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 Texas : Features : Columns : "Texas Tales"

TESNUS, TEXAS

Brewster County, West Texas

by Mike Cox
Mike Cox
Tesnus, Texas is one of those ethereal ghost towns—except for a railroad siding and a sign, no physical evidence of it remains.

Fortunately for posterity, one of the few surviving former residents emailed me to share her memories of Tesnus, as well as providing a collection of family photographs showing where she had lived and other scenes.
Tesnus Texas - House In Snow
Tesnus in the snow
Founded in 1882 when the tracks of the Southern Pacific Railroad reached a point 23 miles southeast of Marathon in sprawling Brewster County, the town (a stretch of the word) consisted of a railroad section house, houses for the section foreman and the water pumper, telegrapher’s house and a few other structures. In addition to its role in keeping the tracks maintained and the locomotive boilers full, Tesnus provided ranchers a way to ship their cattle to market.
Tesnus Texas - RR Tracks Signal Tower
Tesnus signal tower
Tesnus Texas -  signal foreman standing outside in the snow
Signal foreman standing outside in the snow
First called Tabor, the railroad enclave lost that name when a post office application got rejected by Washington because a similarly named town already existed in Brazos County. Then Sunset arose as a fitting name for the place, considering the famed Sunset Limited passenger train came through each day. But nope, Montague County had a monopoly on Sunset, Texas.

Someone finally came up with a solution to the name problem that met the approval of the Postal Service, but more of that in a bit.

In 1945, the railroad installed a new man as signal maintainer at Tesnus. He arrived with his wife, who became the Tesnus postmistress, and five of their seven kids. (Two of their girls had married and lived elsewhere.)
Tesnus Texas - Signal foreman's kids on the motorcar
Signal foreman's kids on the motorcar
The addition of this new family pushed Tesnus’ population up to about 20 people. Throw in the folks who lived on the surrounding ranch and the postmistress had a small, but consistent volume of mail to handle.

“Patrons came up the steps to the front porch and she served [them] through her bedroom window,” remembers one of the signal maintainer’s children, who because of the career she had as a case worker for a state agency asked not to be identified. “Maxon and Haymond were the railroad towns on either side of Tesnus and those who lived in them and a ranch foreman came to Tesnus to get their mail,” she recalls.

Occasionally, the railroad would move in a work crew that lived in temporary housing the company constructed. At other times, workers would stay in gang cars left on the siding for weeks or months until a particular maintenance project got completed.

Despite the occasional influx of additional railroad workers, not much ever happened in Tesnus. The most sensational crime was when the assistant telegraph operator went on a toot and shot up the Tesnus sign. Occasionally, a railroad bull (detective) or train crewman would throw a hobo off a train, leaving him temporarily stranded there.

“Mama would feed them in return for chopping kindling,” the former resident says.

One time a skunk did get in the chicken coop.

“I was supposed to hold the dog while Mama shot the skunk,” she says. “But he was bigger than I was and broke away. Got there about the time Mama shot, but the skunk sprayed her, my sister and the dog. Tomato juice helps, but nothing cures except time.”

When a train hit a deer and word reached town in time for the meat to still be fresh, her brothers went to the spot, field dressed it and cut it up for venison on the family table. Classic big brothers, they once barbequed a rattlesnake steak and tried to talk their little sister into eating it. While she didn’t fall for that, the brothers did serve her older sister grilled mockingbird one time, telling her it was dove.

Of Tesnus, she continues, “It was mostly a railroad town, in the middle of the Gage Ranch. There was a siding for trains to meet or pass each other and it was a place for the chugga puffers [steam locomotives] to stop for water, coal, and salt. (There was ice in the refrigerator cars.)”

She said the ranch foreman lived in a house on the dirt road to Marathon, inside of a mile from Tesnus.

OK, how did they finally come up with a lasting name for Tabor cum Sunset?

Proving again the power of simplicity, to use railroad metaphor, someone suggested switching the caboose with the locomotive and spelling Sunset backwards as in T-e-s-n-u-s.
Tesnus Texas last-day postmark
The last-day postmark from Tesnus
But clever nomenclature is powerless against change. With diesel-powered trains needing fewer stops than “chugga puffers,” the railroad closed its operations in Tesnus midway into the 1950s.

When word got out that Tesnus would be no more, the town’s last postmistress had one last flurry of business mailing out last-date-of-service cancellations to stamp collectors across the nation.

The post office closed on June 15, 1954. The railroad razed all the structures it had there, leaving only the siding.

“Now,” the former Tesnus resident (Tesnusan? Tesnusite?) says, “when someone asks where I am from, I normally tell them I am not from anywhere, because my home town was torn down.”

© Mike Cox
"Texas Tales"
September 24, 2009 column
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