Galveston. It made the run in just over a day and a half, thirty-seven hours by the timetable, and boasted a “broiler-buffet-sleeper” car for those patrons who didn’t want to leave the train for meals. In 1936, to honor Texas’ first one hundred year the train was rebranded The Centennial Flyer and offered specials to the yearlong festivities at the Centennial Exposition in Dallas. 

For those who wanted to stretch their legs and dine away from the clickity-clack of steel wheels on steel rails, the Flyer offered restaurants at three meal stops —Parsons, Kansas, McAlester, Oklahoma, and Dallas. “The price is only fifty cents,” extolled the advertisements, “and the railway spares no pains or expense to please the most fastidious.” So well known was The Flyer that there was a song about the train.

The Texas Special begin service on December 5, 1916, pulled by a great steam locomotive with white rimmed drivers and burnished rods. Sometimes it added a head end reefer (an iced refrigerator car) to its consist to rush the season’s first crop of strawberries and melons from the Rio Grande Valley to the waiting markets in the north. 

It was soon joined by The Bluebonnet and The Katy Limited. In the 1920s The Limited often pulled six sleepers to San Antonio, a city the line was touting as “The Winter Playground of America.” But through it all, when the pride of the road was reflected in the gleaming brass and immaculate shine on the silver in the dining car Sam Houston, The Texas Special was number one.

Front cover of menu on the Bluebonnet.

In 1948, the Katy introduced a new, “Flagship of the Southwest.” It was a bright red and white streamliner with The Texas Special name emblazoned under the number boards and on the observation car drumhead, and a white Lone Star centered under the headlamp, this was the train my grandfather watched for each day. 

A first day issue celebrating the inaugural run of the new streamlined version of The Texas Special.
By that time The Texas Special was a joint operation of the Katy and the St. Louis & San Francisco—the Frisco. Sleek, light weight, red and silver cars coaches and fourteen and fours (fourteen roomettes and four bedrooms) provided the passenger accommodations. All the cars carried the names of important figures in Texas history, including the James B. Bonham and the James W. Fannin.

The locomotive unit emblazoned with the Lone Star.

The engine was an ALCO PA-1, and cure any hunger pangs, you could dine is style on the thirty-six seat diner, Sam Houston or the Alexander Doniphan. Once seated you could try two of the Katy’s signature offerings, the Katy Kornettes, silver dollar-sized cornbread rounds or the Katy Special Onion Soup, introduced to highlight the onion growing industry. Recipes for both of these specialities follow at the end of the article.

The trains also offered a light buffet in the rear observation cars, Stephen F. Austin and Joseph Pulitzer. For a more mellow libation, or to visit with fellow travelers, the Mirabeau B. Lamar, or the Temple lounge cars awaited your order.

The observation lounge car with the name on the drum head.

In 1954, Lionel added a Texas Special to their catalogue. The five-foot miniature with the figures of travelers silhouetted against the lighted windows of the passenger cars made many a trip around tall green Christmas trees with would be engineers at the controls.

An advertising ink blotter.
The Special, designated Trains 1 and 2, ran daily between San Antonio and St. Louis, where through sleepers were available to New York City over the Pennsylvania RR rails, and Washington, D.C.over the Baltimore & Ohio. The latter was the favorite ride of Congressman Sam Rayburn from Bonham. Leave San Antonio on #1 at 12:01 p.m. and you would be in Dallas at 6:35 p.m. and in Denison at 8:55 p.m., where the train was serviced and a section from Fort Worth joined the consist. If all went well, you arrived in St. Louis at 8:30 a.m., 981.7 miles from the Alamo city starting point.

Tom Mc Holmes, of Trenton recalled riding the Special on the weekend, just for the joy of the thing. “My dad and I used to go to Greenville, catch number 2, and ride to Temple where it met number one headed north. After he died, I was a little lost, and decided to get back on board when I could. I would eat in the dining car, go to the lounge to visit with the other travelers. It was great fun. If you tipped the porter, he would let you ride in one of empty roomettes. I hated to see that train die.”

The growing numbers of automobiles in post-war America, significant improvements in the nation highway systems, and the increased competition from the airline industry, presaged a gradual decline in passenger service starting in the late 1940s and continuing into the ’50s and ’60s. The Bluebonnet, the only train in the U.S. named for a wildflower ceased operations in 1948 when The Katy Flyer gave up its sleeping cars, becoming coach service only, then lost its name that same year when The Texas Special entered the streamlined era.

An artist's view of The Special and her consist.

The Katy ended passenger service in 1965 and Katy Limited and legendary Texas Special that passed daily through Leonard, it disappeared around a curve, over a rise and into memory.

The Texas Special's swan's song.

Katy Kornettes

1 1-quart sauce pan
Large mixing bowl
Pastry bag (optional)
2 large cookie sheets
Heat oven to 400º

Ingredients: Yields 48 cakes
1 quart boiling canned sweet milk
1 pound white cornmeal
4 ounces butter, softened
1 tablespoon sugar
1 teaspoon salt

Lightly grease two cookie sheets and set aside. Bring milk to boil and pour into mixing bowl. Stirring constantly, add cornmeal, butter, sugar, and salt and mix well. Let stand for 5 minutes. Using a pastry bag or tablespoon, drop silver-dollar-sized quantities onto the cookie sheets. Cool at room temperature for 15 minutes, then place in oven for about 20 minutes, until cooked–through.

Katy Special Onion Soup
Large skillet
6-quart pot

Ingredients: Yields 8 servings
6 large sweet onions in 1/8 inch dice
4 ounces butter
4 quarts rich chicken stock
4 sprigs parsley
1 clove garlic
2 bay leaves
¼ cup Worcestershire sauce
Soup croutons
Parmesan cheese, freshly grated

Slice onions into 1/8-inch dice. In the large skillet over medium heat, sauté onions in butter until light brown. Meanwhile, heat chicken stock in pot. Add sautéed onions to stock. Add parsley, garlic, bay leaves, and Worcestershire sauce. Bring to boil, reduce heat, and simmer for 20 minutes. Remove parsley, bay leaves, and garlic. Place croutons in serving bowl, pour soup over, and top with a generous portion of freshly grated Parmesan cheese.