To the chagrin of many a high school student, history loves to hang its hat on dates—on years (1492, 1776), on days (December 7, September 11). But it’s seldom that history can hang its hat on a minute. In this case, that minute was 11:23. In Fort Worth the days leading up to and following 11:23 a.m., July 19, 1876 were spent first in anticipation and then in celebration of the biggest thing to hit Cowtown since the cow: the railroad.
In 1873 the Texas & Pacific railroad had been laying track westward from Marshall to Fort Worth. So convinced was Fort Worth Democrat editor (and Cowtown’s head cheerleader) B. B. Paddock that Fort Worth would become a railroad hub that in 1873 he drew his Tarantula map that showed Fort Worth as a railroad hub in the near future.
In July 1873 the track reached Dallas. Fort Worth was just thirty-two miles away. But then came the national economic panic of 1873. Work on laying the track to Fort Worth stopped at Eagle Ford west of Dallas. For Fort Worth it was a double whammy: Fort Worth didn’t get the railroad, but downstream arch rival Dallas did. Fort Worth languished. Its population declined. Mayor William Paxton Burts in 1874 said the population was only six hundred. On February 2, 1875, Robert Cowart, a Dallas lawyer who had formerly lived in Fort Worth, wrote a tongue-in-cheek article in the Dallas Daily Herald in which he claimed that Fort Worth had become such a sleepy “suburban village” that one night a panther had come up from the river bottom and wandered the downtown streets “at his own sweet will.”
Fast-forward to July 1876. The economy had improved, and the T&P had resumed laying track toward Fort Worth. The railroad, Paddock and the Democrat knew, was going to change everything for Fort Worth. The railroad would create jobs, increase the population. (Indeed it did: By 1880 the population would be six thousand.) More hotels, more houses would be needed. More everything would be needed. Fort Worth would be connected to the rest of the country via an iron Internet. Cowtown would get its frontier mojo back!
As the track inched toward Fort Worth from the east, Paddock and his Democrat had three civic obligations: 1. to report regularly on how far the track had progressed, 2. to pat Fort Worth on its collective back for the tremendous asset it finally was about to acquire, and 3. to tweak the collective nose of Dallas, which would no longer be the western terminus of the T&P and which, in Fort Worth’s collective mind, had lorded it over the sleepy “suburban village” of “Pantherville” for far too long.
Part 1 of this three-part post concentrates on the physical progress of the railroad as track was laid.
On July 4, 1876, in a grand gesture that celebrated both America’s independence centennial and Fort Worth’s imminent coming of age, the weekly Democrat became the daily Democrat. Now Paddock and his newspaper could provide readers with daily coverage of the railroad’s progress.
On July 6 the Democrat reported that the T&P supervisors at Eagle Ford were calling for teams to haul bridge timber from the end of the track at Johnson Station (now in Arlington) to Sycamore Creek (at today’s Sycamore Golf Course). The track had advanced about thirteen miles from Eagle Ford to Johnson Station. That many more miles remained to reach Fort Worth. Cowtown was halfway home.
On July 8 the Democrat reported that the sound of a steam locomotive’s whistle was heard at Johnson Station.
On July 9 the Democrat reported that the track was about to cross Village Creek, putting the track four miles closer to Fort Worth. (In 1885 the T&P would lose a locomotive in Village Creek.) Closer to Cowtown, the first consignment of bridge timbers for Sycamore Creek also had arrived. Apparently work on the Sycamore Creek bridge began before the track reached the creek.
Building bridges across streams was a major challenge to the track layers. Three steams had to be bridged: the Trinity River at Eagle Ford, Village Creek in Arlington, and Sycamore Creek in what is today east Fort Worth.
On July 12 the Democrat reported that a pile driver working at Sycamore Creek had cut the telegraph wire between Dallas and Fort Worth, leaving the Democrat largely bereft of outside news.
The newpaper also reported that some Fort Worth residents had driven out to Village Creek to watch the progress as the track crept closer to “the place where the panter laid down.” (Panther was often spelled panter in the context of Robert Cowart’s yarn.)
On July 14 the Democrat reported that citizens also were driving out to Sycamore Creek every evening to watch the bridge being built. The bridge was the last major challenge for the workers, who, facing a deadline imposed by the state legislature, hastily threw up a makeshift “crib” to get the first train over the creek and on its way into Fort Worth.
On July 15 the Democrat mitigated the suspense with some comic relief: A young horseman was riding out to look at the track-laying progress when he was distracted by a “pretty damsel” and fell flat on his caboose.
The July 17 briefs column of the Democrat began appropriately with an ad for men’s briefs but followed with more news of the track laying. The newspaper office apparently had field glasses that afforded a view of the distant workers. The Democrat reported even being able to see—with unaided eye—the workers at Sycamore Creek three miles away.
On July 18 the Democrat broke out the journalistic razzle-dazzle: an engraving. Such illustrations in those days were usually limited to ads. Even though this construction train (which apparently delivered workers and material to a work site) apparently entered the city limits on July 18, it did not represent the official arrival of the railroad. Nonetheless, the Democrat urged residents to drive out and welcome the workers.
In another brief of July 18 the Democrat indicated that the track was now three miles from downtown—at or near Sycamore Creek.
The fateful day—July 19—arrived. The Democrat predicted that hundreds of people would be in town to watch Fort Worth enter the steam age.
On July 20 the Democrat again indulged in an engraving as it proclaimed that “at last” “the day has come.” At 11:23 a.m. July 19, 1876, Fort Worth’s future came rolling into town with a shrill scream that aroused the “panter” from his lair. B. B. Paddock and Pantherville had waited three long years to hear that scream.