Historic Structures

Katy Depot - MKT Railway Passenger Station, Greenville Texas

Date added: June 27, 2022 Categories: Texas Train Station

The 1896 Katy Depot, named after the nickname of the railroad company that built it, played an important role in the lives of Greenville residents for nearly 70 years. In an era when intercity travel usually involved taking the train, the Katy Depot functioned as the point of arrival and departure of ordinary citizens as well as visiting celebrities. The station, completed in 1896, while conforming to the long, narrow plan common to many trackside passenger depots, featured a distinctive 2-story rotunda over the main waiting room, making the building unique in this part of the country. Despite the 1951 removal of the rotunda, the depot still possesses most of its original elements that identify it with the period when it played an important part in the history of rail travel in Greenville.

Prior to the arrival of the first railroad in 1880, Greenville was a quiet little settlement, without much commerce. Lack of transportation outlets constituted the primary inhibiting factor to growth and development. Without any navigable rivers or a railroad, ox-drawn wagons hauled building materials and trade goods from Jefferson, 120 miles to the east.

Although rail lines surrounded the town in all four directions in the 1870s, each was about thirty miles distant. Only horse drawn stage lines connected Greenville to the rail outlets. Wet weather often interrupted this service, causing wagons to get stuck fast in the black mud. The local newspaper, the Greenville Herald, halted publication one winter when impassable roads interfered with the shipment of paper needed to print the weekly news. Merchants sent riders on horseback to the nearest bank in Terrell for deposits and withdrawals. Markets were so difficult to reach that the tiny community only exported small quantities of agricultural products.

According to the Greenville Banner, "Business was dull in Greenville, the prospects gloomy and town lots could be bought for a song." All of this changed in the fall of 1880 when the Missouri, Kansas and Texas (MKT or Katy) Railroad extended its line to Greenville.

In February, 1880, the MKT contracted with a group of Greenville businessmen to extend their line from Denison to Greenville. The eighteen men advised the railroad that "We, for the citizens of Hunt County, guarantee to you the right of way for your road through Hunt County and suitable depot grounds, and grounds for cattle pens at Greenville, all of said land and five thousand dollars in money, provided said road is completed to Greenville by October 1, 1880 and suitable rolling stock put thereon." Daniel Upthegrove, N.I. Ross, A. Cameron, Edward Schiff, M.M. Arnold, J.W. Hawkins, W.C. Jones, J.C. O'Neal, J.J. Cooper, Fred Ende, J.T. Jenkins, M.H. Wright, A.B. Watson, F.P. Alexander, W.G. Perkins, Sam D. Stinson, I.N. Harrison, and J.C. Edmonds affixed their signatures to this challenge.

Hunt County's first train pulled into Greenville on October 1, 1880. One of the witnesses to its arrival, six year old A.W. Defee, feared the fire-breathing "monster" would leave the tracks and run him down. He ran for the nearby woods where his older brother later found him and coaxed him to come back and look at the now quiet locomotive.

Most of the right of way for the new rail line was donated. Hunt County Deed Records show that several landowners, including the City of Greenville, were paid (sometimes very little) for lots occupied by the depot and freight office (site of current depot building). T.B. Clark received $10 for three parcels deeded to the MKT in 1880. David Cameron was paid $200 the same year, and J.C. Edmunds received $10 on the transfer of a lot. In 1887, City Alderman Nathan Anderson deeded the railroad a parcel of land for $100 then, acting as agent for the City Council, sold an adjacent parcel owned by the City to the MKT for $100.

The first MKT depot in Greenville was a wood frame building on the southwest corner of Lee and Wright Streets. The Katy shared this depot with the East Line and Red River Railroad after it was purchased by MKT in November, 1881.

The 3-story brick hotel built by Fred Ende soon after the railroad reached Greenville burned to the ground in 1883, leaving commercial travelers no lodgings when selling their goods to local merchants. Another consortium of businessmen purchased several lots between Lee and Washington Streets, east of the depot, and offered to deed them to William J. Beckham if he built a forty room hotel at Lee and Oak Streets (just west of their parcel). The 50 room Beckham hotel opened October, 1885. It later grew to occupy the lots Beckham 'earned' in his bargain with the businessmen. Now the Town House, a residential hotel, the Beckham still stands.

Construction began on the permanent 2-story brick depot in 1895. It was completed in June, 1896 at a cost of $24,849, less contents. The building plan by Stephen W. Dodge, Architect of Brooklyn, N.Y. cost $250. The St. Louis firm of Thompson & Gray served as contractor. The depot was built as a passenger station only; a separate building nearby housed the railroad's freight operations.

By this time Greenville was a rail town, and the arrival of four other rail lines in the 1880s and 1890s stimulated the production of cotton and the establishment of commercial and financial institutions. The population grew from 1100 residents in 1880 to 4330 by 1890. The cotton that was too costly to ship by ox-drawn wagon to railheads thirty miles distant became the county's major crop after the railroads arrived. The few thousand bales of cotton shipped from Greenville in 1880 became ten thousand bales in 1881 and more than twenty thousand bales in 1882. Thousands of acres of blackland prairie became cotton fields, while gins, compresses, and oil mills were built to process the crop. The booming town soon had a bank and a 3-story brick hotel. By the 1890s the community shipped more than $1 million worth of cotton annually and supported 200 businesses. With the freight depot located next to the passenger station, the zone of the Katy Depot constituted the focal point for the coming and going of travelers, business people, information, and the shipping and receiving of goods vital to the area's economy.

The Katy Depot quickly became a city landmark and one of the busiest places in town. "Before the highways were built 12 passenger trains a day rolled into this...station, on the East line from Shreveport to McKinney, the Mineola branch and the Main line to Denison to the north and Dallas southward."

Special excursion trains carried Greenville area residents to the Fair in Dallas each October. Standing room only crowds took advantage of the $1 round trip Sunday fare. Greenville historian W. Walworth Harrison had fond memories of riding the Fair Train "when every car and vestibule was jammed with people carrying Concord grapes purchased at the fair while small boys clutched gaily colored gas-filled balloons."

The city's first street paving in 1906 extended along Lee Street from Stonewall Street at the courthouse square to the MKT depot. In the 1920s the railroad maintained a small park in the block south of the passenger station. Complete with fountain and flower beds, the park provided a pleasant spot for city residents and out of town passengers to pass the time waiting for their trains. Some time after passenger service to Greenville was discontinued, the City of Greenville leased the park area from the railroad and paved it to provide loading space for commercial buildings west of it. Local preservationists hope to find evidence of the original appearance and arrangement of the park in order to restore the historic environment of the depot and its associated grounds.

Well-known politicians were greeted by their constituents at the Katy Depot, including Harry Truman, who stopped at the Greenville station during his 1948 "whistle stop" campaign tour. He gave a short speech at the station after an introduction by House Speaker Sam Rayburn. He concluded his visit by presenting his wife, Bess, and daughter, Margaret, to the crowd.

Audie Murphy, World War II's most decorated soldier, went to war from the Katy station, having enlisted at the Greenville Post Office one block east of the depot.

Famous entertainers booked for performances at the King Opera House arrived at the Katy passenger station. Confederate veterans attending three day reunions in 1913 and 1914 rode the Katy to the Lee Street depot. Celebrities, salesmen, merchants, and ordinary citizens came and went via the Katy station for decades.

Greenville's infamous sign, quoting "The Land Man," Will N. Harrison, spanned Lee Street at the depot. Harrison, a local promoter and land developer, coined the phrase "Blackest Land - Whitest People" to describe his hometown. It was meant as a compliment; at that time "white" denoted "fair," "generous," "sincere," "dependable" for many people. And few places could claim soil as black as Greenville's. The Chamber of Commerce adopted the slogan after it gained Harrison an audience with President Woodrow Wilson. In 1921 the Chamber erected the sign, with Harrison's slogan, where it was seen by everyone who traveled through Greenville on the MKT railroad. Long after removal of the sign in the mid-sixties, local residents visiting out of town were asked by former passengers if "the sign" was still there by the depot.

The depot was also a personal landmark for citizens. Families began and ended their vacations at the station. A.W. Defee, the youngster who had run in fear from the first locomotive, took his bride to Tyler on the Katy in 1896. He "really got a kick out of the ride. It was really going some place." Others took summer trips to Galveston and to the St. Louis World's Fair in 1904.

Greenville resident Adele Luhn remembers taking her children to the Fair in Dallas in the 1950s. The children were impressed by the marble walls in the restrooms, she says, and insisted on buying "goodies" at the lunch counter. Her most vivid memory of the station, though, is the deafening noise the baggage carts made as their iron wheels rolled over the brick platform.

Before four-lane highways and fast automobiles made the trip to Dallas a short one, Greenvillites took the train to the city to go shopping. As a teenager, Patsy Clark rode the train to shop at Nieman Marcus. She remembers the separate entrances to the segregated waiting rooms.

Mary Virginia Duck took the train to visit relatives in Missouri when she was 11 years old. She bought food at the snack bar, then her father asked the conductor to look after her on the trip.

Some personal memories of the depot are more poignant. Many residents remember going to the depot to eagerly await local soldiers returning at the end of World War II. Some remember their first sight of the station when they arrived in Greenville on the orphan train. And for some, the Katy Depot was the place to wait quietly for the coffins of relatives who had died away from home and had returned to Greenville for the last time.

MKT passenger service to Greenville ended in 1965, after many years of declining passenger loads. Katy President John. W. Barriger said that "of late, the average patronage on the trains has been about 10 persons a train on the long Kansas City-Dallas route." Passenger trains had been replaced by the family car. When the last train left the Katy station on July 1, 1965 there was no fanfare to mark the end of an era. Witnesses included 94 year old A.W. Defee, who witnessed the arrival of the first Katy passenger train and the departure of the last one.

When passenger service ended, the depot's neighbors included an auto dealership and service station, symbolic of the dominance automobiles now possessed in the area of transportation.

Later in the 1960s, the City of Greenville pushed for demolition of the depot and freight stations, as their dilapidated condition was "causing a severe pain in the neck of civic pride." Downtown merchants favored tearing down the buildings and paving the area for downtown parking.

In February 1968, Katy Vice President of Operations Raymond B. George sent authorization for the City to remove the freight building. The City financed the demolition in exchange for a ten foot strip of right of way along Wright Street. Freight operations were moved into the former passenger station.

The Katy became part of the Union Pacific Railroad in 1988. For some time prior to the merger, freight operations were housed at the Greenville Yard, near the western boundary of the city. While the Union Pacific continued to serve the industrial park, the former MKT tracks adjacent to the downtown depot building were unused until 1992, when the Dallas, Garland and Northeastern Railroad (DGNO) began freight operations.

Violent weather severely damaged the depot roof in 1950. When the slate roof was replaced the rotunda was removed "to avoid possible danger in the event of extremely heavy storm."

The depot currently hosts the Greenville Chamber of Commerce's holiday promotion, the Christmas Train Express. Beginning the day after Thanksgiving, artists, antique dealers, and local merchants display their goods in the main waiting room and women's lounge area, surrounded by artifacts from the old station.

The depot is also used for community events. It is a regular stop on historical tours of the city conducted in conjunction with the annual Cotton Jubilee and downtown promotions.