Fort Worth

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Fort Worth has been called "the City Where the West Begins," "Cowtown," and the silent partner in the Dallas/Fort Worth Metroplex. None of these descriptions quite tells the story of this city and its people. Since its founding in the mid-nineteenth century as a military outpost, Fort Worth has gone through many phases—cattle, oil, aviation, and tourist. The little village on the Trinity has grown up to become a global city that is a melting pot of economic forces and diverse cultures.

At its most basic, Fort Worth's history is the story of leadership, of how men and women of vision built a flourishing community at a river crossing on the north Texas plains. Through troubled times—the 1850s, the Civil War, the 1930s, the 1970s—the leadership kept its eye on the future. The city pulled itself through the down times—and put itself on the map—by visionary projects like the railroad, the Spring Palace, the Stockyards, Camp Bowie, the Bomber Plant, and Sundance Square. This book helps to put a modern face on Fort Worth, move it out of the shadow of Dallas, and place it firmly in the twenty-first century.

The book is illustrated with many historic photographs, including: a pair of Wichita Indians; Main Street in old Fort Worth; the current Tarrant County Courthouse, under construction in 1895; Fort Worth Medical College, opening in 1893 as just the third medical school in Texas; Fort Worth's Meacham Field in its early years (ca. 1926) and Meacham field in 1937; the Boeing B-29 and the Convair B-36 side by side at Carswell Air Force Base; Pig Stand drive-ins; the Fort Worth Cats and their opponents, the Memphis Chicks; the Light Crust Doughboys Western swing band in the 1940s; Six Flags over Texas; the "Bombardier 500" race; William B. McDonald, successful African American businessman and political leader; the Woman's Wednesday Club in its weekly luncheon meeting at the Metropolitan Hotel, 1918; the flood of 1949; Sundance Square, looking west across Main Street in the 1980s; and African American drover Chester Stidham with the "Fort Worth Herd" of longhorns.

Also enlivening the text are various sidebars giving detailed information about "Fort Worth's Most Historic Cemeteries," "Courthouse Square," "The Cultural District," "Sundance Square," and "The Historic North Side."

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1. Frontier Beginnings (1849–1853)

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FRONTIER BEGINNINGS (1849–1853)

IT WAS 1849 AND GEN. ZACHARY TAYLOR (“Old Rough and Ready”) was the twelfth president of the United States. The long-simmering sectional dispute was heating up over the issue of western territories added as a result of the Mexican-American War (1846–1848). The nation’s attention was on California as thousands of Americans, soon to be known as “Forty-niners,” joined the gold rush. National expansion was the order of the day as Minnesota Territory was formally organized, and New Mexico and California were in the process of organizing territorial governments. There was talk of a filibustering expedition to liberate Cuba from the Spanish yoke, and the U.S. government was reaching out to the Hawaiian monarchy to sign a treaty of amity and commerce. In April the first west coast mail arrived in New York City via the Central American crossing, and on May 13, stagecoach service began from St. Louis, Missouri, to San Francisco, California. One troubling development: deadly cholera was sweeping the country. There were fifteen deaths in Kansas City in early April rising to ten per day after April 25. In Texas, the epidemic raged unchecked among recently arrived U.S. troops as well as Comanche, Apache, Kiowa, and other Indian tribes. The disease was no respecter of rank or race.1

 

2. The Lean Years (1853–1876)

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THE LEAN YEARS (1853–1876)

THE TWO DECADES AFTER 1853 were lean years for the little community. Early on, it was clear that Fort Worth without its U.S. Army patron would need some kind of edge over other settlements in the area if it were going to survive. Wood, water, and grass were not enough. The residents set their sights on getting the county seat designation for Tarrant County. Their only competition was Birdville, some ten miles to the northeast. The communal battle raged through two elections and some electoral shenanigans before Fort Worth finally won the county seat designation. In the end, the deciding factor may have been the whiskey served at the Fort Worth polling place or the fifteen votes imported from Wise County. Fort Worth won the election by a scant thirteen votes, putting the town on the map for the first time. The bad feelings lingered for many years, and in 1860 the legislature had to intervene to settle the issue once and for all.1 So Fort Worth progressed from being a military post to being an administrative seat.

 

3. Urban Growth and Industrialization (1876–1900)

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URBAN GROWTH AND INDUSTRIALIZATION (1876–1900)

NEARING THE END OF ITS THIRD DECADE of existence, Fort Worth was at a crossroads in 1876. The coming of the railroad had saved the town, but its continued well-being was still tied inseparably to cattle and agriculture. While this was not likely to change in the foreseeable future, Fort Worthers were nonetheless determined to create an industrialized city atop the agricultural and livestock foundation. As the Fort Worth Gazette stated in 1887, “the days of the cow pony and the lariat are passed, and we are face to face with the fierce struggle for commercial supremacy.”1 Since industry typically followed on the heels of the railroad, Fort Worth had already taken the first step to realizing its dream of being a commercial-industrial center. As the number of rail lines into Fort Worth multiplied in the 1880s, so did the city’s attractiveness to major industries.

No longer just a stopover on the way north to Kansas railheads, Fort Worth was now home to a number of powerful cattle companies, including the Brazos Cattle Company, capitalized at $100,000 and the Topeka Cattle Company, capitalized at $200,000. The railroad reservation was covered with acres of cattle pens, all built and maintained by the Texas & Pacific. Before the end of 1877 the town had a slaughterhouse and refrigeration plant. That same year saw the first boxcar loaded with beef quarters on ice leave Fort Worth on the way to the eastern market. In a few years Fort Worth would have “the most extensive cattle yards in the state” though its slaughtering and shipping facilities left much to be desired. “Cowtown” with a capital “C” was the new nickname for “Fort Town,” and no wonder. By one estimate, half of the 343 business firms in town in 1884 would have had to shut down or move if the seasonal stream of cattle quit flowing through Fort Worth.2

 

4. Becoming Citified (1880–1900)

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BECOMING CITIFIED (1880–1900)

THE PROGRESS FROM A SMALL FRONTIER OUTPOST to a major regional city was anything but steady or assured. Securing a city charter from the state legislature in 1872 (commencing February 17, 1873) did not guarantee that Fort Worth would be around to celebrate many anniversaries. The physical transformation alone took years, measured in such long strides as street lamps, graded streets, municipal water supply, full-time police and fire protection, and brick buildings. It was also measured in small steps like the first bathtub, which was installed in the Mansion Hotel sometime in the late 1870s by owner W. W. Dunn.1

One large step on the road to legitimacy as a city was the division into wards, the basic political and administrative units of urban political life. The number of wards reflects the size of the municipality. In February 1877 the city council divided Fort Worth into three wards, each electing two aldermen to sit on the council. The long delay between receiving a city charter and dividing into municipal subdivisions was the result of the 1873 Panic that had almost depopulated the city. In the following decades, Fort Worth added more wards as the city grew.

 

5. Fort Worth’s “Forgotten” Builders (Women and Ethnic Minorities)

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FORT WORTH’S “FORGOTTEN” BUILDERS (WOMEN AND ETHNIC MINORITIES)

LIKE THE REST OF THE NATION, Fort Worth’s early history was dominated by white males of Anglo-Saxon heritage. Until very recently such men continued to hold the reins of economic and political power firmly in their neatly manicured hands. Times have changed, but they still deserve to be honored for their accomplishments even while we criticize their narrow, often bigoted behavior toward their fellow citizens.

At the beginning of the 1870s, when Fort Worth was poised to become a “city,” nearly three in ten persons in the West was foreign-born.1 Fort Worth, it is reasonable to assume, was no different than most other Western communities. Locally, the most prominent ethnic minorities were the Germans and the Irish. Two of the chief landmarks in town were Herman Kussatz’ Bismarck Saloon and St. Patrick’s Catholic Church, and Maifest, Oktoberfest, and St. Patrick’s Day rivaled the Fourth of July in their local popularity. St. Patrick’s Day every March was highlighted by a grand march through downtown, and Maifest and Oktoberfest were three-day extravaganzas of races, fireworks, and military drills, patronized by thousands of non-Irish and non-German citizens who simply enjoyed a good time.2 In the days before the N.A.A.C.P. and La Raza Unida, the Ancient Order of Hibernians and the Sons of Hermann protected the interests and provided a cultural outlet for Irish and Germans respectively. While those groups would experience some prejudice, their assimilation pains were as nothing to those experienced by nonwhite groups.

 

6. Beyond “Cowtown” (The 20th Century)

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BEYOND “COWTOWN” (THE 20TH CENTURY)

THE TWENTIETH CENTURY BROUGHT great changes to the little city on the Trinity while preserving cherished ties with the past. New industries, a revamped city government, electrification, and higher education were just the most visible trappings of the twentieth century. Henry Ford might produce masses of automobiles and the Wright brothers might conquer the air, but Fort Worth was still “Cowtown.”

It had long been the dream of some city leaders to make Fort Worth a national livestock capital in the image of Chicago or Kansas City. M. G. Ellis, T. J. Saunders, and Henry C. Holloway grew tired of watching cattle pass through Fort Worth on the way to Northern or European markets. The first cattle herd had been shipped from the city on September 9, 1876 (twenty-three animals belonging to John F. Swayne), and over the years the bar at the Pickwick Hotel at Main and Fourth had served as the city’s unofficial “stock exchange,” but Fort Worth had never come close to realizing its potential as a cattle market with sales, slaughter houses, and shipping facilities all concentrated in one place.1

 

7. Decline and Rebirth (1920s–1940s)

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DECLINE AND REBIRTH (1920s–1940s)

THE FAMOUS “ROARING ’20S” ONLY GROWLED locally. Instead of the sounds of jazz, radio, and mass sporting events, Fort Worth was plagued by labor strife, political and business scandals, and its second brush with bankruptcy in twenty-five years. The city’s population had leaped nearly fivefold since 1900 and was on the way to doubling what it had been in 1910. Fort Worth was the third-largest city in the state behind Dallas and San Antonio, a result not just of newcomers moving into the city but of an aggressive annexation campaign. The city targeted a clutch of small, self-contained communities on the north side of town. The annexation juggernaut swallowed North Fort Worth first (1909), then rolled over Niles City, Rosen Heights, Washington Heights, Diamond Hill, and Riverside in 1922 despite vigorous self-preservation fights in court. As a result of these moves, Fort Worth doubled in size in 1909 and again in 1922.1 With its land-gobbling appetite still unsatisfied, the city turned east, launching a “friendly” takeover of Cowansville, the black neighborhood later known as “Stop 6” because it was the sixth stop on the Fort Worth-Dallas Interurban line.

 

8. Time Out for Culture and Entertainments

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TIME OUT FOR CULTURE AND ENTERTAINMENTS

FORT WORTH HAS ALWAYS DONE ITS ARTS and entertainment in a big, brassy way, from Hell’s Half Acre in the 1870s through the Frontier Centennial in 1936 and down to the Convention Center and Bass Performance Hall today. Hell’s Half Acre defined the town in the early years, with its saloons and dance halls keeping round-the-clock hours. The first public meeting hall was a second-story room over a Houston Street business where culture and politics took turns on the play bill. By the 1880s variety halls like John Moore’s Standard Theater and George Holland’s My Theater were the hot spots in town. Their eclectic mix of bawdy comedy, honky-tonk music, and novelty acts was the forerunner of vaudeville, appealing to the lowest common denominator in taste. With general admission priced as low as 15 cents (private boxes went for $2.50), they were magnets for working-class men. They were also the object of frequent complaints to the police, but seemed impervious to legal action for many years because of connections at city hall. In 1905 the (Old) Majestic on Jennings became the first local venue to use “Vaudeville” in its name, a change-over caused by the fact that “variety theater” had such a disreputable public image. This same year city authorities declared war on the old variety theater-saloon combinations, none of which was worse than the Standard Theater. Not until 1910, when the Standard was finally shuttered did the campaign succeed in separating legitimate theater from the sleazy saloons that had dominated the Fort Worth stage for so long.1

 

9. The Dark Side of Fort Worth (Crime and Violence)

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THE DARK SIDE OF FORT WORTH (CRIME AND VIOLENCE)

PERHAPS BECAUSE OF ITS ROUGH FRONTIER ORIGINS, Fort Worth has never been able to escape the twin problems of crime and violence. Guns were always part of the local culture, racial and ethnic conflicts occurred frequently, and later organized crime found a congenial environment. It all began with Hell’s Half Acre, the boisterous red-light district that took root on the south end of town beginning in the late 1860s when it was known as “the tenderloin.” In the next decade it would become the whoring, drinking, and gambling capital of north Texas, earning Fort Worth the title “Paris of the Plains.” It was widely known as “the cowboys’ playground” as Fort Worth was the last town the cowboys saw before entering the Indian Territory, and the first they saw on the way back home to Texas. The “Acre” as it was commonly called covered an area of roughly thirty-two blocks stretching from Main Street on the west to Jones Street on the east, and from Eighth Street on the north to Front Street (modern Lancaster) on the south. The saloons, dance halls, and bordellos that populated the district were open twenty-four hours a day, producing a cacophony of noise and violence that kept its neighbors awake and the police busy night after night. Gambling was the favorite “sport,” followed by prostitution. It was also the city’s first drug zone, with a resident population of “dope-heads.” As late as the turn of the twentieth century, 60 percent of arrests made by Fort Worth police were in the Acre, although citizens took a certain perverse pride in the fact that “holdups, pocket-picking, and giving knockout drops to chance strangers” were virtually unknown in the district.1

 

9. The Dark Side of Fort Worth (Crime and Violence)

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9.

THE DARK SIDE OF FORT WORTH (CRIME AND VIOLENCE)

PERHAPS BECAUSE OF ITS ROUGH FRONTIER ORIGINS, Fort Worth has never been able to escape the twin problems of crime and violence. Guns were always part of the local culture, racial and ethnic conflicts occurred frequently, and later organized crime found a congenial environment. It all began with Hell’s Half Acre, the boisterous red-light district that took root on the south end of town beginning in the late 1860s when it was known as “the tenderloin.” In the next decade it would become the whoring, drinking, and gambling capital of north Texas, earning Fort Worth the title “Paris of the Plains.” It was widely known as “the cowboys’ playground” as Fort Worth was the last town the cowboys saw before entering the Indian Territory, and the first they saw on the way back home to Texas. The “Acre” as it was commonly called covered an area of roughly thirty-two blocks stretching from Main Street on the west to Jones Street on the east, and from Eighth Street on the north to Front Street (modern Lancaster) on the south. The saloons, dance halls, and bordellos that populated the district were open twenty-four hours a day, producing a cacophony of noise and violence that kept its neighbors awake and the police busy night after night. Gambling was the favorite “sport,” followed by prostitution. It was also the city’s first drug zone, with a resident population of “dope-heads.” As late as the turn of the twentieth century, 60 percent of arrests made by Fort Worth police were in the Acre, although citizens took a certain perverse pride in the fact that “holdups, pocket-picking, and giving knockout drops to chance strangers” were virtually unknown in the district.1

 

10. From City to “Metroplex” (1945–1974)

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FROM CITY TO “METROPLEX” (1945–1974)

FORT WORTH STRUGGLED TO KEEP its equilibrium after World War II, with the downtown slowly dying while suburbs on the west and south side grew in quantum leaps. Citizens no longer had to worry about panthers lying in the middle of Main Street, but a different type of wildlife prowled the city in these years. On November 30, 1945, an escaped flock of wild ducks flew up and down North Main hotly pursued by police on the ground. Eventually the ducks tired of the chase, allowing the winded officers to catch them. Then in 1954, the Forest Park Zoo’s resident python (“Pete”) escaped and spent several days on the lam, causing frantic parents to keep their children inside. When Pete was finally caught and given a thorough physical exam, it turned out Pete was a she.

With growing suburbs and booming postwar automobile sales, the new trend was freeway construction. Fort Worth had once been a crossroads for railroads and trail drives. Now in the middle of the twentieth century, the city aimed to plug into the national highway network. Ever since the 1920s, Fort Worth had been served by four national highways: U.S. 80, U.S. 287, U.S. 81, and U.S. 377. U.S. 80, known for years as the “Broadway of America,” was the busiest highway across the southern half of the country, but the old system of U.S. routes was outdated. To replace them as the principal long-distance arteries across north Texas, the federal government planned Interstate 35 and Interstate 30. Their funding was included in the landmark Interstate Highway Act of 1956 that called for a local-national partnership to build the interstate highway system. For their part, the voters of Fort Worth had already approved a nine million dollar bond issue in 1945 to construct an “eight-lane super highway,” with the aim of transforming Fort Worth into “a hub of travel in the Southwest.”1

 

11. A Global City (1976 to the Present)

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A GLOBAL CITY (1976 TO THE PRESENT)

GEOGRAPHIC LOCATION, VISIONARY LEADERSHIP, and a strong economic base have provided the basics to make Fort Worth a leader in this nation’s globalization movement. Fort Worthers cannot claim credit for the geography part because geography, as they say, is destiny. Destiny or luck put Fort Worth at a crossroads in the interstate highway system. I-20, I-30, and I-35 are all major commercial routes, making Fort Worth one of the trucking capitals of the country. I-35 in particular is heavily used in interstate shipping between Mexico and the rest of the United States. When the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) was signed by Mexico, the United States, and Canada in 1993, Fort Worth was sitting pretty as one of the cities that would benefit the most from the increased trade with Latin America. So far the results have not been as lucrative as promised, but the benefits have been substantial nonetheless. In particular, I-35 has become one of the principal arteries of trade from Mexico through the heartland of the nation all the way to Canada.

 

12. Still Going Strong

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STILL GOING STRONG

FROM THE VERY BEGINNING, Fort Worth has benefited from its location in the geographic heartland of the country where it could become a crossroads, first for cattle drivers and immigrants, then later for railroads, air lines, and the interstate highway system. In 1938 Forbes Magazine proclaimed something Fort Worthers had always known: viz, that their city was squarely situated in the economic center of “the No. 1 territory of the Nation.”1 If geography is destiny, Fort Worth’s destiny was set from the moment Ripley Arnold first planted the U.S. flag on the bluff overlooking the Trinity River. Thereafter, the city’s march to modern times can be traced by its evolution over the next 150 years from military outpost to county seat to trail town, rail hub, regional gateway, oil capital, and ultimately world-class city.

Like an old-time Hollywood character actor, Fort Worth has played a number of different roles over the years, as the circumstances dictated. Along the way, the city acquired more than two dozen different nicknames and titles. Among the most enduring have been “the city where the West begins,” “Cowtown,” “The Gateway to the West,” “Panther City,” “Queen City of the Plains,” and “Southwest Metroplex” (along with Dallas). Not surprisingly, most of those names emphasize the city’s innate friendliness and proud Western heritage.

 

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