The Cold Springs: Yesterday’s Oasis, Today’s Mystery

In the nineteenth century, in the days before indoor plumbing, public drinking fountains, and Sparkletts, safe drinking water was among the natural resources most precious to travelers and settlers on the frontier.

Springs were one source of such water. And one spring in particular played a role in Fort Worth history from the git-go.

The spring was called “the Cold Springs,” and it was located northeast of today’s downtown in the “peninsula” of the Samuels Avenue area that is formed by a deep, mile-wide horseshoe bend of the Trinity River.

European and African travelers and settlers were not the first to drink from the Cold Springs, of course. Indians had long known of its cool, clear water and had camped there.

Colonel Middleton Tate Johnson, an early landowner in the areas of today’s downtown and Samuels Avenue, apparently also knew about the Cold Springs in 1849 as he led Major Ripley Arnold and a few of Arnold’s Second Dragoons to the Trinity River to scout a suitable site for an Army outpost to protect white settlers on the frontier.

The Trinity River in those days was shallow, narrow, convoluted, and sluggish. It, like other local streams, could stop flowing and become stagnant during hot, dry spells. So, when Major Arnold’s soldiers built the fort on the bluff in the summer of 1849 the Cold Springs was their first source of drinking water until they dug wells such as Frenchman’s Well at the fort.

As settlers began to homestead around the fort, drawn by the protection it offered, they, too, drew water from the spring. The spring—and its surrounding grove of live oak trees—was an oasis and naturally evolved into a gathering place.

In 1849 Archibald Franklin Leonard and Henry Clay Daggett opened a trading post nearby. In 1850 settlers of the area voted in the new county’s first election nearby.

Picnics and holiday celebrations were held at the spring.

cold springs 56 july 4 bbqIn fact, by 1856 residents were holding an annual Independence Day barbecue at the Cold Springs. On the arrangements committee were Carroll M. Peak and Ephraim Merrell Daggett. Oh, and Nat Terry. More on him later.

cold springs 56 dwh 7-12

cold springs 56 visit from dwh

That summer of 1856 a representative of the Dallas Weekly Herald even came over to spend a few days in Fort Worth and to attend the Independence Day barbecue at the Cold Springs. The Dallas writer afterward waxed uncharacteristically ecstatic over Fort Worth’s amenities.

cold springs civil 7-24-61 DWHFive years later, as the Civil War raged, a barbecue at the Cold Springs on July 20 included a military parade. This was the barbecue at which attorney A. Y. Fowler and Sheriff John York got crossways with each other. A month later the two men would kill each other.

cold springs picnic 1915Even into the early twentieth century the Cold Springs was the scene of gatherings.

But notice that none of these clips gives readers a location of the Cold Springs. Back then local newspapers did not pinpoint local locations because they didn’t need to: Fort Worth was so small that readers knew where everything was located. Newspapers were writing for  present readers, not future historians.

So what do we future historians know? Where exactly within the Samuels Avenue peninsula was the Cold Springs?

cold springs letter 1949A clue is found in a 1949 Star-Telegram story about a letter written in 1893 by Simon B. Farrar, who had ridden with Colonel Johnson on that scouting trip in 1849: “Col. Johnson, Dr. Echols, Charles Turner, Joe Parker and myself came out from Shelby County, and after about a week at Johnson’s Station we started with Major Arnold and his command up the Trinity in search of a place to locate the regular United States troops. . . . We passed the first night near Terry Springs, now known as Cold Springs.”

But why was the Cold Springs also known as “Terry Springs”? Because the spring was on the land of Colonel Nat Terry, who had been lieutenant governor of Alabama and had come to Fort Worth about 1854. In the northern part of the Samuels Avenue peninsula he established a plantation and built—well, actually his slaves did the building—a fine plantation house.

Wrote B. B. Paddock: “Colonel Terry settled the H. C. Holloway place northeast of and adjoining this city, in 1854. He bought this land from M. T. Johnson. . . . The Colonel’s house consisted of several rooms snow-white and well furnished, facing the south, fronted with a porch with floors of stone. There were separate apartments for the aged couple. He kept the most hospitable home I ever knew.”

cold springs 55 terry samIn 1855 Colonel Nat Terry spoke in Dallas as the guest of the Democratic Association. This short clip tells us something of the politics of the time. “Know-nothingism” refers to the “Know-Nothing Party,” which was a popular term for the American Party, which was an antiforeign, anti-Catholic secret society who wanted to keep control of the government in the hands of native-born citizens. The party was known as the “Know-Nothing Party” because members originally professed to know nothing of the party’s activities.

“Gen. Good” is probably John Jay Good, who became mayor of Dallas in 1880 and for whom the Good-Latimer Expressway is co-named. “Sam” is probably U.S. Senator Sam Houston. On July 24, 1855 Houston had issued a public letter endorsing the principles of the American Party.

Ironically, four years later Democrat Nat Terry would host “Sam” at Terry’s plantation as Houston (running as an independent) attended the Cold Springs barbecue on Independence Day and debated Democratic incumbent Hardin Runnels in the race for governor.

(Houston won.)

But where on Nat Terry’s plantation was the Cold Springs located? In The Fort That Became a City, historian Dr. Richard Selcer writes that the Cold Springs, “later called ‘Terry Spring,’” was at Live Oak Point, which was “just north of Pavilion Street and near the Treaty [Traders] Oak.”

cold springs google traders oakAh. Now we can put the Cold Springs into a modern context. Traders Oak Park is at 1206 Samuels Avenue. So, when you visit Traders Oak Park you are standing on the former plantation of Colonel Nat Terry; you are standing where Sam Houston once stood.

cold springs 72 terry obitColonel Nat Terry died in 1872.

But what became of his spring? In the ensuing years the Samuels Avenue peninsula has been subject to tremendous change: residential and industrial development, swaths of railroad tracks.

Historian and Samuels Avenue resident John Shiflet probably knows more about the Samuels Avenue area and its history than anyone. John said the late Lela Standifer of the Tarrant County Historical Commission showed him a Star-Telegram story from the 1920s that “pinpointed the location [of the spring] near Traders Oak and called it Terry Spring.”

John said he and Lela endured “the briars and brambles” of a grove of trees at Traders Oak Park to examine “a kidney-shaped depression.” Near that depression “we noticed a rivulet of water flowing . . . Lela had brought a small jar with her and filled it up to take to the Parks Department for testing. She later said tests indicated it was consistent with natural spring water.”

cold springs traders oak pondIndeed, if you are willing to poke around in the underbrush until your legs are lacerated and your socks are covered with stick-tights and “Indian needles,” you can find that boggy depression (middle photo) in that grove that lines the north border of the park. When I visited, the depression contained water, although I do not know if the water came from a spring or from surface runoff. The area had received no rain for a week when I was there.  A few feet to the north, where a railroad track right-of-way cuts through the hillside, water seeps out of the hillside (bottom photo) from the direction of the depression.

John says the depression over the years has silted up and also was once used as a neighborhood dump, but he is confident that the depression is Terry Springs/Cold Springs.

Wow. Great, huh? Mission accomplished! History wrapped up all neat and tidy. We are to be congratu—

cold springs google cold springs roadBut wait. Look at this map of the Samuels Avenue peninsula. There’s Traders Oak Park in the upper left, where Terry Springs/Cold Springs is. But look to the right. What’s that “Cold Springs Road” doing way over there? Hmmm. Not so neat and tidy after all.

Cold Springs Road must have been so-named because it led to or near a cold spring. But Cold Springs Road does not begin, end, or pass anywhere near the site of Terry Springs/Live Oak Point.

Ah, but at one time Cold Springs Road did pass near the Cold Springs as located by four twentieth-century publications:

cold springs peak1. In 1922 the Star-Telegram printed a series of articles in which Howard Peak, born in 1856 in the abandoned fort, recalled life in early Fort Worth. Howard Peak surely had firsthand experience of the Cold Springs. In one article he recalled that the Cold Springs was located “near the banks of the West Fork, about a half mile southeast of the M. K. & T. railroad crossing.”
In another article Peak recalled that the Cold Springs was “located on the West Fork just east of his [Nat Terry’s] place . . . and was quite a resort in those days for the citizens as both cool water and splendid shade trees were to be had.”

In both articles Peak wrote in the past tense.

cold springs RR bridge mapWe don’t know if Peak in his memory was stepping off “a half mile southeast” along an “as the crow flies” line or along the channel of the river, which in his day was much longer in that stretch than it is today. That big bulge in the river east of the bridge was “orphaned” when the Army Corps of Engineers widened and straightened the channel after the flood of 1949 (see map below). (Map from Pete Charlton’s “1000+ Lost Antique Maps of Texas & the Southwest on DVD-ROM.”)

2. In 1949 Down Historic Trails of Fort Worth and Tarrant County (co-edited by historian Julia Kathryn Garrett) wrote: “Today, near-by the banks of the Trinity, a quarter-mile east from where the Cold Springs [Road] bridge spans the Trinity, one can find faintly bubbling springs.” The springs, which were located “in a grove of giant oaks and pecans,” gushed “clear, cold water.” The grove was gone by 1949; only scattered “monarch pecans” remained. But the location given is close to the location given by Peak.

cold springs 49 photoThe Cold Springs Road Bridge was removed in the 1950s after the river was channelized, and Cold Springs Road was rerouted into East Northside Drive. This photo from Down Historic Trails of Fort Worth and Tarrant County shows the railroad bridge (which Peak mentioned) east of where the Cold Springs Road Bridge was.

cold springs trestle todayTo re-create today the angle of that 1949 photo of the railroad bridge, you have to stand on the other side of the river and much farther away.

cold springs google 2 springsThe Cold Springs Road Bridge stood about four hundred feet west of the railroad bridge, so “a quarter-mile east” of the railroad bridge would put the Cold Springs about where the label is on this map.
3. In 1954 The Junior Historian of the Texas State Historical Association wrote that the Cold Springs was “situated about three-quarters of a mile northeast of Pioneers Rest Cemetery and about a rod [16.5 feet] from the western bank of the Trinity River.” Although “northeast” is not precise, “three-quarters of a mile” is. That location, too, would be near the location of the spring given by Peak.
4. And in 1972 Julia Kathryn Garrett wrote in Fort Worth: A Frontier Triumph (which is based largely on oral histories): “Three-quarters of a mile away [from where Major Ripley Arnold and his soldiers had camped at Live Oak Point] cold water gushed from the south bank of the Trinity . . . under the thick shade of great oaks and giant pecan trees. They called it Cold Springs. . . . A road and a bridge leading to this location still bear the name Cold Springs.”
Likewise, Garrett’s location is similar to the locations given in 1922, 1949, and 1954.

But, Garrett also writes in her book that in 1859 Sam Houston spoke at the Independence Day barbecue “at Cold Springs near the foot of present-day Samuels Avenue.” Foot means “lowest part” or “termination” of something. Samuels Avenue originally ran north from Fort Worth up the peninsula and ended at the Terry plantation, which was later bought by Baldwin Samuel, hence the name of the street.

So, Garrett seems to describe both a spring on the river bank and a spring near Samuels Avenue.

cold springs wellgeThis detail from an 1886 Wellge bird’s-eye-view map of the Samuels Avenue area (then well outside the city limits) seems to show Samuels Avenue bending sharply to the left (west) near the new Rosedale Pavilion. Could the bend indicate where the public road Samuels Avenue ended and the private drive of the plantation began? Could the big house west of the pavilion have been the Terry/Samuel house? Traders Oak Park/Terry Springs is only three blocks north of where the pavilion was.

cold springs markerBut wait! Just to muddy the (spring) waters further, this Texas sesquicentennial marker, located on the south bank of the river where Cold Springs Road once crossed the river at the bridge, says, “Cold Springs, north of the river, was the location of” etc., etc.

North of the river!

cold springs river then and nowRegardless, remember that the river channel of 2018 is not the river channel of 1849 or even 1949. The map on the left is from 1919—before the flood control measures. Notice how much less convoluted the river is today, especially across the top of the Samuels Avenue peninsula where the “second” Cold Springs was. (1919 map from Pete Charlton’s “1000+ Lost Antique Maps of Texas & the Southwest on DVD-ROM.”)

Spring or no spring, that short stretch of the river was a busy traffic corridor: In addition to the Cold Springs Road Bridge and the railroad bridge, northbound cattle drives on the Chisholm Trail forded the river at a shallows there. And Charles Biggers Daggett (brother of Henry Clay and Ephraim Merrell), whose plantation was located where Mount Olivet Cemetery is today, operated a ferry there at Daggett’s Crossing until 1877, when the first county-funded bridge over the river was built near the crossing.

So! It seems likely that there were two cold springs on the Samuels Avenue peninsula:

1. one at Live Oak Point/Traders Oak Park that may still occasionally flow

2. one that was on the river’s edge near today’s railroad bridge but that probably has been obliterated by changes to the river for flood control

Alas. We probably will never know the full story of the Cold Springs. At some point in time were both the Traders Oak Park spring and the river bank spring in use simultaneously? If so, why was the definite article the used (“the Cold Springs”)? Or did people differentiate with “Terry Springs” for one and “the Cold Springs” for the other?

Regardless of the questions, to settlers of early Fort Worth, it was good to have just one spring.

And even better to have a spare.

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6 Responses to The Cold Springs: Yesterday’s Oasis, Today’s Mystery

  1. Mike Ellis says:

    Just to the west of the railroad bridges, on the south bank they built in recent years the wakeboard park. The pond for the wakeboards seems to stay at a constant level, so I have wondered whether it is just fed by the Trinity River or whether there might be some spring flow sustaining it, given the proximity to the original spring site. The Fort Worth Water Department once depended on wells that were drilled in the area, which were largely responsible for dropping the water table so low that area springs and artesian wells failed. It would be most interesting to get access to Water Department records of current water table depth to determine whether any spring flow might still occur. Have you ever spoken with any of the Water Department folks?

    • hometown says:

      Mike, I passed the wakeboard pond on my bike less than an hour ago. Because of its closeness to the river I have always assumed that the pond is fed by the river, but I have not talked to anyone. I agree that the springs must have been on the south bank but wanted to include all the theories I have come across. I also suspect there was more than one spring on the Samuels Avenue peninsula.

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