By TIM BLACKWELL/Cowcatcher Magazine
Christmas came early for the Red River Railroad Museum in Denison, TX.
Located in an office in the former Katy Depot downtown, it is a treasure trove of history, including accounts of how the railroad made its way through Indian Territory from Kansas to the bawdy little town of Red River City. Outside reside fairly well preserved relics of the Missouri-Kansas-Texas Railroad – an F unit and a couple of cabooses.
The Katy’s arrival in 1872 put Denison on the map. The railroad’s car shops, headquarters, hospital and Ray Yard sprawled across the town, providing a vital connection from the Midwest to the Gulf of Mexico.
Denison, about 100 miles north of Dallas, was the northernmost anchor in the North Texas transportation network for freight and passenger movements. By 1901 the city had grown enough to establish the first electric Interurban railway to Sherman and eventually connected Dallas and Waco.
These stories and more grace the Red River Railroad Museum. But like so many endeavors derailed by covid-19, the little museum teetered on the verge of closure in 2020.
Board discusses closing the museum
In August board members discussed dividing the collection among other museums that celebrate the Katy’s history. The volunteer staff had shrunk, and donations were desperately needed. Hours were reduced to Thursday, Friday and Saturday from noon to 2:30 p.m.
Despite sponsorships from the North Texas Chapter of the National Railway Historical Society, Markl and Sons Heating and Air Conditioning, and others, board member David Reeder told a local television station that the museum was about out of gas.
“If we do not get the funding, we do not get the volunteers, the museum will close and the items we have in the museum will be portioned out to various other railroad museums around the region,” Reeder told Fox News 12.
Then in early December a museum volunteer started a “Save the Red River Railroad Museum” online fund drive with a $50,000 goal. Seven days later, a big check arrived at the museum from the eighth-graders at Henry Scott Middle School.
The Denison High School Class of 2025 cobbled together $10,000 in hot chocolate sales and donations and handed it over (sans marshmallows). The kids raised the money through the Denison Chamber of Commerce’s annual Hot Cocoa Competition.
“We are so proud that the Scott Scholars have raised over ten thousand dollars to help save the Red River Railroad Museum,” the Chamber said in a Facebook post. “The eighth-graders from Scott Middle School have been working hard for weeks for our annual Hot Cocoa Competition and have blown everyone away with their accomplishments.”
Donation timely following depot sale
The money arrives at an opportune time. In October the depot sold to investor Marcus Patrinicola, who intends a multiuse development. The depot was built in 1914 to serve the MKT, Frisco and Houston, Texas & Central Railway (later Southern Pacific). Up to 43 passenger trains rolled through the station each day during railroading’s golden era.
While plans aren’t firm, Patrinicola, a familiar investor in town, told News 12 that casual and fine dining and entertainment venues are likely tenants.
The depot has held similar promises in the past from developers, only to see the plans collapse. This time the depot has one thing going for it – city leaders are aggressively marketing Denison as a destination.
Downtown has transformed into trendy shops, lofts, bars and restaurants where a good steak, wine and craft beer can be consumed and even a few axes thrown. The former Denison Hotel, which put up thousands upon thousands of visitors a block off Main Street in its prime, is getting a makeover as a boutique hotel. The 1880 Ice House, an Austin-style beer garden, opened about the time the depot sold.
As Dallas Area Rapid Transit’s Silver Line eases toward Plano, up the Highway 75 corridor north of Dallas, Denison may find itself in a prime spot. While no discussions have taken place lately about a reprised Denison-Dallas connection, it may not be out of the question down the road.
And that could bode well for the Red River Railroad Museum. Thanks, Class of 2025.
Learn more about the impact of the Missouri-Kansas-Texas Railroad on Denison, TX, in “Katy’s Gift,” published in the November/December 2017 Cowcatcher.