The Katy Railroad

Donna Hunt

We all know that the Missouri-Kansas & Texas Railroad was responsible for there being a Denison, Texas. That railroad arrived here on Dec. 24, 1872. But, I wonder how many know that between 1877 and 1895 at least five more railroads found a way to this new North Texas town and set up their headquarters. Even more were planning to come, but just never made it.

After receiving a call from Jan Heath, who was raised in Denison and now lives in Irving, I began doing research on one of those railroads. Jan was looking for a picture of a train known as "The Nellie" taken at the railroad station in Ambrose. His dad had loaned it to me many years ago and fortunately I had returned it. But it had been lost and Jan wanted a copy for his file.

I began a search for the picture and as luck would have it, I had copied it and had stored it on one of my many CDs. Then I began thinking "column," but didn't know anything about "The Nellie." In fact, I was wrong in thinking that it went across the bridge at Carpenter's Bluff into Oklahoma.

I found a few things about it and really got confused. So I send out a "SOS" to some of my railroad friends. Soon tidbits began coming in through e-mails.

Jack Maguire, well-known Denison author wrote a little about "The Nellie" in his book, about Denison, "The Katy's Baby." In fact, his father, J.E. Maguire was the last regular engineer on the line before it was abandoned in 1929.

But wait, I'm getting ahead of myself. "The Nellie" was a nickname for the Denison, Bonham and New Orleans (DB&NO) Railroad. One railroader said the initials stood for the "Dead Broke and Not Operating" railroad.

The DB&NO was chartered on Jan. 27, 1887, but by 1901 still hadn't completed its line from Denison to Bonham and it was out of money. The Katy stepped in and had it rechartered, then completed laying track into Bonham, the county seat of Fannin County. The Katy operated it until 1923 when it was sold to some people in Bonham.

The small railroad originated as a project financed by a group of bankers and businessmen in Denison and Bonham, according to a Texas State Historical Association article by Beverly M.J. Christian in The Handbook of Texas Online.

It's capital was $200,000 and its headquarters was in Denison. Members of the first board of directors were W.B. Munson, T.B. Narms, A.R. Collins, W.C. Tignor and Saul Harma, all of Denison; and S.B. Allen, W.A. Nunnelee, John Sharger and R.W. Campbell, all of Bonham. Although they were able to begin building the railroad, the project soon failed, then a new company was incorporated as the Denison, Bonham and New Orleans Railroad Company on Jan. 23, 1901. Capital stock was $100,000.

Christian related that the DB&NO RR Co acquired the partly graded roadbed of the original railroad and in 1901 completed a 24-mile line between Bonham Junction and Bonham. Between Denison and Bonham Junction, the DB&NO operated over the MK&T Railway by the Katy under contract and later leased the line. However, it was not included in the Katy reorganization of 1923. The line was operated by receivers from March 21, 1923, until Feb. 6, 1925, when it was bought by several Bonhamites. In 1928 the 12 employees received total pay of $15,000 and operation ceased on Nov. 30 that year. The company abandoned the line the following year.

"The Nellie" was a daily passenger train when it operated between Denison and Bonham. John Scott said his uncles, Raymond Bemis and Walter Scott, always referred to the trains as "Nellie." From the tales they told, they frequently rode the train to the Ambrose or Ravenna area to go rabbit hunting during the years between 1915 and the end of the line. John said his 1907 Katy timetable shows two round trips between Denison and Bonham each day.

Jan said he had heard that when the train passed just west of Bells from Ambrose and blew its whistle in the evening, that was a signal for workers to head home. Nellie passed at the same time every day and workers depended upon her being on time so that they could quit work.

Maguire said, in his book, that the train was anything but deluxe as trains are today. He called it a "mixed" train whereby passengers, baggage and mail rode in one rickety wooden car. Freight, when there was a shipment, went in cars that were attached to the rear.

People loved the little train's informality on the 28 mile trip. Maguire said his father recalled how the crew liked to make the trip more fun for the passengers. When watermelons were in season, he would stop "Nellie" by a melon patch and everyone would get off the train and feast on watermelon.

John Markl said the DB&NO left the Denison-Bells line at a point called "Bona" near Mountain Creek Drive. From there it veered northeast to meet with the KO&G at Gover, about a mile south of Carpenter's Bluff. That's about as close to Carpenter's Bluff as "The Nellie" ever ran.

At that location the KO&G turned from south to east to continue on to Denison. The DB&NO interchanged with the KO&G at Gover because to interchange between the two roads at Denison required payment to both the Southern Pacific (H&TC) and the Frisco (SLSF) to otherwise interchange cars at Denison in the Katy Depot area.

The DBNO arrived in Bonham from the north, just east of downtown. John said the last time he was in Bonham the depot still existed, but had been moved a few blocks to the north.

Roy Jackson of Beechgrove, TN, a railroad buff and an expert on the Katy Railroad, said that an issue of the KRHS Historical Bulletin has a graphic of the lines scheduled from an MK&T 1909 timetable. It shows trains 723 running daily except Sunday and 257 running daily from Bonham to Denison. Trains 258 ran daily and 724 ran daily except Sunday from Denison to Bonham. Towns or junctions listed were Denison, Bonham, Junction, Ambrose, Spies, Steges, Ravenna and Bonham.

Some of the other small railroad in Denison during that period were the Denison & Southeastern Railway that went to Greenville chartered July 27, 1877, the Denison and Pacific Railway, chartered on April 24, 1878, with the idea of establishing a route to California; the Texas Extension Railway Company, and the Denison and Washita Valley (D&WV) that was incorporated on Jan. 8, 1886.

DONNA HUNT is a former editor of The Denison Herald. She lives in Denison and can be contacted at