Their song began long ago. In fact, their tune was first, before a single Denton band you can name. It was before UNT’s jazz school and its evolution into one of the most prestigious music schools in the world.
It’s a tune almost as old as our city, a sound as much a part of the fabric of Denton life as anything I can think of. It chugs through here day and night, sometimes shrill, always bellowing. I’m talking about trains.
A few weeks ago, I wrote about nuances of Denton I hadn’t noticed before Tim and I moved our home here last fall. I mentioned brighter stars, owls and night critters, things more country-like than city. And I talked about trains. We moved from the DFW Airport landing pattern where our home hummed with jet traffic to Denton where our home is serenaded by trains’ clacking and whistling. I can tell you from experience, the sounds are as different as head-banging noise-rock is from a classical jazz trio.
Musical as they are, I’ve thought a lot about these Denton trains since we’ve just recently learned to sleep to their song. In the more than 14 years I’ve worked in downtown, the trains have always trekked through, but no one really ever talks about them, the one exception being the Denton County Transportation Authority (DCTA) A-train. We are all well-versed about the A-train’s importance to Denton, and we know it goes no further north than downtown. My curiosity was piqued to learn about the countless other trains, the ones passing through on their way from somewhere to somewhere else without even slowing down.
Denton was in her early 20s as a city when Texas and Pacific Railroad completed a northeast to southwest track from Sherman to Fort Worth and another from Missouri, Kansas into Dallas. Both tracks completed in 1881 ran right through the city, doubling the population to 2,500. This would be the largest population swell Denton would know until the 1980s. We had a rail outlet. But according to The Texas State Historical Association (TSHA), the city of Denton had only north-south rail connections, which prohibited our growth into a manufacturing and wholesale center.
Former Denton city councilmember Bob Montgomery is passionate about history. He helped me build a tour between Denton and Abilene some years ago, serving as historical counsel. Bob talked often about how towns developed relevant to the railroad. When the railroad came to town, it usually spawned commerce with bustling warehouses, delivery and switching yards, depots and businesses catering to travelers.
Since Denton didn’t become a wholesale center, I wondered what the trains do mean to Denton. Is there money in their songs? Mark Nelson, Denton Director of Transportation, says the trains passing through are doing just that, passing through. There are some businesses built along the tracks for shipping reasons, like Morrison Milling. Obviously, having the track available was a plus when Morrison’s was looking for their original site more than 100 years ago. The same can be said today of TetraPak, Peterbilt, and others that opted for establishing their headquarters here because of rail accessibility.
“There’s obviously a positive impact for Denton that the rail comes through, especially as an economic development incentive,” Nelson said. “It’s just not a measurable impact in the context of the train industry itself, because the trains don’t stop. They just keep moving.”
The A-train is the exception, he added. It reaches the northern-most stop on its route in downtown Denton numerous times a day, loading and unloading passengers, most of them commuters.
So, how did Denton hold its own when Lewisville and points east had depots and railroad-specific commerce? When the east-west railway missed Denton in the later 1800s in favor of Sanger, Valley View and Krum? It’s interesting to note Denton’s large size as compared with some of these little railroad towns dotting our county, isn’t it?
TSHA says, “It (Denton) was founded in 1857 in order to become the county seat, because residents wanted one located near the center of the county.” It really is that simple. The railroad came, but it didn’t define Denton. Instead, at the same time as the rail lines opened, a different distinguishing feature emerged that breathed life into Denton. Our universities were born, first UNT and then TWU. “Although the colleges' influence was slight for several years, they ultimately did more to establish the character of Denton than any other single influence,” according to the TSHA online.
My curiosity about trains through Denton is assuaged. Now, when wheels clack against the track in sync with a chugging engine and musical wail of a horn, I wonder no more. Instead, I hum along with the old tune and just enjoy the trains.