Like many, we always assumed that “Frisco,” the nickname out-of-towner’s often use for our fair city of San Francisco, was derived from “Francisco.” We were wrong. Here is the great story of the origins of the Frisco Railroad name and logo, a railroad that operated in the Midwest and South Central U.S. from 1876 to 1980. It is taken from 100 Years of Service, a booklet produced by the railroad in 1960 on the occasion of its centennial (the precursors of the Frisco Railroad began operating in 1860):
Few employees of the Frisco Railroad are acquainted with the history of the Frisco emblem or insignia which appears on timetables, advertising material, annual reports, calendars, etc., and is used by Employee Clubs on the railroad in making up their yearbooks.
Several years ago a pageant was given at Springfield, Mo., which told the history of that city on Frisco Lines, and after much research the story of how the Frisco emblem came into being, was uncovered. The story is authentic, and was compiled by Miss Eula Mae Stratton, employed in the Springfield General Office.
Before the turn of the century, so the old timers say, Mr. G.H. Nettleton, then Vice-President of the railroad (which was then known as the old KCM&B) was making an inspection tour of the system. The train pulled into the station of Neosho, Mo., (some old timers say it was Carthage, but most historians say it was Neosho), with the private car stopping in view of the west end of the depot building on which was tacked a coon hide to dry.
When Mr. Nettleton saw the coon hide, he immediately summoned the agent (Sam Albright, so the story goes)…to the business car.
“What’s that thing tacked onto the depot?” roared the Vice-President…”and just why are we using company property for tanning hides?”
We are told that Sam, not a soft-spoken man anyway, and a very busy railroader, told the Vice-President that it was hard to support a family on the $1.25 per ten hour day railroading, and that he was catching, tanning and selling coon hides to supplement his salary.
“Don’t you know railroading comes first?” said the Vice-President, and then to Sam’s surprise the Vice-President grinned and said…”Well, having a hobby is OK. How much will you take for that coon skin?”
The story goes that Sam was so startled that he blurted out…”Two bucks.”
And the deal was closed, leaving Sam in wonderment as to what on earth the official wanted with the pelt.
But it was not long afterward until an ink outline of the tightly stretched coon hide began to appear on Frisco drawing boards in the General Office Drafting Room in St. Louis, but instead of hanging up-and-down, the hide was turned horizontally.
Since the St. Louis-San Francisco Railway is made up of a number of smaller roads, some of which were — the old Southwest Branch, the Pacific Railroad, the KCM&B and others, with General Offices in St. Louis (and at one time before the Civil War the Frisco and Santa Fe operated jointly into San Francisco, Calif) it was only logical to combine the “F R” from Francisco,…the “I S” from the latter part of St. Louis, and the “C O” for Company, which produced…
F R I S C O
[which was] inserted inside the coon skin outline.
Early in 1900 many documents carried the emblem and in 1904, the time cards came out with the now well known cut.
The emblem is the pride of all Frisco employees, as it stands for service to shippers and passengers in the nine state territory.
(The original coon skin from which the emblem was visualized, is now in a frame in the General Office Building in St. Louis, Mo.)
We were amazed to discover how an iconic logo shape was derived from a stretched raccoon skin discovered by chance on, naturally, a railroad journey. It’s a great example of how you never know exactly when and where inspiration will strike, and how something that might appear to be a “throwaway” or even actively marring your brand presentation just might possibly lead you to something very important. And like all great brands, this one keeps on giving, long after its “death.”
October 31, 1929, just days after the start of the stock market slide that triggered the Great Depression, the early country music duo Darby and Tarlton released a record called, “Lonesome Frisco Line,” presented here via YouTube (crank it up loud):
And while the Railroad itself may be gone, the name and logo live on in the town of Frisco, Texas, a rapidly growing suburb of Dallas, named after the railroad that birthed it long ago:
When the Dallas area was being settled by American pioneers, many of the settlers traveled by wagon trains along the old Shawnee Trail. This trail was also used for cattle drives north from Austin. This trail later became the Preston Trail, and later, Preston Road. Preston Road is one of the oldest North South Roads in all of Texas. With all of this activity, the community of Lebanon was founded along this trail and granted a U.S. post office in 1860. In 1902, a line of the St. Louis-San Francisco Railway was being built through the area, and periodic watering holes were needed along the rails for the steam engines. The current settlement of Lebanon was on the Preston Ridge and was thus too high in elevation, so the watering hole was placed about four miles (6 km) to the west on lower ground. A community grew around this train stop. Residents of Lebanon actually moved their houses to the new community on logs. The new town was originally named Emerson, but that name was rejected by the U.S. Postal Service as being too similar to another town in Texas. In 1904, the residents chose Frisco City in honor of the St. Louis-San Francisco Railway on which the town was founded, later shortened to its present name.
And now for something completely different. Digging deeper into “Frisco” via the Oxford English Dictionary, we discovered that it is also a great, old, obsolete English word meaning, “A brisk movement in dancing; a caper.” Here are the only usage examples given by the OED:
1520(?): J. Rastell Nature .iiii. Elem. — That shall both daunce & spryng‥with fryscas & with gambawdis round.
1566: J. Partridge Worthie Hystorie Plasidas — With fetching frischoes here and there.
1598: R. Barckley Disc. Felicitie of Man — He fetched at the last such a frisco, that he fell downe and brake his necke.
1608: R. Armin Nest of Ninnies — Shee longed to heare his friscoes morrallised, and his gambals set downe.
1675: H. Teonge Diary — Having taken their frisco, returnd as they cam.
That last one brings us full circle: Having taken our FRISCO, we returned as we came. This train across time is still chugging along, “thinking of those rocky hills ahead,” but it’s time for us to get off.