It would be hard to overstate the impact of the railroad on Fort Worth history. And it would be hard to overstate the impact of the decade of the 1880s on Fort Worth railroad history. During that decade Fort Worth would add eight railroads; its population would grow from 6,663 to 23,076.
In fact, for Cowtown the 1880s would be as fat as the 1870s had been lean.
It had all seemed so promising in 1872. On September 14, 1872 the Dallas Weekly Herald had reported that Tarrant County had approved a $100,000 ($2 million today) subsidy to the Texas & Pacific railroad. T&P was laying track westward from Marshall to Dallas. Fort Worth wanted the track extended thirty miles west.
In fact, on March 22, 1873, the Weekly Herald reported surveying of the route from Dallas to Fort Worth and predicted that trains would be running from Fort Worth to Shreveport by Christmas. The Weekly Herald said the line from Dallas to Fort Worth could cost $35,000 ($700,000 today) a mile because of extensive bridge and rock work.
By August 1873 the T&P was ready to serve Dallas. (Dallas’s first railroad, the Houston & Texas Central, had begun service in 1872.)
Fort Worth was optimistic. The future was just thirty miles to the east now. And the T&P would be just the start for Fort Worth. In fact, in 1873 B. B. Paddock, then editor of the Fort Worth Democrat and the town’s foremost “I think we can, I think we can” booster, drew his ambitious “tarantula map” projecting that Fort Worth would one day be a railroad center. (This updated version of Paddock’s map dates from 1887, when it was added to the nameplate of the Democrat.)
But in September 1873 came a national economic panic, and the California and Texas Railway Construction Company, which the T&P was paying to lay the track, failed. Fort Worth would wait three long years for those thirty short miles of track. Finally, on July 19, 1876, Fort Worth got its first whiff of coal smoke as T&P locomotive 20 rambled into town. With that arrival T&P had attached the first leg to Paddock’s tarantula map.
On December 14, 1877, while Fort Worth’s tarantula map still had but one leg, the Dallas Daily Herald poked fun at Paddock and Cowtown’s aspirations. Note that the news story says that an enlargement of Paddock’s tarantula map was posted on the courthouse square.
Fort Worth would have to wait three more years—and the beginning of the grand decade of the 1880s—for its second leg. The first railroad of the new decade was the Missouri-Kansas-Texas (Katy) in 1880.
A year later, on May 9, 1881 Fort Worth’s tarantula map grew its third leg as the first Missouri Pacific train arrived, as reported in this no-big-deal brief in the Dallas Weekly Herald of May 12. But in Cowtown it was a big deal because as the 1880s began Fort Worth was still playing catch-up to Dallas: In 1880 as the Katy railroad became Fort Worth’s second railroad, it became Dallas’s seventh.
For Paddock’s tarantula map, 1881 was a big year: The Gulf, Colorado and Santa Fe and the Transcontinental Division of the T&P (Fort Worth to Sherman) began serving Fort Worth.
In 1882 the Fort Worth & Denver City arrived.
In 1885 came the Fort Worth & New Orleans, in 1886 the Fort Worth & Rio Grande, and in 1887 the St. Louis-Southwestern (Cotton Belt). The Cotton Belt became Fort Worth’s eighth railroad. Paddock’s 1873 arachnidian vision was anatomically correct.
But Fort Worth was not done with the 1880s. In 1888 Cowtown added a ninth leg, the St. Louis, Arkansas and Texas railroad.
This 1889 time table lists nine railroads.
A few weeks after barely mentioning the arrival of the Missouri Pacific in Cowtown, the Dallas Weekly Herald suffered this rare spasm of bonhomie about Fort Worth and its railroads.
The railroads changed everything for every city they laid rail to. Even as early as 1876, when Fort Worth still had but one railroad, it was connected to the world because the T&P connected Fort Worth to Dallas. People in Fort Worth could board a train at Union depot south of downtown and via connections to other railroads go almost anywhere. Now people in Fort Worth could reach New York City and the steamship lines of the Atlantic. People in Fort Worth could sail across the ocean to the country where they or their parents were born! And the connection worked both ways: Now people from far-away places could take the train to Fort Worth. The railroads made Cowtown more cowsmopolitan.
Trains moved fast, had ice-cooled cars, so food that was shipped by rail stayed fresher. And the railroad brought cold beer to town.
Cattle could be shipped to market in rail cars, not on the cattle trails. The railroads carried letters, newspapers, books, parcels, increasing the speed with which people could communicate and share information. The railroads were the Internet of the nineteenth century, running on iron rails instead of fiber optics.