The 1950s, for much of America, were a decade of “I Like Ike” and “We Like Short Shorts” and I Love Lucy. But out on Jacksboro Highway during the 1950s, the boys in the back rooms of the nightclubs and the bars had different druthers: They liked gambling, they liked prostitution, and they loved cops who looked the other way.
Jacksboro Highway gambler Nelson Harris was one of those back-room boys. He had practically grown up on the highway, having worked there in his teens as a club bouncer before the war.
Harris also had belonged to the Green Dragon narcotics syndicate, was convicted, and served time at Leavenworth.
By 1945 Harris was out of prison and owned a gambling joint of his own at 2238 Jacksboro Highway: Nelson’s Place.
By 1950 Harris was forty-one years old and married to his second wife, Juanita, age twenty-five. On the morning of November 22—the day before Thanksgiving—Harris phoned two Fort Worth criminal lawyers, Ross and Doss Hardin. Harris was not in a holiday mood. He told the two lawyers that he was coming to see them about a matter of “life and death.”
Soon after he made that phone call, at 9:15 Nelson and Juanita Harris got into their car outside their duplex on Wingate Street near University Drive on the near West Side. Juanita Harris was due to give birth the next week.
Nelson Harris leaned forward to start the car’s engine. He turned the ignition key. A bottle of nitroglycerin wired to the starter blew the car apart. Harris, Juanita, and their unborn child were killed.
The Harris “gangland assassination” was the lead story on page 1 of the November 22 evening Star-Telegram.
“Homicide/Auto exploded”: Thanks to the boys in the back rooms out on Jacksboro Highway, during the decade to come death certificates, like front-page headlines, would make for livelier reading.
The bomb that blew apart the car of Nelson and Juanita Harris just before Thanksgiving in 1950 also blew the lid off Jacksboro Highway’s underworld.
Fort Worth’s Highway to Hell would never be the same.
Law enforcement and the public had spent the previous decade looking the other way as the hoodlums who controlled the vice on Jacksboro Highway had killed one another off. After all, that had been in-fighting. Thug-on-thug. Every time a gangster killed another gangster, it was one less gangster for law enforcement to pursue. But now, with the Harris murders, someone had killed a woman and an unborn child. The public began to demand action.
The cops had to stop looking the other way.
Vice districts like Jacksboro Highway are organic, not synthetic. No developer plats an area of a city, gets it zoned “S” for “Sodom,” and puts up a billboard proclaiming, “Anything Goes.” Vice districts develop gradually, driven by circumstances. Jacksboro Highway was the reincarnation of Fort Worth’s original vice district, Hell’s Half Acre. But whereas the Acre had developed out of the cattle drives that brought men and money into town, Jacksboro Highway had developed out of a more complex set of circumstances.
Jacksboro Highway’s location contributed to its evolution. It was in the right place at the right time. In 1928 voters approved bonds to extend State Highway 34 from downtown Fort Worth northwest toward the town of Jacksboro.
In 1931 State Highway 34—also known as “Northwest Highway”—opened to Lake Worth with a ribbon-cutting ceremony, fireworks at Casino Beach, and music by the Light Crust Doughboys. In 1935 the highway would be redesignated “State Highway 199.” The stretch of highway on the Fort Worth end became known as “Jacksboro Highway.”
In 1933 national prohibition ended, but the Texas legislature limited the sale of hard liquor. Many of the counties that Jacksboro Highway connected to Fort Worth were dry. Oilfield workers and ranchers—roughnecks and rednecks—in those dry counties came to Fort Worth to wet their whistle and to gamble on Jacksboro Highway. And the highway was a two-way street: Moonshiners in Tarrant County serviced those dry counties, running Cadillacs and Oldsmobiles and Pontiacs that were souped up and loaded down with liquor out the highway, earning it the nickname “Thunder Road.”
Additionally, in 1936 Fort Worth celebrated Texas’s first one hundred years with its Frontier Centennial. To make that months-long celebration an economic success, the city winked at illegal gambling and open bars. Cops looked the other way.
In 1942 the highway’s location again contributed to its evolution. With America at war, Fort Worth became the home of Air Force Plant 4. Thousands of men and women worked at the plant building B-24 bombers. At adjacent Fort Worth Army Air Field (later named “Carswell Air Force Base”), more men trained in those B-24s. All those workers with a paycheck to spend and a need to relax worked just three miles from the clubs of the “Jax Beer Highway.”
Too, the neighborhoods where the laborers of the stockyards and packing plants lived were even closer—less than a mile away. Even River Crest Country Club, with its high-rolling members, was only three miles away.
Socialites from the affluent West Side, frat boys from TCU looking for adventure, high-stakes professional gamblers, and penny-ante amateurs—the highway offered something for them all.
One more factor in the evolution of the highway: In its early days its upper stretches were beyond Fort Worth city limits and thus beyond Fort Worth police.
Clubs on the Highway to Hell came and went over the years, of course, but included the Four Deuces, 3939 Club, Black Cat, Black Sands, Hilarity Club, Coconut Grove, Rocket Club, Supper Club, Skyliner, and Showboat. Ad is from a 1948 Fort Worth Press.
At the Skyliner Club the interpretive dance of terpsichorean Candy Barr enthralled aficionados of the performing arts. Clip is from an August 1955 Star-Telegram.
(In 1958 Candy Barr would be convicted of marijuana possession. Clip is from the February 14 Dallas Morning News.)
WBAP-TV archival news footage of Candy Barr:
In addition to stage entertainment, the clubs of Jacksboro Highway offered dining, dancing, and drinking. Also slot machines, cards, dice, roulette wheels, and bookmaking. And for those who were so inclined, a choice of fights: fist, knife, or gun.
The clubs on the highway during the 1950s could be classified as divas or dives. In the diva clubs, well-dressed couples were ushered to their polished tables with deference by men in tuxedos. In the dives, drunks were tossed out the back door by bouncers in denim jackets.
The diva clubs featured big-name entertainers: Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys, Andrews Sisters, Paul Whiteman, Dorothy Lamour, Kay Kyser, Tommy Dorsey, Artie Shaw, Benny Goodman, Harry James, and Fort Worth’s own Bobby Peters. The dives had chicken-wire netting stretched in front of the stage to protect musicians such as young Willie Hugh Nelson.
Arguably the top diva club was the Four Deuces, a five thousand-square-foot Spanish colonial casino and restaurant. William Calvin “Pappy” Kirkwood owned and operated the Four Deuces from 1934 to 1972. He also lived on the premises. Admittance to the Four Deuces, so-called because of its 2222 Jacksboro Highway address, was by invitation only. Among the invited: cowboy singer Gene Autry, Speaker of the U.S. House Sam Rayburn, the wife of Star-Telegram publisher Amon Carter, animal collector Frank Buck, and King Ranch board chairman Dick Kleberg.
The Four Deuces was for high-rollers only, players who might win—or could afford to lose—$25,000 in a night. Tens of thousands of dollars changed hands in a night at the Four Deuces.
Not everyone came there to gamble, of course. Some came merely to bask in the ambiance, to enjoy the food and drink—the best steaks, liquor, and cigars—and to rub shoulders, mink on mink, silk on silk, with other members of the social register. On a busy night the parking lot of the Four Deuces looked like a Cadillac dealership.
Pappy Kirkwood’s son Pat, who would later operate the Cellar, had another way of assessing business on the highway. Associated Press writer Mike Cochran wrote in 1988 of Pat: “As a youngster growing up on Jacksboro Highway, Pat Kirkwood scrambled atop the roof of his dad’s gambling joint on Saturday nights and assessed the economy by activities along the road below. ‘If it was a three-ambulance evening, money was a little tight,’ he said. ‘But seven or eight ambulances meant everything was OK. People were out spending money and boozing and brawling.’”
And Pappy ran a straight house, Pat recalled in 1983. “In a place that may or may not be exactly to the letter of the law, the only thing that maintains your business level is absolute integrity.”
For example, a salaried man would not be allowed to gamble at the Four Deuces, Pat recalled, “because he might lose and hurt his family. . . . The first time you take a man’s salary, his wife’s gonna call, there’s gonna be heat, and the man downtown isn’t going to stand for it. They don’t mind [the gambling place], but they won’t stand for the heat.”
Pappy also dabbled in oil and real estate, but gambling was his passion. Pat said his father was “a pure gambler.”
“Gambling was his whole life.”
Pappy alternately won and lost fortunes.
To Pappy, “really the action was more important than winning or losing. The play, the excitement.”
Pat Kirkwood said: “On many an occasion . . . some high roller would roll in from Midland and demand . . . a heads-up, two-player game with my father. And usually it was a bad decision. As my father explained it to me, ‘As few points as there are on those dice, it’s amazing how few people can count that high.’”
Car-bombed gangster Nelson Harris had once worked as a “yardman” at the Four Deuces. His job was to screen guests as they arrived and to press a buzzer if he saw police officers approaching so the gambling equipment could be concealed. (Pat Kirkwood said the club also was often tipped off about raids. By the time police arrived, the gambling house was just a cocktail lounge.)
Into the “dive” category of clubs on the highway fell an assortment of establishments. Most offered wild life.
And one offered wildlife: Elmer Sharp ran a private club in his garage. Doyle Brunson, now a member of the Poker Hall of Fame, recalled Sharp from the 1950s in Brunson’s The Godfather of Poker: “Elmer kept a pet bear at the ‘private club’ he ran illegally out of his garage, and if business or brawling was slow, he’d just wrestle that damn bear.”
Elmer Sharp was indeed built for bear. He was solid and square shouldered—a refrigerator with five o’clock shadow. Doyle Brunson recalled, “They claimed the only person in town tougher than Elmer was his mama.” (Photo from University of Texas at Arlington Library.)
Fort Worth suffered a severe case of ambivalence about the highway, just as it had about Hell’s Half Acre a half-century earlier, muttering lamentations for its sin one minute and whispering thanks for its economic engine the next minute. Vice brought people to town, put money into circulation. Calls for reform waxed but always waned. Indignation was always followed by resignation.
And then came the car-bombing of the Harrises on the day before Thanksgiving in 1950.
And yet, seldom can one event be singled out as the last straw. More often there are many last straws that accrue to eventually make a broom. And then the broom begins to sweep. In the case of Jacksboro Highway, after the Harris car-bombing, suddenly police began to find gambling where they had found none before. Arrests were made; equipment was confiscated.
Five weeks after Harris and his pregnant wife were killed in November 1950, a grand jury began to investigate their murders. Then investigators found that Harris was speaking from the grave: He had left behind a trunk full of business records—records pointing to police payoffs.
The grand jury widened its investigation to “gaming, bribery, and vice.” After a three-month investigation the grand jury indicted sixty gamblers, most of them Jacksboro Highway operators. Clip is from the March 31, 1951 Dallas Morning News.
Rumors circulated: The grand jury would indict police officers for taking bribes.
But a deal was cut.
No police officers were indicted, but Police Chief George T. Hawkins suddenly resigned and was transferred to the traffic bureau at his former rank of lieutenant. He had been suspected of accepting bribes. Hawkins said the grand jury investigation into gambling and alleged payoffs had nothing to do with his decision to resign.
Jacksboro Highway was big vice. Big vice breeds big money, and big money breeds big enemies. Author Ann Arnold, in her definitive Gamblers & Gangsters, wrote that between 1943 and 1959 nineteen gangland killings took place in Fort Worth. Most of the victims were habitués of the highway. No one was ever convicted of most of the killings, including the Harris murders.
Even as the broom made of last straws continued to sweep the highway after the Harris car-bombing, the killings went on. There were three in 1955 alone.
The first was Clifton Edell Evans. Evans ran a rigged gambling operation and a call-girl business. Police once found four thousand pairs of dice in a raid on his house. In April 1955 Evans disappeared. Police found blood on the front seat of his Cadillac. A few months later police, following a tip, found Evans’s body in a shallow grave not far from Jacksboro Highway. Police Chief Cato Hightower said highway gangsters Cecil Green and Leroy “Tincy” Eggleston, who ran an extortion racket, might have killed Evans to increase their reputation as men to be feared and not crossed. Clip is from the November 2, 1955 Dallas Morning News.
The second Highway to Hell killing of 1955 was Tincy Eggleston. Eggleston, born in 1909, was a gangster’s gangster. Beginning in 1926 he had devoted a solid quarter-century to local crime. Clip is from the July 11, 1930 Dallas Morning News.
In 1935 Eggleston, serving thirteen years for robbery, had broken out of the Harlem state prison farm. Clip is from the February 19, 1935 Dallas Morning News.
Associated Press writer Mike Cochran in 1988 quoted Cleon Nettles’s memory of the highway: “When someone got too big for his britches, he just disappeared . . . and they’d find him in a well.” And so it was for Eggleston, who ran a gambling operation on the highway in addition to the extortion racket with Cecil Green. In 1950, just hours after the Harris car-bombing, Eggleston had called police to report that he had just found a similar bomb in his car. Some insiders had suspected that Eggleston had killed the Harrises and then had rigged his own car with a bomb to divert suspicion.
Eggleston was listed in the 1955 city directory as a “cattleman” living with wife Walterine in a modest house on Beddell Avenue on the South Side.
On a day in August 1955 Eggleston left Walterine and that modest house to meet an extortion victim for a payoff. The next day Eggleston’s bloodstained car was discovered.
A few days later Eggleston’s body was found in an abandoned well east of the highway.
No one was ever tried for his murder. The highway’s gangland slayings were always front-page news at the Star-Telegram. Clip is from September 1, 1955.
Frames from WBAP-TV news footage of the time show Eggleston, his bloodstained car, and the recovery of his body from the well.
WBAP-TV news footage (no audio):
Considering how much time Tincy Eggleston spent touring Texas prisons, it’s a wonder he managed to work so much crime into his short life.
Tincy continued to make headlines even in death: The Star-Telegram in December 1955 reported that Eggleston may have been hired to assassinate Panama’s President Jose Remon after Remon cracked down on drug trafficking in Panama.
The third Highway to Hell killing of 1955 was Eggleston associate Cecil Green. Green also had been a suspect in the Harris car-bombing. On May 3, 1955 Green was gunned down as he sat in his Cadillac at his sister’s By-Way Tavern on the highway. He died the next day. Police suspected that the hitman was Jacksboro Highway habitué Gene Paul Norris but could not prove it. Eggleston and Green also were suspects in the William Clark murder case. Clip is from the May 4, 1955 Dallas Morning News.
After these three Jacksboro Highway gangland killings in 1955, a Texas Senate committee investigating narcotics added Fort Worth’s underworld to its to-do list. Clip is from the September 2, 1955 Dallas Morning News.
And the body count continued to rise. In 1956 gambler Charles Frank Cates, who had been questioned in the Harris car-bombing, was in a house behind Chenault’s Dining Place on the highway. He was counting money when the phone rang. Cates picked up the receiver, and the house exploded. Under the house police found wires that ran 250 feet down Jacksboro Highway. Police suspected that one man had phoned Cates from a telephone on the highway—possibly from Chenault’s—and that another man in a car nearby had detonated the bomb when signaled by the first man.
A few weeks later Cates heard his phone ring again. Tempting fate, he answered. Cates told his wife he had to go meet a man. Police found Cates’s shotgunned body in his car within a mile of the well that had yielded the body of Tincy Eggleston in 1955.
“Shotgun blast”: the death certificate of Charles Frank Cates.
By 1957, as the broom of last straws continued to sweep the highway, Gene Paul Norris was on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted list. And he had achieved that ranking before he planned the biggest crime of his career. Norris planned to rob a bank. But not just any bank. No. Norris planned to rob the branch of Fort Worth National Bank that was located in Carswell Air Force Base and held the base’s payroll of $225,000 ($1.8 million today). But police found out about the plan, and when Norris and his accomplice made a practice run along their escape route, police were waiting. Norris was killed in a shootout with police after a high-speed chase on—where else?—Jacksboro Highway. Clip is from the April 30, 1957 Dallas Morning News.
(In 1952 Gene Paul Norris also had taken part in the robbery of three Cubans at the Western Hills Hotel.)
Police Chief Cato Hightower said that with the death of Norris police could close the books on nine local murders, including those of Eggleston, Green, and Cates.
“He was a madman,” Hightower said of Norris. Clip is from the April 30 Star-Telegram.
After the 1951 grand jury named names, the IRS also became interested in business-as-usual on the highway. Gamblers and gangsters didn’t report their illegal income, of course. Likewise, city and county employees who were on the take didn’t report their bribes. But they often spent far more than the income they did report. That discrepancy interested investigators. Some gamblers were convicted of tax evasion.
By the time Gene Paul Norris was killed in 1957—seven years after the Harris car-bombing—the highway was reaching the end of the road. The world—big and small—was changing. In the big world, the postwar economic boom gave people less motive to gamble to get rich quick, to take a chance on repercussions, legal and otherwise. In the small world, the crackdown on vice on Jacksboro Highway was putting an end to business-as-usual. Many of the Mr. Bigs had been killed or jailed. And the highway’s high-rollers now had an option: They could pack up deck and dice and move to Las Vegas.
Finally came a public works project: Jacksboro Highway was widened. The city, invoking eminent domain, removed with a bulldozer what had not already been removed by indictment, bullet, or bomb.
Now the nightclubs and casinos of the highway are gone.
And in 1983 one of the most-storied names along the Highway to Hell died.
Eight years later the fabled Four Deuces itself crapped out. In 1991 Pat Kirkwood ran this classified ad in the Star-Telegram.
A month later, in a move that surely would have made Pappy smile, Pat Kirkwood sweetened the pot. He amended his ad: “Okay, high rollers, let’s agree on a price and flip double or nothing for the Four Deuces.” Alas, the Four Deuces was demolished despite attempts to preserve it for its historical and architectural significance.
A survivor on the highway is the Rocket Club building. The building, with its canvas roof that retracted over the dance floor so couples could dance under the stars, was converted into a muffler and welding shop.
One block north is the Avalon Motor Court, once owned by gangster Asher Rone, who also owned the Black Cat Café next door. Gangster Elmer Sharp, who worked for Rone, once interrupted an assignation with a waitress at the Avalon to run next door in his boxer shorts to beat up four men who were robbing Rone.
The Avalon survives as a respectable motel.
Today the Highway to Hell is the highway to fast-food outlets, small used car lots, propane distributors, and other small, decidedly prosaic businesses. For example, now located at 5811 Jacksboro Highway, just a block from where bored Elmer Sharp wrestled his pet bear at 5717, is an establishment that would have thrived on the Highway to Hell in the 1950s:
Fort Worth Monument Company, crafter of quality tombstones.
A sampler of tombstones from the Highway to Hell:
(The above photos from Find A Grave.)
William Calvin “Pappy” Kirkwood is buried in Greenwood Cemetery.