Five-minute history: The beginning of “Where the West Begins”

From the city’s founding to current day, follow along with our short history of how Fort Worth came to be.

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Bronze tablet commemorating the site of Camp Worth.

Photo courtesy of the TSHA.

Table of Contents

As we look forward to another year, we thought we’d take a few minutes to look back to the beginning of Cowtown and how a little fort became the city we know today. Here’s our five-minute history of Fort Worth.

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Gen. William J. Worth lived from 1794 to 1849.

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

The founding of Fort Worth

Way back when
The fertile area around the Trinity River had long been a hunting ground for Native American tribes when Jonathon Bird established a settlement in 1840.

In 1843, Gen. Edward H. Tarrant and George W. Terrell met with chiefs from nine differing tribes to parley a peace agreement after the Comanche Wars lead by Republic of Texas president Mirabeau Lamar. The Bird’s Fort Treaty created a line through the future site of Fort Worth — Native Americans on the west and settlers on the east, giving the town its famous slogan “Where the West Begins.”

“This is my post”
In 1849, the US Army established a protected frontier with forts every 100 miles from the Rio Grande River to the Red River. Maj. Ripley Arnold was sent to an empty spot in the defensive line along the Trinity River — the bluff where Heritage Park sits today.

In May 1849, Ripley raised “Old Glory” and began constructing Fort Worth, named after the late Maj. Gen. William Jenkins Worth, veteran of the Texas-Mexico War.

Off to the races
The settlement grew to a whopping 350 souls before the fort was vacated in September 1853 when the frontier pushed toward the Pacific.

The settlers set about building a town, converting military buildings to municipal ones. In 1873, Fort Worth was incorporated by the state and Dr. WP Burts was elected the first mayor.

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In the late 1800’s, land owners began crossing off routes with barbed wire, effectively closing the Chisholm Trail.

Photo courtesy of UTA Libraries

Cattle drives and cowboy confrontations

Hitch up for the Chisholm Trail
From 1867 to 1884, cowboys drove longhorn cattle up from the Rio Grande Valley through Fort Worth to Kansas on a route known as the Chisholm Trail. Although only used for a short time, over five million cattle and one million mustangs were driven over the Chisholm Trail in the “greatest migration of livestock in world history.”

“A rough town”
The cattle drive — and the arrival of the Texas and Pacific Railway in 1876 — brought all kinds of folk to town, who stirred up a fair bit of trouble.

Fulfilling the town’s Wild West status, several blocks in downtown picked up the nickname “Hell’s Half Acre” for their particularly rambunctious nature. The red-light district bustled with saloons, brothels, and gambling dens, frequented by cowboys, ruffians, and outlaws.

The area — also known as the “Bloody Third Ward” — saw the likes of Butch Cassidy, the Sundance Kid, Doc Holliday, Wyatt Earp, and many others just itchin’ for a fight. Acre’s notoriety dwindled around the state’s first prohibition campaign in 1889.

The spirit of the Chisholm Trail and Hell’s Half Acre can still be seen in Fort Worth today, but with a little less risk. Next time you’re commuting on the Chisholm Trail Parkway, imagine all the cars are cattle, and if someone insinuates that Dallas is better than Fort Worth, rein in your inner outlaw and shrug it off. They’re just jealous.

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The arrival of the railroad sparked a boom in population and business in Fort Worth.

Photo courtesy of UTA Libraries

The railroad comes to Panther City

Close but no cigar
In the early 1870s, construction of the Texas and Pacific Railway (T&P) was rocketing across the state from east to west, reaching from Longview to Eagle Ford, a town just west of Dallas.

The Panic of 1873 hit and Jay Cook & Co., the Philadelphia-based investment firm financing the railroad, went under. It took another three years to build the 30 miles of tracks to Fort Worth.

The stalled railroad project swept the feet out from under the burgeoning Fort Worth and left the streets empty — prompting the sleeping panther joke that gave our city its nickname.

A group effort
Cowtown residents, including John Peter Smith, banded together to form the Tarrant County Construction Company and pooled money, labor, and supplies to restart the railroad construction in 1875.

Confederate veteran Major K. M. Van Zandt led the charge, using 320 acres of (then southside) land donated by himself, Ephraim Daggett, Thomas Jefferson Jennings, and other local landowners.

The crews worked day and night to construct the railroad before the state’s land grant ended in 1876 — and they succeeded, completing the last two miles between Sycamore Creek and downtown in five days.

The first trained rolled into town on July 19 at 11:23 a.m., blowing the whistle on a new era for Fort Worth.

Still chugging along
The railroad is still an important part of our town today as Fort Worth is home to the headquarters for BNSF Railway, one of the largest freight railroads in North America. Just take a peak over the Hulen Street overpass to see the lines in action.

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The former Swift and Armour meatpacking district is slated for redevelopment next to the Historic Stockyards.

Financial times for Fort Worth

Let’s into the major businesses and industries that brought Panther City into the 20th century.

Show me the money
You gotta have money to make money so in 1870 Capt. Martin B. Loyd established an exchange office that became one of the oldest banks in town. Seven years later, he chartered the First National Bank, which primarily served cattlemen.

In 1903, the Continental Bank and Trust Company was established by H.H. Wilkinson and was one of the first local banks to lend money for oil development.

We’ve got the meat
We already learned about Cowtown’s livestock legacy and the first edition of the Fort Worth Stock Show in 1896. The blooming livestock trade set the city up to be a leader in the meatpacking industry and triggered silent growth, prompting a 300% population increase from 1900 to 1910.

The Fort Worth Dressed Meat and Provision Company kicked off with a capital stock of $500,000, paving the way for the openings of Swift & Company, Armour & Company, and McNeill & Libby packing houses in 1902.

Incoming aircraft
During WWI, Amon Carter and Ben E. Keith worked with the Canadian Royal Flying Corps to set up three airfields in Cowtown because the weather was good for training. In 1917, the $3 million Camp Bowie was constructed across 2,186 acres to serve the US War Department’s 36th Infantry Division. Military and aviation are still important industries in Fort Worth today.

We’ve struck oil
In October 1917, the small town of Ranger (~90 miles west along the T&P Railroad) changed the future of Fort Worth. A geyser of black gold rushed from the ground, uncorking the oil region surrounding Cowtown in Desdemona, Breckenridge, and Burkburnett. By 1920, the city had 12 active and under-construction oil refineries.

Ready to zoom forward? Jump back to the present day and check out Fort Worth’s current driving industries and major employers.

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Fort Worth City Hall and Public Library were constructed on Throckmorton Street in 1938 after the original city hall was demolished.

Interwar construction boom

Look back at the major construction and growth that took place between the end of World War I and the beginning of World War II.

Infrastructural innovations
Like many US cities, Fort Worth’s interwar period was a time of growth + the expanding city needed resources to sustain it and infrastructure to protect it.

In 1916, a dam was completed on the Trinity River’s West Fork, creating Lake Worth. The $1 million reservoir served as both a water supply and recreation area for residents. The project included Casino Park, complete with a boardwalk, bathhouse, rides, and ballroom.

The success of Lake Worth and the need for further flood control prompted a $6.5 million bond program in 1927 to build Bridgeport and Eagle Mountain Lakes + the eventual construction of Benbrook, Grapevine, and Arlington Lakes.

Crane watch
Despite the economic downturn of the Great Depression, some of the city’s most notable landmarks were constructed in the 1930s.

Construction ranged from civic projects — like the US Courthouse (1934) and City Hall (1938) — to transportation headquarters like the T&P Station and Warehouse (1931).

There was also a rise in cultural icons meant to be enjoyed by the public like the Fort Worth Botanic Garden (1934) and Will Rogers Memorial Coliseum and Auditorium (1937).

100 years in the making
Texas’ 100th birthday was celebrated in oversize Lone Star fashion with both the Central Centennial Exposition at Dallas’ Fair Park and the Texas Frontier Centennial in the Cultural District in 1936.

For the event, Amon G. Carter commissioned the original Casa Mañana, which was the world’s largest rotating stage surrounded by a moat for water displays. The “House of Tomorrow” produced Broadway and Wild West shows before it was deconstructed so scraps could be used for the impending war.

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Crowds gathered for the opening of the Greater Fort Worth International Airport on April 16, 1953.

Photo courtesy of UTA Libraries

Fort Worth takes flight

While “Planes, Trains and Automobiles” may have premiered in 1987, they marked the headlines of Fort Worth in the 1950s and 1960s. We’re diving back into our five-minute history series with an overview of Fort Worth’s mid-century transportation milestones.

Look to the skies

The west side of town has produced aircraft since World War II, when the Consolidated Vultee Aircraft Corporation factory, or Bomber Plant, opened in 1942. In 1954, General Dynamics assumed operations of the plant, kicking off private aviation manufacturing in Cowtown, a legacy that led to the sale to Lockheed in 1992.

In the early 1950s, Meacham Field was serviced by major airlines like Braniff Airways and American Airlines before the opening of the Greater Fort Worth International Airport in 1953. Later renamed Amon G. Carter Field, the airport brought fanfare and luxury to air travel in advance of DFW Airport.

All aboard

While the railroad reached Panther City eight decades earlier, a new locomotive hit the tracks in the 1950s: the Forest Park Miniature Railroad. After a brief hiatus, the family-friendly train started chugging once again in September of 2023.

Eyes on the road

Loop 820 began to surround the city in the late 1950s + I-35 West — previously known as US Highway 81 — reached Panther City in the early 1960s.

In 1958, the state’s first four-level interchange opened southeast of downtown on old US Highway 80 — which later became I-30. Known as “The Pretzel” or the “Mixmaster,” it cost $1,220,000 and has since been upgraded to a five-level stack exchange.

Transportation wasn’t the only automotive goal of the era — car racing wasvrising in popularity with daring races at Riverside Drive Speedway from 1949 to 1955. The Lancaster Avenue dirt track was a quarter-mile long and belonged to the Texas Stock Car Racing Association.

The rest is history

Stay tuned for more historical — and current-day — tales as Cowtown enters its 170th year.

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