Opinion > Star Staff
Up the Creek: First comes the bell
By Ken Byler
An old bell weighing 500 pounds was dedicated in Allen this past Wednesday night. The bell was once atop the boiler of a steam locomotive. What's special about an old train bell, you might ask?
Imagine yourself standing in a field somewhere in Collin County in 1872. That was the year Ulysses S. Grant was re-elected as president.
A few miles west of that field was the Chisholm Trail, over which hundreds of thousands of cattle, 40 days out of South Texas, had plodded their way to somewhere up north. West of the Chisholm Trail lay Comancheria. The Comanche had rolled back civilization in Texas to a line running north and south through Weatherford, Decatur and Saint Jo.
Now imagine that you had come from Tennessee or Kentucky to claim a 640-acre headright granted by Peters Colony impresarios.
Standing in that field somewhere in Collin County in 1872, you probably wouldn't have imagined that George Armstrong Custer and the 7th Cavalry's meeting with Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse was still four years away. It had been only five years earlier that Peter's Colonists and former Plano farmer Oliver Loving had been mortally wounded by Comanches out on the Llano Estacado.
The market for your cotton or grain was Galveston, more than 350 miles away. A sturdy wagon loaded with farm goods and pulled by oxen, horses or mules could make the trip to Galveston in 35 days if high water wasn't running in the creeks and rivers.
The Peters Colony, chartered by the Republic of Texas, was supposed to bring 200 colonists to North Texas every three years. But the fertile land of the Peters Colony was so remote, the impresarios William Peters and Samuel Browning weren't able to abide by the charter. The contract was rewritten four times.
But a project that began in 1853 was about to change the face of Texas and the fortunes of 7,000 folks who called Collin County home at the time.
In 1870, nearly 300 Chinese laborers had been brought to Texas from California to work on a railroad that ended just north of Bryan. A hundred thousand green bois d'arc logs were laid as crossties. The crossties had to be green because spikes couldn't be driven into seasoned bois d'arc.
Two years later, the Houston and Texas Central Railroad was laying iron rails through Collin County. Stonemasons created wondrous limestone and granite dams and bridges as the tracks were laid farther north each day.
On Christmas Eve 1873, a Houston and Texas Central locomotive that had left Galveston 35 hours earlier nosed its cow catcher against that of another locomotive. It was a Missouri, Kansas and Texas locomotive that had left Kansas City 35 hours earlier to meet the Houston and Texas Central locomotive on the south bank of the Red River.
Steam whistles blew and train bells clanged as a crowd cheered. The Port of Galveston that had once been 35 days away in good weather was now a 35-hour trip. The once inaccessible northeast was now a market for the bounty of Texas. The economy of Texas had been changed overnight.
The man whose vision was a railroad running from the gulf of Mexico to the Red River wasn't there that Christmas Eve to greet the MKT locomotive. The man had been the attorney general and the acting secretary of state for the Republic of Texas. As the attorney general for the Republic, he was probably involved in the four rewritings of the Peters Colony charter. He was the attorney general for the state of Texas and the man who chartered the Galveston and Red River Railroad and later renamed it the Houston and Texas Central. Now he was dead and almost forgotten. Almost as an afterthought, a watering station in the heart of the old Peters Colony in North Texas was given his name: Allen.
Today, reminders of the railroad that changed Texas are all around us. The old bois d'arc crossties that were laid down 140 years ago are still there under the iron rails that run through Allen. The stone dam on Cottonwood Creek is still holding water, and there's a remarkable stone bridge angled 80 feet over Sloan Creek.
Now about what's special about that bell!
Determined folks like Jim Rushing, Ed Bryan and members of the Allen Heritage Guild know that one day they'll mount that bell on a steam locomotive sitting on the tracks at the depot. And the name on that locomotive will be Ebenezer Allen, the man whose vision changed the state of Texas. All they have to do is find a locomotive before they're all gone.
Ken Byler is a Star Newspapers columnist, author and artist. Email him at email@example.com.
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