Few pioneers of El Paso remain to tell of the Christmas eve and Christmas day in 1881. Out of the 200 or 300 “immigrants” of that year I can count scarcely a score remaining here. Some had come from the sunny South, some from the golden West and others from the snowy Northland, along the Southern Pacific and Santa Fe railroads or by stage from east Texas to settle and build the embryo metropolis – lawyers, editors, bankers, surveyors, doctors, merchants, carpenters, ministers, gamblers, contractors, adventurers, saloon men – all young. Money was plentiful. There were no beggars. The town was “wide open.”
The business center was San Francisco street, on which were only the great stores of Ketelson & Degetau, Shulz Bros., Ochoa and the First National Bank, just established by J.W. Zollare on the present site of Longwell’s livery stable.
The law firm of Hagaue & Coldwell was on the corner of Santa Fe and San Francisco streets. There was also the beer hall of Binder where Beisswenger’s Tivoli now is. The only residences on that street were of Judge Hague, W.W. Mills and Y.P. Detter.
Huts on El Paso Street
El Paso street was then lined with unsightly one-story adobe huts from San Francisco street south to a little below Overland, the only modern structures being Major Fewell’s building on the corner of San Antonio and El Paso streets, then occupied by the James’ clothing store; the newly-erected Davis building, on the corner of El Paso and Overland streets, now the site of the Grecian theater, the one-story brick building on the opposite corner, wherein is now Shelton & Payne’s store.
Stuart & Southerland ran the Pioneer grocery store in a big canvas-covered structure still below and across the street, the farthest store south on the street. On the east side of the street where the grocery stores of Zach White, Hardy, J. Schwingle and I, Haas, and just above were the drug stores of Nichol and W.A. Irvin, and where is now the Hotel Fisher, was Pete Kern’s famous jewelry Store and diamond palace.
Pharmacy on Corner
The old Rio Grande pharmacy was run by me at the corner where the Grecian theater is. The meat markets were all on the same street, run by A. Cazaux and Jack Krater; the latter on the site of the first National Bank on the corner. On the corner of Overland street was the only restaurant in town, conducted by “Doc” Cummings, a former desperado, who afterward died with his boots on. A little north of his place was the liquor store of Thomas & Mitchell, and adjoining it the store of B. Schuster. Near the present Hotel Fisher was the courtroom of Justice Johanson, the only court in El Paso, in an old adobe shack. On the other side of the White House was the old central Hotel, the only hotel in El Paso county, and run by John Dougher, father-in-law of William McCoy.
Kohlberg Bros. had a cigar stand on the site of the Hotel Sheldon. The business houses mentioned were all there were on El Paso and San Francisco streets. Everything else was saloons, gambling houses and variety theaters. To a stranger, indeed it looked at first that gambling and drinking were the chief businesses of El Paso in 1881. The most famous were the Pony, on the present site of the Hotel Paso del Norte and the Senate saloon, where the Princess Theater now is. Down below the corner of El Paso and Overland streets was the old Coliseum theater, where congregated the toughest element in the West.
On San Antonio street the only business houses were Emerson & Berrien’s furniture store, Annie Burns’ restaurant and H.B. Hillebrand’s Gooseneck and the summer garden. North of the Southern Pacific railroad track there was nothing but a mesa covered with greaswood and mesquites.
New Cottages on San Antonio
Most of the new residences were cottages, strung along San Antonio street and Magoffin avenue from the present Mesa avenue to Magoffinville, as Judge Magoffin’s homestead was then called. The Presbyterian church was being erected on Myrtle street, most of the carpenter work being done by Parson J.W. Merrill. The Episcopal church occupied a tent on the corner of Myrtle and Stanton streets. Some of the new residences were homes of W.E. Kneeland, Tom and Zeke Newman, Dr. Rose, A. Krakauer, Major Fewell, Charles Davis, Dr. McKinney, Dan Kelly, Judge Blacker, R. M. McKee, C.W. Fassett, Thomas Kerr, O.T. Bassett, M. Loomis, Colonel James Marr, W.S. Hills, Emmerson and Berrien, W. Tuttle and Dr. Irvin.
First Christmas Tree
The first Christmas tree I ever saw in El Paso was in a little wooden structure on the north side of San Antonio street between Oregon street and Mesa avenue (then Utah street). The building had been erected a month previously, November 1881, to accommodate a theatrical troupe that played only one night.
The Rev. J. Wilkin Tays, whom we all loved and called “Parson Tays,” was the pioneer missionary and founder of St. Clement’s Episcopal. Church. The night was too cold to have the festivities in the tented church, and they were held in this thespian temple. The tree was a pine cut in the Sacramento mountains and brought by Joe Johanson in a wagon over 150 miles.
Pioneer families Attend
It was a memorable night, when nearly all the pioneer families met on that first Christmas even in the little house in 1881.
The good parson had invited every child in the town and had seen that every one of them was provided with a present. He acted the part of Santa Claus, powdering his hair and long beard and clothing himself like a real Santa.
Sing Christmas Carols
The choir, composed of pioneer ladies, rendered the Christmas carols in a manner worthy of a metropolitan church. Even we older folk were not neglected, for nearly all of us received presents from old Santa Claus. The young ladies especially were recipients of presents from scores of young men, and the fun of it can be imagined when the parson would call off the names. Like the great municipal Christmas tree at the park last night, the first Christmas tree was not a sectarian tree, as every one had a hand in contributing presents. It was a joyous event, recalling our old homes and Christmas eves in far distant lands.
Great Revelry at Night
Later that night there was a scene on El Paso street baffling description. All the sporting element and many a business man joined in a grand revelry. Pandemonium broke loose. Men masked and garbed like kings’ jesters, Ku-Klux, Indians, witches, cowboys and rustlers. Bankers, doctors, merchants, lawyers, gamblers, etc., joined in the revelry, carrying torches, shooting rifles, pistols and bombs, blowing tin horns and pounding base drums and tin pans.
Eggnog in tubs
Tom and Jerry and eggnog were bailed out of tubs and crocks, free, in huge mugs and dippers, to everybody. I doubt if there was a man in town who was not sick the next morning, and many failed to eat their Christmas dinners. Such was the way the “81-ers” celebrated their first Christmas eve in El Paso.