Ghost River: Wonder Where the Wiggles Went?

Fort Worth used to suffer severe floods (as in 1889, 1908, 1922, and 1949) because the Trinity River channel was narrow, shallow, and convoluted and could not move a large volume of water quickly after heavy rain.

ghost general 4-16-53 dmnAlthough attempts to tame the Trinity had been made before 1949, after the flood of that year the Army Corps of Engineers gave the river a serious makeover. With an infusion of federal dollars, Benbrook Lake was impounded, levees were built, the river was dredged, widened, straightened in a project called the “Fort Worth floodway.” Clip is from the April 16, 1953 Dallas Morning News.

ghost floodway dedication 4-1-56 dmnOn April 1, 1956 the Dallas Morning News reported that the $11 million ($93 million today) Fort Worth floodway was completed, although work on the “new river” continued into the 1960s.

Today, if you know where to look, you can still find remnants of the wiggly “old river.”

ghost overall mapMap shows the locations of seven “ghosts” of Trinity past.

ghost lmra inlet1. Lockheed Martin Recreation Association area. Top image locates this orphaned bend between Highway 183 and Bryant Irvin Road. The bend comes off the river as a modest channel (middle image) but is fed by storm drains and thus receives enough water to form a small waterfall (bottom image) where it flows into the new river channel downstream.

ghost muralThis mural under the Clearfork Bridge west of Hulen Street shows the old channel (light blue) and the new channel (dark blue) between Bryant Irvin Road (left north-south street) and Hulen Street (right north-south street).

ghost colonial golf2. Colonial Country Club. This kink in the river took up golf after it was retired: It now serves as a water hazard on the thirteenth hole. Fore!

ghost forest park3. Forest Park. The five-mile miniature train (1959) crosses the inlet and outlet of a tree-lined bend of the old channel. This part of the river was not straightened until the 1960s.

bridge-7th-street-arch4. West 7th Street bridge. The trough of the old channel could be seen under the arch on the east end of the old 7th Street bridge. After grading of the ground under the new bridge, the trough is no longer visible under the easternmost arch.

ghost trinity5. North of Chesapeake Plaza and west of Bluff Street. This is the outlet of another orphaned bend in the river. Forest Park Boulevard follows the curve of the old channel.

bridge-slough-map-1940Map shows the location of 4 and 5 on the old channel. Yellow line indicates the new channel. (Map detail from Pete Charlton’s “1000+ Lost Antique Maps of Texas & the Southwest on DVD-ROM.”)

ghost gateway-51-sanborn6. North of I-30 and east of Riverside Drive. The aerial photo shows that east of Riverside Drive a tree-lined arc of the river was cut off when the river was straightened (red line) and a levee built. The river used to veer north behind the Meadowbrook Drive-In Theater (yellow dot on map). The white line shows the old channel of Sycamore Creek, which flowed into the river behind the theater. A row of trees follows the old creek channel. The blue dot shows the location of a footbridge (bottom photo) that crosses the old river channel in Gateway Park.

According to the Gateway Park Master Plan this “Riverside Oxbow” will be restored and opened to kayakers and canoeists.

ghost c-shaped-handley7. North of Randol Mill Road and west of Handley Ederville Road. This boomerang-shaped lake (left side of aerial photo) was a bend in the river until the 1980s, when the river was straightened and Handley Ederville Road was rerouted to the east, resulting in a lake with a bridge to nowhere.

Trinity River video clips here

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Ashton Hotel: First Home of Haltom’s Big Clock on the Corner

In 1915 members of the Fort Worth Club gave themselves a six-story Christmas present: a new home.

ashton up to minute 12-19-15 stOn December 19 the Star-Telegram announced that the Fort Worth Club was about to move into its new building on Main at 6th Street. The club would occupy the upper floors (dining room, library, lounge, bedrooms, billiard room, game room). The main tenant on the ground floor would be Haltom’s jewelry store. Note that in the photo Haltom’s big clock is not yet on the corner.

haltomThe clock would be installed on the corner of Main and 6th in 1918. Photo by W. D. Smith in Pictures of Fort Worth, 1940.

In 1926 the Fort Worth Club would move two blocks west to its third and current home on West 7th Street. In 1949 the building on Main at 6th would be bought by Mid-Continent Supply Company, owned by Ken Davis, father of Cullen. Mid-Continent would own the building until 1989. The building reopened as the Ashton Hotel in 2001.

More on the history of the Fort Worth Club, Haltom’s, and the big clock on the corner 

Some views of the Ashton Hotel:

building ashtonashton cornerashton lobbyashton glassClass on glass.

ashton frontashton detailashton balconycorner ashton

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The 1899 T&P Depot (Part 2): “Destructive Fire Breaks Out”

On December 16, 1899 the Texas and Pacific passenger depot opened (see Part 1).

Now fast forward five years and one day.

t&p burns 12-17-04 teleAbout 2:30 p.m. on December 17, 1904 fire broke out in a third-floor servant’s quarters above John Laneri’s restaurant on the second floor of the depot. The entire fire department responded. Several hundred men from the T&P shops and yards helped move combustible furniture from the building. Rail cars at the depot were moved to safety; the mail and express offices were cleared. As firemen fought the fire, trains continued to arrive and leave with only slight delay. Arriving and departing passengers simply used the train sheds instead of the main depot building.

t&p fire swartz UTA Library 2Fort Worth’s roving photographer Charles Swartz took this photograph of the fire. The Al Hayne memorial can be seen in the left foreground. Photographs taken by the Swartz brothers—Charles, John, and David—documented life in Fort Worth at the cusp of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In 1900 John took the iconic photo of Butch Cassidy and the Wild Gang in Swartz’s studio on Main Street. (Photo from University of Texas at Arlington Library.)

t&p fire swartz UTA LibraryAnother photo by Charles Swartz shows that most of the depot’s roof was gone. The Telegram reported on December 17 that the upper floor of the depot was destroyed (“Most of the ceiling had fallen in.”). The clock tower also was damaged. (Photo from University of Texas at Arlington Library.)

t&p damages 12-18-04 teleOn December 18 the Telegram detailed the chronology and damage of the fire. Damage was estimated at $10,000 ($255,000 today), but service disruption was brief. Rubberized sheets were draped over the damaged building, and trains continued to roll into and out of the busy depot. The Telegram reported that all railroads entering Fort Worth except the Santa Fe and the Houston & Texas Central used the depot for passengers—seventy trains daily.

The construction contractor inspected the building, found the damage to be mostly above the walls.

t&p 2 hurt 12-18-04 dmnTwo firemen were injured. Clip is from the December 18 Dallas Morning News.

The depot was restored and served until 1931, when it was replaced by Wyatt Hedrick’s art-deco passenger terminal.

t&p maddox 12-20-04 tele

Five of Fort Worth’s early fires occurred in the area between Lancaster Avenue and Hattie Street south of downtown: Spring Palace (1890), T&P depot (1904), Fifth Ward school and Missouri Avenue Methodist Church (1904), South Side (1909), Fort Worth High School  (1910). And just as the South Side fire of 1909 would motivate improvements in fire department equipment, the 1904 T&P depot fire led Fire Chief James Maddox to ask for another steam engine for the department. Clip is from the December 20 Telegram.

fort worth iron and steelTen months after Charles Swartz photographed the T&P depot fire in 1904, on October 6, 1905 he was taking photos at the Fort Worth Iron and Steel mill located about where the 3700 block of Hemphill Street is today. (Photo from Greater Fort Worth, 1907.)

swartz dead 10-6-1905Swartz was struck and killed by a Katy locomotive. Clip is from the October 6, 1905 Telegram.

t&p swartz Nicks with insetPhotographers don’t often get photographed, but Charles Swartz snapped an accidental selfie when he took this photo inside the drugstore of J. P. Nicks. His reflection appears in the left side of the mirror behind the counter. See magnified inset in lower-left corner. (Photo from Nicks descendant Janis Smith Shaffer.)

More about the Swartz brothers

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The 1899 T&P Depot (Part 1): “Finest Passenger Station in the Entire South”

On December 16, 1899, as Fort Worth residents were doing their Christmas shopping, they took time out to help unwrap a big gift to the city: the new Texas and Pacific railroad passenger depot.

t&p opened heads 12-17-99 regThe new depot was, the Fort Worth Register proclaimed on December 17, simply “the finest passenger station in the entire South.”

t&p opens full page 12-17-99 regThe Register devoted almost a full page to the ceremonies.

t&p wikiThe depot was located at the intersection of Main and Lancaster streets east of the Al Hayne memorial, where Frank Kent Cadillac dealership later stood.

t&p  TCC NE, Heritage RoomThis H. D. Conner image shows the depot from a different angle. (Photo from Tarrant County College Northeast, Heritage Room.)

t&p from courthouseThe clock tower was situated so that it could be seen from north on Main Street. Thus, Main Street downtown was bookended by the courthouse tower on the north and the train station tower on the south—the two towers almost one mile apart. The first Worth Hotel is on the left. Photo is from the 1905 Panther City Parrot yearbook.

Railroad officials estimated that fifteen hundred passengers had come to town for the grand opening on December 16. The newspaper estimated that 20,000-25,000 people were on hand. A parade marched from the courthouse down Main Street to the new depot. Participants included “secret orders” (fraternal lodges), the fire department, sheriff’s deputies, school children, local militia units.

Bands played. People made speeches: Mayor B. B. Paddock, former Mayor John Peter Smith, T&P railroad officials et al. Paddock broke a bottle of Champagne over one of the building’s columns.

t&p menu 12-17-99 regThere was a banquet for invited guests. Here is the menu.

The Register noted that on February 1, 1899 George J. Gould, president of the T&P in Texas and son of tycoon Jay Gould, had pressed a button in New York City, symbolically beginning construction of the depot.

Cost of construction was estimated at $300,000 ($8.2 million today). The building was designed by Otto Lang, an architect in the T&P’s engineering department. The exterior was built of Pecos sandstone and Thurber brick. The roof had Spanish tiles. The waiting room had classical columns supported by marble piers. The floor was tiled in marble. Windows were of cut glass. Clip is from the January 17 Register.

t&p 1886 wellgeThe new depot replaced the Union Depot, built when the T&P arrived in town in 1876. This 1886 Wellge bird’s-eye-view map shows the Union Depot (labeled U; 81 is Ginocchio’s Hotel) about where today’s Tower 55 is, east of the 1899 depot.

The 1899 T&P Depot (Part 2): “Destructive Fire Breaks Out”

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Hotel Block: From “Sad and Gloomy” to the Golden Goddess

For a century a hotel stood on the downtown block bounded by 3rd and 4th streets and Main and Houston streets.

hotel block 2014Today that block is Sundance Square Plaza.

van zandt makers 1914We can trace the history of Fort Worth’s “hotel block” back to August 1865. The Civil War had ended in April. Future civic leader Major Khleber Miller Van Zandt (1836-1930) visited Fort Worth from Marshall, Texas, and found Fort Worth to present “a sad and gloomy picture.” Indeed Fort Worth was not much to look at just after the war: not many people living in a few modest wooden buildings on a few dirt streets. Nonetheless, Van Zandt, who would be president of Fort Worth National Bank for forty-six years, rented a house at 5th and Commerce streets and returned to Marshall to fetch his family. In early December 1865 the Van Zandts moved to Fort Worth by wagon. For $300 Van Zandt bought the entire city block bounded by 3rd and 4th streets and Main and Houston streets (where the new Westbrook retail building now stands). He was gambling on a brighter future for his adopted “sad and gloomy” hometown. He moved his family into a house located in the northeast corner of the block. (Photo from Makers of Fort Worth.)

westbrook 77 cd el pasoFast forward to 1877. Fort Worth’s future indeed improved after 1865. In 1877, one year after the railroad came to town, the eighty-one-room El Paso Hotel opened in the southeast corner of Van Zandt’s block under the proprietorship of Colonel Cyrus King Fairfax. The El Paso was the city’s first three-story building. It was “substantially built of stone” and “thoroughly ventilated.” It featured gas lighting, walnut furniture, and a billiards room. The stage coach also stopped daily at the hotel en route to Yuma, Arizona, fifteen hundred miles away. The trip took seventeen days. Note the horse-drawn streetcar in the ad from the 1877 city directory.

westbrook el paso opening ddhThe opening of the El Paso received grudging mention in the Dallas Daily Herald of September 26.

westbrook el paso hotel guests 1-14-83 gazThe El Paso was a favorite with out-of-towners. One of the El Paso’s early guests was outlaw Sam Bass. On December 21, 1877 Bass and associates checked in to enjoy the amenities after holding up a stage coach to Cleburne. Their take: $11. Clip is from the January 14, 1883 Gazette.

hotel 1800 85 cdIn 1884 the hotel changed its name to “Pickwick.” (Ad from 1885 city directory.)

yellow bear quanahOn December 19, 1885 Comanche Chief Quanah Parker (photo from Tarrant County College Northeast, Heritage Room) and his father-in-law, Chief Yellow Bear, came to Fort Worth. Yellow Bear was father of Wec-Keah, Quanah Parker’s first wife. Quanah Parker and Yellow Bear checked into the Pickwick Hotel and were assigned to an apartment in an adjacent building. That night Yellow Bear went to bed early, but Parker went out on the town with the foreman of the Dan Waggoner ranch. Two hours later Parker returned to the apartment and went to bed.

The next morning the two men had not appeared for breakfast. The Daily Gazette wrote: “The failure of the two Indians to appear at breakfast or dinner caused the hotel clerk to send a man around to awake them. He found the door locked and was unable to get a response from the inmates. The room was then forcibly entered, and as the door swung back the rush of the “deathly perfume” through the aperture told the story. A ghastly spectacle met the eyes of the hotel employees.”

westbrook yellow-bear 12--22Yellow Bear was dead; Parker was near death. Parker later told the Daily Gazette that he returned to the apartment about midnight and found Yellow Bear in bed and the gas lamp extinguished. Parker said he lit the lamp, undressed and turned out the lamp. But he apparently did not fully close the valve. He woke in the night and smelled gas but merely pulled a bedcover over his nose and went back to sleep. Clip is from the December 22, 1885 Daily Gazette.

westbrook houston 92 cdIn 1892 a resident of the Pickwick was attorney Temple Houston, flamboyant son of Sam Houston. (Clip from 1892 city directory.)

westbrook embalmers 1-21-97 regIn 1895 new management took over the Pickwick Hotel, changed its name to “Delaware” and remodeled it. Among the first guests of the hotel under new management were professors Myers and Sullivan of the Champion College of Embalming of Springfield, Ohio, who held a seminar for mortuary students in the hotel. Clip is from the January 21, 1897 Register.

van-zandt-delaware(Photo from University of Texas at Arlington Libraries.)

delaware remodeled 11-30-02 teleIn 1902 the Delaware was remodeled again and got an electric elevator. Clip is from the November 30 Telegram.

westbrook sage 4-5-05 teleIn 1905 “clairvoyant and palmist” professor Bentley Sage set up shop in suites 115 and 116. There the professor gave “readings” to residents who sought insights into “marriage, sickness, deaths, changes, travels, divorce, separations, lawsuits,” and so on. The professor listed “prominent people whom he has read,” including Queen Victoria, Grover Cleveland, President McKinley, John D. Rockefeller, Admiral Dewey, Ethel Barrymore, and “Holmes (the murderer).” “Fees within reach of all,” Sage’s ad read in the Telegram of April 5. “Ladies’ entrance on Fourth Street.”

westbrook tillar to build 4-1-08 stPerhaps the professor saw this coming: On April 1, 1908 the Telegram reported that Benjamin Tillar, who had bought up much of “hotel block,” including the Delaware Hotel, would build a huge hotel on the site of the Delaware.

westbrook bids 4-4-09 stThe venerable Delaware was living on borrowed time: In the April 4, 1909 Star-Telegram architects Sanguinet and Staats advertised for bids to tear down the hotel. Two columns over was an ad for the hotel: “first-class in every respect.”

tillar mugTillar’s new hotel was even grander than the Delaware, stretching the length of 4th Street between Main and Houston streets. Benjamin Tillar named his hotel “Westbrook” after his father, J. T. Westbrook Tillar.

westbrook PC

At the right edge of the postcard at Main and 3rd can be seen the little Jett Building (1902), Fort Worth headquarters of Northern Texas Traction. The Jett Building can be seen in the recent photo of Sundance Square Plaza at the top of the post.

westbrook opens 12-16-10 st

The Westbrook opened on December 15, 1910. (Clip from December 16 Star-Telegram.)

van-zandt-westbrook-1024x740(Photo from University of North Texas Libraries.)

hotel westbrook lobby CCThe new hotel was luxurious, especially the lobby.

As a centerpiece in the lobby Benjamin Tillar placed the Golden Goddess, a large golden statue that he brought from Italy in 1909. The Golden Goddess is a minimally dressed woman who holds a torch over her head. When the hotel opened she quickly reigned as queen of the lobby.

The Golden Goddess and her hotel became popular with wealthy cattlemen such as Burk Burnett. During World War I the Goddess and the Westbrook became popular with British Royal Flying Corps cadets stationed at the three training fields around Fort Worth. The Goddess was especially popular with oilmen. Oilmen crowded the hotel lobby on October 17, 1917 after Texas & Pacific Coal Company, drilling on the McClesky farm near Ranger, Texas, struck oil, sparking the Ranger oil boom. Superstitious oilmen at the Westbrook soon embraced the custom of rubbing the golden backside of the goddess for luck. Oilmen even wrote her an ode, “The Oilman’s Lament”:

 Listen to me, you Golden Goddess
Standing high on your pedestal . . .
Let me rub your derriere for luck, for courage,
For bonanza . . .
And bequeath me your favors . . .
In black gold!

 Many of those oilmen had better luck than the Westbrook Hotel had. The Westbrook was imploded in 1978, and “hotel block” served as a parking lot until 2012, when construction of the Westbrook retail building began as part of the Sundance Square Plaza development.

hotel westbroo gg 4 topThe Golden Goddess also had better luck. In 2003 Fort Worth’s Petroleum Club bought the Golden Goddess, had her restored (covered with 250 sheets of gold leaf), and put her on display in the club. A new generation of oilmen revived the good-luck custom.

Sam Bass, Quanah Parker, Temple Houston, embalming classes, the Golden Goddess—“hotel block” had a full history, considering the humble purpose it served in 1865 after Major Van Zandt bought the property in his adopted “sad and gloomy” hometown. Years later, in his autobiography Force without Fanfare, Van Zandt recalled the first use he made of the future hotel site: “Down on the end of the block where the Westbrook Hotel now stands, I put my pigpen and cow lot.”

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The Attraction of Cast-Iron Architecture

In the second half of the 1800s, before steel was commonly used to frame commercial buildings (such as the 1907 Flatiron Building), cast iron was a common building material. Cast iron was cheap and required less space than did masonry or stone.

iron badger coveriron badger 3iron badger 2iron badger 1In fact, entire facades of buildings were made of cast-iron. All the parts for a façade could be ordered through catalogs and bolted together on site. For example, these pages are from D. D. Badger’s 1865 catalog of cast-iron parts.

Fort Worth has no buildings with cast-iron facades such as those that survive in New Orleans and New York City, but if you don’t mind appearing mildly strange to passersby, you can use a magnet to detect small parts of the past. Downtown has at least four nineteenth-century buildings with cast-iron architectural features.

iron weber wideLet’s begin on Main. The Weber Building at 302 Main was built about 1885. The Weber Building is next door to the first location of the White Elephant.

iron weber columnsiron weber magnet more columnEven with several coats of paint, the cast-iron columns of the Weber Building can hold a kiss with a one-pound magnet.

iron weber pullisThomas and Christen Pullis began the family ironworks in St. Louis in 1839.

iron jarvis building wideThe building at 506 Main Street that is known as the “Jarvis Building” was built about 1884 but was not bought by civic leader James Jones Jarvis until 1908.

iron jarvis magnetThe Jarvis Building also has painted cast-iron columns.

iron jarvis detail 3Detail of a cast-iron column.

iron jarvis corniceThe cornice also is cast iron.

iron winfree buildingThe little Winfree Building (1890) at 608 Main, sandwiched between the 1915 Fort Worth Club Building and the 1936 Kress Building, was the second location of the White Elephant.

iron winfree entryThe columns at the sides of the front facade and those flanking the entrance are painted cast iron.

iron winfree magnet and dooriron winfree magnet fleur de lis

iron winfree magnet and badgeiron winfree machine and boiler clip 1885The cast iron of the Winfree Building was made just around the corner at 5th and Throckmorton. The Machine & Boiler Works of Fort Worth organized about 1885. Clip is from the Gazette.

iron land title block wide updatedNow over to East 4th Street for the Land Title Block Building.

iron land 8-3-89Downtown was booming in 1889. On August 3 the Gazette reported that the Land Title Block Building at 111 East 4th was almost completed. The Natatorium and the new St. Ignatius Academy building also were under construction. (I left in the wry—but nonarchitectural—“localette” at the bottom just for your amusement.)

iron land title floretAccording to its historical marker, the Land Title Block Building has some cast-iron elements. The lintels over the first-story windows at the corner of the building are steel or cast-iron I-beams with decorative florets. Jones & Laughlins Steel Company organized in 1852 in Pittsburgh and later began casting iron. (In 1959 the company made the parts for the Forest Park miniature train’s bridge that spans the Trinity River oxbow.)

iron land title block window frameI believe the two center columns of the arched triptych windows of the Land Title Block Building are cast iron. But these windows are on the second story. That’s beyond the reach of my magnet, and I didn’t want to throw it. No one in the building could tell me anything, so we are left to wonder.

iron lancaster wideA late example of cast-iron architecture is found east of downtown. The front of the building at 1415 East Lancaster, built about 1908, has eight cast-iron columns almost identical to those of the Winfree Building.

iron lancaster magnetIn 1909, when Lancaster Avenue was still East Front Street, the building housed a pool parlor, Mrs. Dodson’s furnished rooms, a pharmacy, and a doctor’s office. Today the building houses the Day Resource Center for the Homeless.

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Cowtown Noir: The Bellboy Always Rings Twice

In the early 1950s he was the high priest of pulp. In his crime novels he wrote about a world where greed is god, where the Ten Commandments don’t contain the word not, and where all the crosses are double.

James Myers Thompson was born in 1906 in Anadarko, Caddo County, Oklahoma Territory fourteen months before Oklahoma Territory and Indian Territory became the forty-sixth state.

thompson sheriff 2-7-5 dmnHis father, James Sherman Thompson, was Caddo County sheriff. Clip is from the February 7, 1905 Dallas Morning News.

But in 1907 Sheriff Thompson, just months after his son was born, packed up his family and left the county after being accused of misappropriation.

After several restless years of gathering no moss, in 1919 the Thompson family rolled to a stop in Fort Worth. The Thompsons lived on the East Side, first on Handley Drive, then on Rosedale, then on Lancaster Avenue in a big house that Mr. Thompson built near Tandy Lake. In 1920 young Jim caddied at Glen Garden Country Club and enrolled at Poly High School. In 1921 he worked as a copyboy for the new newspaper in town: the Fort Worth Press.

thompson poly building 21This sketch in the 1921 Poly yearbook shows the first Poly school that Jim Thompson attended: the 1907 building located on Nashville Avenue where William James Junior High is today. Samuel Selkirk Dillow was head of the Polytechnic independent school district.

When the Thompsons arrived in Fort Worth in 1919 the west Texas oilfields had been booming for two years; Prohibition was still one year in the future. In Fort Worth the senior James Thompson dabbled in various ventures, including drilling oil wells and speculating in the stock market. He made a lot of money but lost it. By 1923 the Thompsons were broke.

To help with family finances, in 1923 young Jim got a job as a bellboy at the Texas Hotel. By 1923 west Texas oil was still flowing, but legal liquor was not. Jim the bellboy quickly learned to profit from the abundance of the former and the shortage of the latter. He led a double life: By day he attended Poly High; by night he worked as a bellboy. Even by night he led a double life: bearer of baggage in the bright lights of the hotel lobby and bearer of drugs, bootleg booze, and prostitutes in the shadows of the hotel hallways.

The Texas Hotel, like many other hotels during the wide-open 1920s, was a carpeted clearinghouse of high-rolling oilmen, dice-rolling gamblers, drunk-rolling opportunists, conmen, suckers, golddiggers, and grifters. Jim Thompson rubbed elbows and hip flasks with them all as he supplemented his bellboy income by providing under-the-table favors to hotel guests.

In his autobiographical Bad Boy, Thompson wrote, “Nominally there were strictly enforced rules against such things as getting drunk on duty, intimacy with lady guests and forcing tips from the stingy. But the management could have knowledge that you were guilty of all those crimes, and as long as you did them in such a way as not to give rise to complaints or disturb the routine of the hotel, nothing would be done.”

Thompson earned $15 a month as a bellboy. His tips sometimes totaled $1,000 a month. Jim bought himself a new car and new clothes.

thompson 1924 cdThe 1924 city directory lists Jim as a bellboy living on Handley Boulevard (Lancaster Avenue east of Fort Worth). His father was listed as an oil operator working out of the Dan Waggoner (father of W. T.) Building and living with wife Birdie on the Dallas Road (East Lancaster Avenue, probably the home near Tandy Lake).

thompson 24 annualThompson is shown in the 1924 Poly yearbook. After classes each day he worked long night shifts at the hotel. He made it through the night with a little help from his friends: three packs of cigarettes a night, cocaine, and especially booze. One biographer says that in 1924 Thompson suffered a breakdown caused by alcoholism, tuberculosis, and nervous exhaustion. He was eighteen years old.

Thompson’s sister recalled that her brother was “eighteen going on fifty.”

Jim Thompson was burning the candle at both ends and pouring gasoline on the flames. But somehow he managed to attend classes at Poly, which by 1924 was housed in the new building two blocks from the 1907 building on Nashville Avenue. While at Poly, under the encouragement of an English teacher, Thompson began to write, occasionally getting into print in minor magazines.

thompson poly 25 facultyOne of these teachers in the 1925 yearbook may have been the English teacher who encouraged Thompson. Some of those teachers, such as F. F. Leissner and Maurine Martel, are remembered by students who attended Poly High forty years later. Music teacher Charles X. O’Brien and Martel wrote the school song. And shop teacher J. P. Moore would become superintendent of Fort Worth schools.

thompson 26 annualWith his strenuous school-job schedule, Thompson attended Poly High on and off for six years. He was a member of the Press Club and the yearbook staff. Jim Thompson left Poly High in 1926. He may or may not have graduated. By the time the Poly High School class of 1926 held its graduation ceremony, Jim had already migrated to west Texas, where he worked in oilfields and gambling joints. And he continued to write.

In 1928 he returned to Fort Worth and did another hitch at the Texas Hotel and again provided his special services. Hotel guests must have been glad to see the return as the magic genie in a bellboy cap. In the 1930s Thompson married, moved back to Oklahoma, became the father of three, and flirted with communism (he was blacklisted during the McCarthy era). And he continued to write—now for true-crime magazines, incorporating many of the people and plots he had been exposed to at the Texas Hotel.

But throughout the 1940s Thompson continued to fight the bottle, was hospitalized several times. Despite that battle, in 1942 his first novel, Now and on Earth, was published. His first crime novel, Nothing More Than Murder, was not published until 1949. But then Jim Thompson’s muse seemingly took a deep drag and a strong swig because Thompson caught fire and burned with a blue-tipped flame from 1952 to 1954, writing a dozen novels.

As he pounded the typewriter Thompson continued to fictionalize his experiences at the Texas Hotel. A Swell-Looking Babe (1954) is about a bellboy at the mythical Manton Hotel in Fort Worth. Crooks of his acquaintance at the Texas Hotel would breathe life into characters in Roughneck (1954) and The Getaway (1958). His The Grifters (1963) features a “short con” swindle that Thompson learned at the Texas Hotel.

The son of a sheriff not surprisingly also sometimes made small-town lawmen central characters in his novels. An excerpt from The Killer Inside Me (1952):

I took it out of the drawer, a .32 automatic, just as she came in with the coffee tray. Her eyes flashed and she slammed the tray down on a table. “What,” she snapped, “are you doing with that?”
I opened my coat and showed her my badge. “Sheriff’s office, ma’am. What are you doing with it?”
She didn’t say anything. She just took her purse off the dresser, opened it and pulled out a permit. It had been issued in Fort Worth, but it was all legal enough. Those things are usually honored from one town to another.
“Satisfied, copper?” she said.
“I reckon it’s alright, miss,” I said. “And my name’s Ford, not copper.” I gave her a big smile, but I didn’t get any back.

thompson the killing titlesIn 1955 Hollywood rang, but it didn’t have to ring twice. Director Stanley Kubrick hired Thompson to write the script for Kubrick’s 1956 film noir classic The Killing. But Kubrick took the script credit and gave Thompson only a dialogue credit.

thompson paths of gloryIn 1957 Kubrick again hired Thompson—to write the script for Paths of Glory. Some sources say Thompson again wrote most of the script, but again Kubrick took top billing among the three screenwriters.

Despite that tarnished introduction to Tinseltown, the Thompsons moved to Hollywood in 1960. Jim Thompson wrote for TV, including episodes of Dr. Kildare, Tales of Wells Fargo, Mackenzie’s Raiders, and Convoy.

thompson redford 8-21-70 dmnIn 1970 Robert Redford paid Thompson $10,000 ($59,000 today) for a script for Bo, a film about a hobo set during the Depression. The film was never produced. Clip is from the August 21 Dallas Morning News.

thompson getaway film 12-12-72 dmnIn 1972 The Getaway was filmed, starring Steve McQueen and Ali MacGraw. Clip is from the December 12 Dallas Morning News.

thompson farewell titlesThompson even briefly stepped to the other side of the camera. In 1975 he had a small role as Charlotte Rampling’s husband in Farewell, My Lovely starring Robert Mitchum.

But by the 1960s Thompson was writing less and suffering more physically. His body of work from the 1950s was largely forgotten. When Jim Thompson died in 1977 his thirty novels were out of print in the United States. James Myers Thompson died in Los Angeles, having worn out one body and an undetermined number of typewriters.

But for the high priest of pulp, there was life after death: He was discovered by a new generation. His novels were reprinted, his legacy re-evaluated. Now Jim Thompson is considered among the most influential of American crime writers. Said Stephen King: “My favorite crime novelist—often imitated but never duplicated—is Jim Thompson.” Thompson today is sometimes mentioned in the same breath even with the trinity of Hammett (The Maltese Falcon), Chandler (Double Indemnity), and Cain (The Postman Always Rings Twice).

thompson Grifters coverIn 1990 Thompson’s The Grifters was filmed, starring Anjelica Huston and John Cusack. The film was nominated for four Academy Awards.

thompson after dark coverAlso in 1990 After Dark, My Sweet was filmed, starring Jason Patric and Rachel Ward.

thompson killer coverIn 2010, thirty-three years after he died, Thompson’s seminal noir, The Killer Inside Me, was filmed, starring Casey Affleck, Kate Hudson, and Jessica Alba. Stanley Kubrick called the novel “probably the most chilling and believable first-person story of a criminally warped mind I have ever encountered.”

Yes, Jim Thompson’s career finally had found the one element for success that it had been missing: his death. That career move surely would please the cynical characters who people his novels.

(Thanks and a tip of the bellboy cap to historian Harry Max Hill for suggesting this subject.)

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