Fort Worth History
“Where the West Begins”
The fertile, game-rich land surrounding the banks of the Trinity River had long been a favorite hunting ground for Native Americans in the area, but it soon proved irresistible to settlers as well.
A settlement had been established by Jonathon Bird in the winter of 1840, three miles east of where Birdville is today. In 1843, Sam Houston came to what was then called Fort Bird or Bird’s Fort and remained more than a month, awaiting chiefs from different tribes to discuss a peace parley. Houston departed, leaving Gen. Edward H. Tarrant and George W. Terrell to meet with the chiefs. When the tribes came to the negotiating table, a treaty was made under which the Native Americans were to remain to the west of a line traced passing through the future site of Fort Worth. The line marked “Where the West Begins” — giving Fort Worth its famous slogan.
The Establishment of Fort Worth
In an attempt to establish control over North Texas, the Republic of Texas attempted to set up a line of “ranger” (militia) forts on the frontier. When ranger stations proved inadequate, the U.S. Army stepped in and took over the job of watching the frontier. It adopted a “picket line” strategy of establishing forts every 100 miles or so, stretching from the Rio Grande in the south to the Red River in the north.
In the spring of 1849, Fort Graham on the Brazos River represented the northern anchor of that defensive line, leaving a 130-mile gap up the Red River that was a blind spot in the state’s defenses. To extend the line farther north and close that gap, Col. William S. Harney, acting commander of the Department of Texas after the death of Maj. Gen. Williams Jenkins Worth, on May 7 ordered Maj. Ripley Arnold up to the Trinity River.
Arnold took a small party of 2nd Dragoon troopers and proceeded to Johnson’s Station, where he hooked up with Middleton Tate Johnson and four other cilivians. They rode west to a spot near the confluence of the Clear and West forks of the Trinity. There, at the end of May, they planted Old Glory on the future site of Fort Worth.
A week later, Arnold was back with his entire command, the 42 men of Company F, 2nd Dragoons. The men set to work building a fort and, by the end of August, they were ready to move in.
A small civilian community grew up in the comforting shadow of the fort. No more than 100 people lived in the vicinity, most of whom were more dependent on the garrison for economic well-being than safety. Farther out from the bluffs, the county created by the state legislature in 1849 — Tarrant — also began filling up with homesteaders attracted by the rich soil and the security provided by the U.S. Army. In the next four years, the number of settlers grew to some 350 hardy souls.
On September 17, 1853, the fort was vacated. Troops were redeployed as the line marking the Western frontier made another push toward the Pacific Ocean.
Fort Worth Becomes the County Seat
Birdville was the largest town and the seat of Tarrant County in the 1850s.
Many settlers, however, already had moved into the area surrounding the Fort Worth outpost. When the troops left, residents converted the military buildings into schools, stores and churches.
Ambitious Fort Worth residents soon called a courthouse election, sparking a bitter, yet amusing, campaign. As legend has it, Birdville had a barrel of whisky, intended for use on Election Day, but Fort Worth citizens learned about it, siphoned off the liquor, took it to their town and gave it to the voters.
Fort Worth won the election by a narrow margin, though Birdville supporters asserted that men who did not live in the county had voted for Fort Worth. Jubilant citizens hastened to Birdville, loaded the county records on a wagon and, with three fiddlers playing for all they were worth, proceeded triumphantly to the new county seat.
Trades and business began to thrive in Fort Worth. Capt. Julian Feild [sic], Fort Worth’s first postmaster, established the first flour and corn mill. Capt. Ephraim Daggett is credited with opening the first hotel. Dr. Carroll Peak was the first physician. John Peter Smith taught the first school. Circuit riders conducted services and churches were organized.
In 1873, with a population of 500, the citizens decided that Fort Worth should incorporate and Dr. W.P. Burts was elected mayor.
“Hell’s Half Acre”
Great herds of Longhorns were driven from Texas to the railheads in Kansas; and Fort Worth was on the main route — the Chisholm Trail.
Lowing herds camped near the town, and cowboys galloped into Fort Worth, firing their pistols into the air and even riding their horses into the saloons. The red-light district that sprang up, one of the most infamous and the basis for many visions of the Wild West, came to be known as “Hell’s Half Acre.”
Though indulging the vices of Chisholm Trail cowboys that gave the town a less-than-angelic reputation, legitimate business poured into the area to serve the drovers as well. Fort Worth became the trading point for the whole northwest region. Joseph H. Brown, a native of Scotland, opened a store and, in nine years, it was the largest wholesale grocery south of St. Louis. It was not unusual for this “prince of grocers” to have 30 carloads of flour and 20 of bacon en route at a time.
A Race Against Time: The Railroad Comes To “Pantherville”
The Texas and Pacific Railway (T&P) was being constructed westward across the state of Texas and, in anticipation of the railroad’s arrival, Fort Worth boomed.
Capt. B. B. Paddock, a Civil War veteran, had a lot to do with that “boom.” In 1872, he became editor of the Fort Worth Democrat. Boundless in his enthusiasm for Fort Worth’s future, the editor published a map as part of the paper’s masthead showing nine railroads entering Fort Worth — this at a time when the nearest line was some 30 miles away.
Editors in other towns jested about Paddock’s “tarantula map.”
In the autumn of 1872, the T&P had been built to Eagle Ford, six miles west of Dallas.
Then disaster struck.
The Wall Street firm backing the railroad, Jay Cook & Co., failed. A mass exodus brought the population of Fort Worth from 4,000 to less than 1,000.
One morning, a citizen pointed to some marks on a business street and declared, “That’s where a panther slept last night.” No one had seen any panther and the spot might have been where a calf had wallowed. But a young lawyer with a sense of humor, who moved from Fort Worth to Dallas, wrote a letter to the newspaper stating that Fort Worth was so nearly deserted that a panther had slept in the street. Capt. Paddock, however, embraced the reference and dubbed Fort Worth “Pantherville,” giving the city another famous nickname — Panther City.
Citizens felt that the future of their town depended upon obtaining the T&P, and they soon took up the task of building the line. The Tarrant County Construction Company was organized, the capital stock being subscribed in money, labor, material, forage and supplies.
According to one historian, Maj. K.M.Van Zandt was probably more responsible than any other man for bringing the T&P. into Fort Worth. Van Zandt, a young lawyer, just out of the Confederate army and broken in health and wealth, headed west with his family to start life anew, arriving in Fort Worth in August, 1865. Van Zandt, Captain E.M. Daggett, Thomas J. Jennings and H.G. Hendricks gave the railroad company 320 acres in what was then the southern part of the city. Van Zandt was elected president of the citizens’ construction company and a contract was let for the work, which began in the fall of 1875.
It was a race to save the railroad company from losing a state land grant. One of the provisions was that the railroad had to reach Fort Worth before the legislature adjourned. Some representatives felt the grant was too liberal and made several attempts to end the session. Major Darnell, Fort Worth’s representative was ill and, if he were absent at roll call, there was no quorum. So, day after day, he was taken to the legislative sessions on a cot. Rapid progress was made on the construction of the railroad but, at last, adjournment of the legislature was set, leaving two days to complete the tracks. It seemed almost impossibility that the railroad could reach Fort Worth within the time limit. But in those final days, Morgan Jones, the contractor, did not go to bed, seizing only a few minutes’ sleep now and then. And the work did not end with darkness but continued under the light of torches till midnight.
The rallying caught up with the grading at Sycamore Creek; so, instead of a trestle, cribs of ties were used to support the track over the creek and then the rails were laid on the ground for two miles. One account states that the Fort Worth City Council extended the city limits a quarter of a mile east so the distance could be shortened.
In any event, the first train entered Fort Worth July 19, 1876. The race had been won.People came from miles around; on horseback and in wagons to see the train pull in. Many had never seen a train before.
The Little City Grows
The arrival of the railroad changed Fort Worth from a waypoint along the cattle trail to the goal of the drives. Cattle pens were built and the city became the shipping point.
Fort Worth had become Cowtown.
Stage coaches carried passengers and mail to points beyond. One line operated between Fort Worth and Fort Concho (San Angelo). In 1877, a contract was let by the Postoffice Department for a line between Fort Worth and Fort Yuma, Arizona, the longest daily stage coach line in the world-approximately 1,500 miles. Thirteen days were required to make the run. Hold-ups and other attacks were frequent so, on part of the route, the coaches had an escort of troops.
But one railroad was not enough for Fort Worth. Several other lines entered the city, bringing the dream Capt. Paddock’s Tarantula-like map to life.
The city’s first street car line was built in 1876. It ran from the courthouse to the T&P station and service was provided by mule-drawn cars. The gas works were built the same year. (The gas was, of course, artificial.) By 1878, an elevator had been established, and Fort Worth began to be a grain center. It was not until 1882 that the free school system began. (Fort Worth had had only private schools.) Also in 1882, M.P. Begley, son of a Kentucky steamboat captain, established the first of three great flour mills in Fort Worth. Original capacity of the mill was 50 barrels a day.
The first Fat Stock Show was held in 1886 with C.C. French and Charlie McFarland, the latter from Weatherford, as leading spirits. A storm arrived for the first night of the show and the next morning the cattle were coated with sleet as they hunched under live oak and pecan trees. But the sun came out and all present —including the cattle — felt better. The premiums were cowboy hats, boots, spurs, bridles, windmills and troughs. Though the location changed to accommodate its growing size, the Fort Worth Stock Show and Rodeo has endured for more than a century and, as the first indoor rodeo, has served as a model for such events around the world.
Prior to 1876, when the first artesian well was drilled, Fort Worth’s drinking water came from the Clear Fork of the Trinity and from a spring two miles northeast of town. More than 100 wells were drilled, and Fort Worth became known as the “city of artesian wells.” Well water was peddled over the town in carts at 12.5 cents a barrel. During the administration of Mayor John Peter Smith, water-lines were laid; Main and Houston streets were paved from the courthouse to the T&P station; bridges were built; a sewer system was established and the fire department was systemized.
One of the chief factors in the development of Fort Worth has been strong and progressive banks. In 1870, Capt. Martin B. Loyd opened an “exchange office” that evolved into the First National Bank, chartered in 1877. Thomas A. Tidball and John Wilson, in 1873, opened a private bank. A year later, Maj. Van Zandt, John Peter Smith and Maj. J.J. Jarvis purchased Wilson’s interest and the name was changed to Tidball, Van Zandt and Company. In 1884, Noah Harding, Col. R.L. Ellison and Dr. E. Beall acquired interests in the institution and it became the Fort Worth National Bank. The Continental National Bank was established in 1903 with J.G. Wilkinson as president. Chairman of the Board was Morgan Jones, the contractor who built the T&P into Fort Worth. The Continental National was one of the first banks in this section to lend money for oil development, and it has long been known as “an oil man’s bank.”
“Wild and wool” characterized much of Fort Worth’s life in the 1880’s. Most celebrated of six-gun exponents was long haired James Courtright, who could shoot equally well with either hand and was a master of the “border shift” wherein a pistol was drawn, fired, tossed in the air, caught in the other hand and firing resumed. He was city marshal. Then as head of a detective agency, Courtright convinced saloon and gambling hall proprietors that they needed his protection. He convinced everyone except for Luke Short, owner of the White Elephant Saloon, who had earned notoriety shooting Arizona and Kansas boom towns. As the story goes, Short and Courtright had a brief conversation and then both went for their guns. A bullet from Short’s weapon, out first, hit Courtright’s right thumb; he tossed up the gun for the “shift” but, while it was in the air, Short fired three more times. Courtright had the longest funeral procession Fort Worth had ever seen.
The first telephone exchange began operating in 1881, with 40 customers. Four years later, in 1885, electric lights were turned on for the first time.
Polytechnic College was founded in 1890. It became Texas Women’s College in 1914 and, 20 years later, it again became co-educational as Texas Wesleyan College. It is known today as Texas Wesleyan University.
The Texas Spring Palace opened in 1889 to celebrate and display the state’s resources. It was a large, two story structure with eight towers and a dome. One May night in 1890, the band concert had ended and the grand ball was about to begin. A thousand Dallas representatives were just entering the palace when there was the cry of “Fire!” Shrieks filled the air, and 7,000 people rushed for the doors. The fire, starting on the second floor, advanced with breath-taking swiftness among the highly flammable decorations.
There was not time to combat flames, but members of the fire department and others directed the panic-stricken to the exits. Though several firemen were scorched and others were injured by the rushing thousands, everyone escaped death except for Al Hayne. Hayne was a civil engineer who worked tirelessly to save those in danger during the incident. He remained in the building too long, dying from severe burns next day.
The city’s residents raised money for a monument, which was constructed and stands today as a reminder of Hayne’s heroism and of the beautiful Texas Spring Palace.
Meat Packing: Fort Worth’s First Great Industry
As the end of the 19th century drew near, the city’s population was booming. In 1880, the population was 6,663; the 1900 census counted 26,668.
In spite of the impressive growth, streets were muddy, and sidewalks were made of wood. The city’s tallest building (later known as the Wheat Building) was seven stories high. The architectural pride of the city and county was the new courthouse, four stories and a basement, built in the form of a cross, of brown granite at a cost of more than $400,000. Most citizens declared it was too large and costly, and the majority of the commissioners’ court was defeated at the next election.
In casting for a new industry to accelerate the city’s growth, it was natural to think of a packing house as Fort Worth had long been a livestock shipping center.
In fact, there had already been several attempts in that direction.
One was a packing house handling only hogs but the supply was small and the enterprise soon ended. Another was a refrigerating plant; beef was shipped to Liverpool but did not arrive in good condition and that venture failed. The Board of Trade, of which W. A. Huffman was the first president; was responsible for the organization of the Fort Worth Dressed Meat and Provision Company, with capital stock of $500,000. Stock yards and packing plant were built and the business started.
Swift & Company, Armour & Company and McNeill & Libby packing houses all came to Fort Worth in 1902.
This development lacked the dramatic features of the arrival of the first train, and of the passing through of the cowboys and the trails herds but, in its significance, it rivaled any previous event in the city’s history. Fort Worth became the packing house center of the southwest.
Employment for thousands resulted and the payroll of the packing houses has been a great factor in the prosperity and progress of Fort Worth ever since. The full impact of the packing houses was revealed in the 1910 census figure: 76,312, an increase in of almost 300 percent.
Gas and War Come to Fort Worth
The Fort Worth Gas Company was organized in 1909 and began serving 3,840 customers by means of a 90-mile pipeline from Petrolia.
A combination of war and oil gave Fort Worth its next great impetus.
World War I broke out in 1914 and, three years later, the Canadian government established three flying fields in the vicinity of Fort Worth. The mild climate made year-round training possible.
Seven thousand workers constructed the fields: Taliaferro 1, 2 and 3. In Greenwood Cemetery is a plot where 11 members of the Royal Flying Corps and the daughter of an enlisted man are buried. A monument bears the names and a tribute to the gallant dead. The ground belongs to the British Government and, because of the brave men resting there, it is “a spot that is forever England.”
When our nation entered the war, the fields were taken over by the United States, and two were renamed Carruthers and Barron. Camp Bowie was built here in 1917 at a cost of more than $3,000,000. More than 5,000 workers erected 1,500 buildings on the 1,410 acres. The 36th Division (Texas and Oklahoma) trained at Camp Bowie. The total military payroll was $1,675,000 a month, and 1917 showed an increase of $10,000,000 in bank deposits over the previous year.
The Oil Boom
One of the most important events in the history of Fort Worth occurred 90 miles away.
Ranger was a small town on the T&P Railroad. W.K. Gordon, superintendent of the Texas Pacific Coal Company of Thurber, believed there was oil at Ranger and began testing. When a message came from the company’s New York headquarters, “Believe have made mistake; suggest you stop drilling,” Gordon persuaded the president to let him go a little deeper. On an October day in 1917, a gusher roared in on the McCleskey farm. Ranger was transformed into a boom city of 30,000.
Then came the discovery of oil in Desdemona, south of Ranger. “Hogtown” as the little community on Hog Creek originally was called soon had 16,000 inhabitants. Then Breckenridge, 30 miles northwest of Ranger, scored with big wells. Meanwhile, a test was going down just outside Burkburnett, 135 miles northwest of Fort Worth. A sensational well came in on the Fowler farm touching off yet another boon. Hundreds of wells were drilled in the Ranger-Desdemona-Breckenridge district and hundreds more at Burkburnett. The two major oil rushes focused national attention on Texas.
Fort Worth, strategically located between the two areas, experienced an oil boom, too. The Westbrook Hotel lobby was the center of the activities. All the chairs were removed to make room for the throngs of operators, promoters and speculators. Even then, there was not sufficient space, and the sidewalks were so packed that one could hardly get in or out of the hotel.
Even before the rush, Fort Worth had three refineries. By the late summer of 1920, five others had been built, with four more under way. This, along with a network of lines made Fort Worth “The pipeline center of Texas.” Bank deposits soared; big office buildings were erected, and beautiful homes were built from the riches that gushed out of the ground.
Life Between Two Wars: Fort Worth Becomes the Metropolis of West Texas
The years between the World Wars continued the explosive growth of business and saw the construction of many of the city’s most valuable architecture.
New public schools were constructed, while the grounds of those that already existed were the target of an extensive beautification program. The city’s historic office buildings as well as the Texas, Worth and Blackstone hotels were built. The T&P station and terminal warehouse, the U.S. Courthouse and U.S. Post Office were commissioned in the south side of downtown.
In 1938 alone, $11 million in projects were in progress, including the West Lancaster elevated highway and bridge; the Will Rogers Memorial Coliseum and Auditorium; a new City Hall and public library; city-county Hospital; and the U.S. Public Health Service Hospital.
The glamorous summer of 1936 will live forever in the memory of Fort Worth for that was the year of the world-famous Fort Worth Casa Mañana, or “House of Tomorrow” — Fort Worth’s contribution to the Texas Cenntenial. Star-Telegram owner and prominent Fort Worth patron Amon Carter created the revolutionary outdoor amplitheater and restaurant with the world’s largest rotating stage surrounded by a moat, allowing a wall of water to be used as a curtain between acts. The theater produced broadway, Wild West shows and musicals for several years until the high costs and fear of the impending war shut it down. The building was soon dismantled so scraps could go toward the war effort.
Casa Mañana would be reborn in 1958 thanks to a bond election and the support of City Council. The rebuilt, fully enclosed and air conditioned theater was much smaller but offered a uniquely intimate theater-in-the-round experience under an aluminium dome. The theater was updated again in 2003.
Fort Worth has long depended on manmade lakes for its water supply. Under the administration of Mayor W.D. Davis, a lake was commissioned.
Lake Worth, in northwest Fort Worth, was completed in 1916 at a cost of $1 million. For years its amusement-lined boardwalk (including the Casino) was a fantastic scene each summer. But the lake filled with silt, reducing its water capacity by 40 percent. A $6 million bond project was approved to construct Bridgeport and Eagle Mountain lakes on the West Fork of the Trinity. Later, three other huge inland lakes, Benbrook, Grapevine and Arlington, were constructed.
During World War II, a Quartermaster Depot, Marine Air Base and the Fort Worth Army Air Field were constructed in Fort Worth. The establishment of Consolidated-Vultee’s aircraft plant on the shore of Lake Worth alongside the airfield was a milestone for the city. During the war, the mile-long plant produced more than 3,000 B-24 Liberator bombers, with a peak employment of 32,000. The facility would change hands over the years to various defense contractors — Convair, General Dynamics and, currently, Lockheed Martin — and produce some of the world’s most important aircraft, including the B-36 Peacemaker and the F-16 Fighting Falcon.
The Army air field was renamed Carswell Air Force Base in 1948, and became the headquarters of the 19th Air Division in 1951. B-52 bombers of the 7th Bomb Wing — a crucial piece of the U.S. nuclear arsenal during the Cold War and of Strategic Air Command — soon called Fort Worth home as well.
Carswell was repurposed as the Fort Worth Naval Air Station and Joint Reserve Base in the 1990s, but still connects Fort Worth to its military heritage in a time of diversification and growth.
More than 150 years of history have shaped Cowtown. Ranked the nation’s fastest growing city with more than 500,000 population — the 17th largest city in the country — and one of America’s Most Livable Communities of the decade, Fort Worth has endured economic changes and retained its Western heritage as it continues to prosper.
The above text is an adaptation of histories written by the Fort Worth Chamber of Commerce and Dr. Richard Selcer, a U.S. military and Civil War historian and author.