Sherman/Denison: Home of the First Interurban Rail Line in Texas

Imagine life before electricity, a phone, a radio, or even a TV, in every American home. Imagine listening to your favorite stories gathered round the wood burning stove on a Saturday night with your family on the radio. Imagine having a date on Saturday night with your best gal or guy that included watching Red Skelton in front of the local appliance store on the sidewalk through what must have seemed like a monstrous plate glass window. Imagine before most Americans installed air conditioning. This was life way before even those innovative creature comforts in the year 1901. 

What Was an Interurban Rail Line? 

Before interstates and decent roads for local horseless carriages, the U.S. commuted and socialized via interurban trains. Interurban railway systems and train cars connected small towns and large cities throughout the U.S. circa 1900. These rail lines used the latest clean-energy innovations with electric overhead wires called catenary lines, which provided electric power to the trains and their tracks. 

Interurban cars were bigger and more comfortable than a standard street car, think San Francisco with passengers hanging halfway outside the car, and passengers didn’t arrive at their destination smelling like soot-puffing smoke. A magical place known as Woodlake between Sherman and Denison was the creator of wonderful memories because of Texas’ first interurban rail line. 

I give no credit to myself, for I am simply retelling this story by the grace of the now defunct in production, but very much alive online, Texoma Living Magazine, and its author, Dan Acree, the Texas State Historical Association, and other Texas state historical resources. The interurban rail lines created the modern suburb we see globally in today’s second decade of the 21st century. 

P. Crearer, local North Texas businessman, built his ten-mile Denison and Sherman interurban rail line between Sherman and Denison in 1901. But, he needed an attraction for passengers; he needed to motivate people to want to ride in his new interurban train cars. Summertime was hot–smoldering hot before air conditioning became the norm. People slept outside on porches, even in the big cities like New York City. 

Eventually, J. P.’s investment spawned significant economic development in North Central Texas. The interurban’s lifespan was short. Interurban commuting trends peaked in 1916 in the U.S. Part of the reason for its decline involved President Woodrow Wilson’s Federal Aid Road Act, which increased federal funding to improve public roads throughout the U.S. to the tune of $75 million.

In the meantime, there was this nice little oasis halfway between Sherman and Denison called Tanyard Springs. Tanyard Springs was a natural flowing spring surrounded by elm, oak, and hickory trees. J. P. built a dam on Tanyard Springs, which formed a small lake, and built a summer getaway resort for thousands of visitors that vibrantly thrived for two decades. 

P. christened his resort Woodlake. J. P. went all out. Attractions included boating, swimming, fishing, picnic grounds, a zoo, various carnival rides, a flume, a baseball diamond, a Victorian casino, an open-air dance pavilion, and a penny arcade that was also used as a roller skating rink. J. P. spurred Texas into the age of the “Interurban of Things”. He built and owned the first interurban rail line in Texas. 

From published reports or oral history tapes at the Sherman Public Library: 

Picture family picnics, barefooted children wading happily in shallow waves, lazy fishing from the bank with simple poles and tackle in the middle of a hot Texas summer day displaying blooming roses, crepe myrtles, and magnificent magnolia trees while young lovers strolled away from prying eyes on a tranquil shaded path. All with none of the conveniences we have today. 

Passengers boarded the interurban headed for Woodlake at the Woodard Street depot in Denison, and at the company’s downtown headquarters at the corner of Lamar and Travis. It costs 15 cents for a round-trip ticket to Woodlake. The interurban ran hourly from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. I wonder what happened to the young lovers when they missed their train home? 

Riding the interurban in Grayson County was a big to-do. Men dressed in suits with ties and straw hats. The ladies wore their finery–ankle-length, white dresses with long sleeves, long gloves, high-button shoes, and fancy hats. 

But to go for a swim, that took preparation. The bath house provided changing accommodations. Men transitioned into knee-length tank swimsuits. The women donned swimming attire in the form of bloomers, long stockings, and rubber shoes. One of Woodlake’s attractions was a wooden flume where passengers rode in canoes down the chute into Woodlake. 

I cannot imagine riding down a wooden chute in a canoe in bloomers. You could rent a boat for 25 cents at Woodlake. Local boat racers from Denison and Sherman competed against each other while onlookers rooted for their boy to win! But, the best place at Woodlake came to be the luxurious two-storied, twenty-thousand square foot Victorian-style opera house Casino overlooking the lake, decorated with velvet sofas and stained glass windows.  

During peak season in the summertime, people enjoyed vaudeville shows, musicals, minstrel shows, high school productions, and eventually motion pictures at the opera house. Capacity at the Casino was 900. J. P. sold his Woodlake resort to the Texas Traction Company in 1908, and in 1918, Texas Electric Railway Company bought the park.

By 1915, the Texas Traction Company had built an open-air dance pavilion at Woodlake, which showcased local musicians playing the pop tunes of the day like “Yes Sir, That’s My Baby”. The Texas Traction Company expanded its Sherman/Denison line from Dallas to McKinney. 

The Texas Electric Railway Company expanded and afforded Grayson County residents to  travel easily on interconnecting routes to Waco, Ft. Worth, and Terrell, Texas, at the height of interurban commuting. By 1918, several innovations and fresh genres of entertainment began to change Woodlake’s landscape, along with the rest of the U.S. riding the interurban rails. 

Several factors had a major impact on the decline of interurban transportation. By 1918, there was a public cry for good roads for long distance traveling in cars and interstate road organization. The horseless carriage was here to stay. President Wilson answered the cry and signed the Federal Aid Road Act, which led to the design of,  and in part, a national road system. 

In time, the statistics proved many tragic interurban accidents caused death and injuries which were received with fear by patrons. The motion picture industry kept city dwellers entertained in downtown town centers, and finally the radio could tell the grandest stories to families gathered at night after dinner for no charge and to homemakers throughout their workaday chores. 

By 1929, Woodlake had fallen into disrepair with few visitors, and Texas Electric Railway closed the park. A group of Grayson County residents purchased Woodlake for private use. It must have been a great outing for Grayson County residents in the early 1900s to be only five miles away from a great entertainment center. 

A five-mile horse ride took about an hour in 1901, and you sure could not wear suits and white dresses on a horseback ride and expect to come out looking fresh as a daisy while carrying your tank and bloomer swimsuits in your saddlebags. The interurban to Woodlake created family memories and marriages. 

I would be so excited today to jump on the interurban from Sherman to the bygone Woodlake, but I digress into sentimental history. 

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