History of Fort Worth

United States > US City Index > Fort Worth > History

Welcome to Fort Worth, known for many years in Texas as "Where the West Begins." Established in 1849 as an army post to protect East Texas settlements from Indian attack, Forth Worth was named for General William Jenkins Worth, one of the first commanders of the outpost and a veteran if the War of 1812, the French and Indian War, and the Mexican War. The little outpost quickly developed a rowdy reputation, which was intensified with the establishment of a stage line from Fort Worth to Yuma, Arizona in 1850. But by 1853, the frontier had moved to the west and the fort was abandoned. The buildings from the fort housed the town of Fort Worth as settlers, soldiers, cowboys, and even outlaws took up residence.

Tarrant County's first county seat was in Birdville (now part of Haltom City), which was actually a larger community than Fort Worth; the courthouse, used from 1850-1856, was a log cabin. As Fort Worth gained in population, its citizens forced an election in 1856 to decide where the county seat should be. Tradition being to "reward" voters who made the effort to get to the polling place with a little something to quench their thirst, both towns stashed kegs of whisky near their voting sites. The night before the election, voters from Fort Worth stole Birdville's keg, with the result that on Election Day, Birdville had no refreshments to offer while Fort Worth had two kegs. Fort Worth won. Despite Birdville's protests and another election four years later, the county seat remained, and still is, in Fort Worth.

As the demand for beef in the East rose after the US Civil War, cowboys rounded up millions of free-ranging longhorns and drove them north to market along the Chisholm Trail. Fort Worth was the last bit of civilization before the long lonely trail drive, so by 1866 the town had a new nickname, "Cowtown," and a new prosperity in the cattle business, not to mention an even rowdier reputation and a famous (or infamous!) neighborhood known as Hell's Half Acre. It is said that even Butch Cassidy, Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday, and the Hole-in-the-Wall Gang stopped here to enjoy food and fun!

By 1872, Fort Worth was ready for a new step into the future, bringing the railroad through. In 1873, Captain B. B. Paddock developed a map showing Fort Worth in the center of a circle and proposed rail lines radiating in all directions from that center; representatives of the city began lobbying the railroad builders to route their lines through Fort Worth. As more track was added and the map began to resemble a giant tarantula, it was fittingly named the Tarantula Map and became the main plan used to attract the railroads to the city. Despite many difficulties and delays, the Texas and Pacific Railroad pulled into Fort Worth in 1876, and by 1900 nine railroads were operating through the town. The first true effort to establish an extended rail system in North America was a narrow gauge route from St. Louis, Missouri through Eagle Pass, Texas (on the Mexican border) and into the interior of Mexico; it was known as the Cotton Belt Route. The route was extended into Fort Worth in 1887 as an outlet for lumber, and passenger service continued until about 1930. The Tarantula Train is now a popular tourist attraction, operating over about 21 miles of the Cotton Belt Route and connecting the communities of Grapevine (the oldest settlement in Tarrant County), Colleyville, Smithfield, and the historic Stockyards of Fort Worth. It boasts a small fleet of vintage engines and coaches including "Puffy," an 1896 steam engine restored in the early 1990s at a cost of $1,000,000.

It was only natural for a thriving meatpacking industry to be next to spring up in Fort Worth, after all, the railroads were now in place to bring in the cattle and ship out the meat! Armour and Swift, as well as other lesser-known packers, built regional plants, Swift's on the south hillside of Exchange Avenue and Armour's on the north side. The plants opened in late 1902 and held grand openings in March 1903 in conjunction with the annual livestock show. A month later the Exchange building opened, and the coliseum followed in 1908. By 1909 the new city of North Fort Worth had grown to a population of 12,000 and was annexed by its older sibling. Eight years later, cattlemen decided to hold a contest for cowboys in the coliseum; lacking a name, one rancher suggested the Spanish word for "roundup," "rodeo." When another rancher mispronounced it, calling it "ro dee oh," a new and enduring form of entertainment for participant and spectator alike was born. Fort Worth soon became the second largest livestock market in the country as well as one of its major beef suppliers. It retained that status until the 1960s when Swift and Armour closed their doors. The Stockyards didn't go away, however'the area underwent a complete renovation/restoration in the 1970s and remains one of North Texas most popular tourist destinations as a living tribute to a gone, but not forgotten, way of life.

Fort Worth's commercial role expanded yet again with the discovery of rich oil fields in West Texas in the early 20th century, for here is where the drilling supplies were manufactured, purchased, and sold even as the deals were being struck. Sinclair, Texaco, and Humble Oil and Refining Company (now Exxon) built regional offices, and new skyscrapers sprang up as a result of oil money. Meanwhile, a major flood in 1909 spurred the city to begin the ambitious projects of controlling the Trinity River and ensuring a safe water supply for its residents. These projects resulted in the formation of Lake Worth northwest of downtown. Later the Trinity River Floodway, built with federal funds, was completed in 1956.

The US Army established Camp Bowie as a training site during World War I (1914-1918); Amon G. Carter, Sr., who was one of the city's most prominent movers and shakers, was instrumental in three nearby airfields being converted into aviation training centers. He later co-founded American Airways, which is now American Airlines and is still based at Dallas-Fort Worth Airport. Early in World War II when the US War Department needed an aircraft plant to build bombers, Carter and his partner C. R. Smith sold Washington on the idea of putting it in Fort Worth. The plant broke ground in April 1941. After Pearl Harbor triggered a step-up in the work, an extension was added for the Air Force; and in April 1942, 364 days after groundbreaking, the first B-24 Liberator was delivered. Four months later, the Tarrant Field Airdrome was activated by the Air Force as a training base for B-24 pilots and later it became Carswell Air Force Base. In 1951, an aircraft manufacturer from New York, Larry Bell, brought his helicopter factory to Hurst. Bell Helicopter Textron is still a vital contributor to the area's economy, building Hueys and Cobras of "M*A*S*H*" and war movie fame and recently shifting to the Marines V-22 tilt-rotor Ospreys. In more recent years, the bomber plant has become a fighter plant, producing F-111s and F-16s.

With entrepreneurs like Amon Carter and John Peter Smith promoting the city and being involved in many diversified layers of business and services, wheeling and dealing became, and still is, a way of life in Fort Worth. The city is still one of the last large business centers before the still-vast stretches of prairie to the west.

The collapse of the oil industry in the early 1980s and the shrinking of the defense industry had a negative impact on Fort Worth's economy, but diversification and thriving tourism in all of North Texas have combined to give it a much-needed boost. The much-touted rivalry with Dallas has lessened as the entire Metroplex population works together to contribute to the area's success.