The Time: 1883. The Place: Cowtown.

The television series 1883 now showing on the Paramount+ network follows the adventures of the Dutton family as it travels west through the Great Plains toward Montana. The Dutton family is fictional, but the series has awakened interest in the real West of the late 1800s.

In particular, we in Cowtown might wonder, what was Fort Worth like in 1883?

To answer that, let’s climb into the Retroplex Cruiser time machine for a look-see. While you fasten your time-travel seat belt, I’ll dial in our destination time for “1883” and our destination place for “Fort Worth courthouse square.”

Ready? Then let’s mosey back in time 139 years. Here we go . . . [sputter, shudder, zoom]: 2022 . . . 1989 . . . 1944 . . . Stop asking, “Are we there yet?” . . . 1901 . . . 1883 . . . [sputter, shudder, thud].

Now we’re there. Let’s get out and stretch our legs.

We’re standing on the courthouse square. At five stories the courthouse is easily the tallest building in town. The four eight-foot dials of its clock tower are visible from any part of town.

Thirty years have passed since the Army abandoned its fort here, leaving the little civilian settlement on its own. The fort was located over there, just a block northwest of where we stand. More important, seven years have passed since the first railroad arrived in town. (Photo from Tarrant County College, Northeast Campus.)

By 1883 Fort Worth has four railroads. And that explains, in large part, what we see—and hear and smell—around us.

Look: On the streets enclosing the square, buggies and wagons and streetcars are carrying people. As we walk south on Main Street from the square, all of the people around us seem to be in motion. On the sidewalks pedestrians are hurrying along, carrying bundles, pushing wheelbarrows.

Listen: The babel of voices blends with the bellowing of locomotives, the pounding of hammers, the rhythmic rasp of handsaws, the clink of stone chisels, the scraping of shovels.

Take a deep breath: That’s the smell of smoke—wood smoke and coal smoke from locomotives, from stoves, from steam-powered machines that plane and grind and thresh and pump.

Clearly these people are building something. And that something is their future—and our present.

Every year in a town’s early history brings firsts that help transform a town into a city. The year 1883 brings at least six firsts. We’ll point out those firsts as we take a walk through town.

It’s easy for us to see that in 1883 Fort Worth’s population is fifteen thousand—double the population of 1878. Again, the railroads are the reason.

In fact, in 1883 the railroads bring one of Fort Worth’s most important firsts: a hospital. South of town the Missouri Pacific railroad builds an infirmary for its workers. That infirmary will evolve into St. Joseph Hospital.

The railroads are an iron Internet, connecting Fort Worth to the rest of America. But Fort Worth has other forms of communication, such as the telegraph and B. B. Paddock’s Daily Gazette.

Newsstands also sell newspapers from out of town, delivered by train.

In 1883 Fort Worth also has a telephone system with 140 customers, among them Robert McCart and M. G. Ellis.

One block west of Main at 200 Houston Street is still another example of the impact of the railroads. This is Tivoli Hall, a saloon and restaurant. It’s not much to look at. (Photo from University of Texas at Arlington Libraries Jack White Photograph Collection.)

But look at Tivoli Hall’s menu in 1883. Tivoli Hall boasts of having the “rarest delicacies obtainable in the Eastern markets.” Much of that food is imported by train in ice-cooled rail cars. And because Fort Worth since 1878 has had an ice factory, such imported food can be preserved longer after it arrives.

No maps of 1883 Fort Worth are available. But this 1885 map shows the city lying between the beginnings of Quality Hill on the west, the residence of state Representative A. J. Chambers on the east, Pioneers Rest Cemetery (“Old Cemetery”) on Samuels Avenue on the north, and Tucker’s Addition on the south. Along Terrell Avenue on the southern edge are the homes of J. C. Terrell and Gazette editor B. B. Paddock. At the top of the map, the David Chapman Bennett house still stands in 2022.

As we walk down Main Street, look at the people around us. Certainly not everyone we see—especially cowhands and laborers—is smartly dressed, but newspaper ads of 1883 give an idea of current fashions.

Women wear cloaks and corsets and high-button shoes.

Boys wear knee pants and button shoes.

Men wear detachable collars and button shoes. Most men—laborers as well as professionals—wear hats.

As we walk along the upper reaches of Main Street, notice that most of the buildings are built of brick.

Fort Worth has about a dozen churches—and three times as many saloons. In between those two extremes Fort Worth is becoming a full-featured city. Look in the windows of shops and offices: banks, law firms, hotels, grocery and dry-goods stores, department stores such as B. C. Evans and Fakes, lodge halls (Masons, Odd Fellows, Knights of Pythias). Stores sell agricultural implements, glassware, guns, books, cigars, musical instruments, jewelry, carpeting, millinery, furniture.

There are print shops, photo galleries, laundries, bakeries.

Child-labor laws do not exist. Newsboys and bootblacks ply the sidewalks.

W. F. Lake’s hardware store is the Home Depot of 1883.

Fort Worth also has several physicians, among them Drs. Burts and Feild.

In addition to physicians, people rely on patent medicines such as Hostetter’s Bitters. Hostetter’s originally was marketed for the consumption of Union soldiers during the war. Ads claimed that Hostetter’s provided “a positive protection against the fatal maladies of the Southern swamps, and the poisonous tendency of the impure rivers and bayous.”

Hostetter’s is twenty-five percent alcohol.

Dr. Burts was Fort Worth’s second physician and its first mayor. The mayor in 1883 is John Peter Smith. For political representation, the city is divided into four wards. Each ward elects a city alderman.

Each ward has a school. Fort Worth’s public schools opened in 1882 in rented space. In 1883 the city will build its first three school buildings. Twenty-one teachers teach eight hundred students in grades one through eight. High school classes (through the eleventh grade) will not be offered until 1884 for boys and 1885 for girls.

The First Ward School is located on East 2nd Street at Crump Street. (Photo from FWISD Billy W. Sills Center for Archives.)

In 1883 Fort Worth will get another educational first: its first college. Texas Wesleyan College will open in rented space downtown with 104 students. TWC will move to its own campus on the South Side in 1886.

Now we are in the 300 block of Main Street. Late in 1883 gambler Luke Short (left) will move to Fort Worth from Dodge City, where he, with Wyatt Earp and Bat Masterson, is a member of the Dodge City Peace Commission. In 1884 Short will buy a share of Fort Worth’s White Elephant Saloon, which will open at 308-310 Main Street. The saloon will feature a forty-foot bar, restaurant, gambling room, and cockfight pit.

Also in 1883 Jim Courtright, the popular city marshal of Fort Worth in the late 1870s, will return to town as a fugitive, wanted for murder in New Mexico. He will live here quietly until his great escape in 1884.

Fort Worth has a lot of saloons but also a chapter of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union. (A. A. Johnson is president of Texas Wesleyan College. Thomas Jefferson Jennings was a Texas attorney general. He died in Fort Worth in 1881.)

We of 2022 can’t spend ten seconds in the Fort Worth of 1883 without noting a major fact of life: The horse is the automobile of the day. Horses pull buggies, wagons, plows, funeral hearses, fire engines, and hacks (public coaches).

Of course, people also ride horses bareback. These four-legged automobiles remind us of another fact of life in 1883: It’s a very organic world. So watch your step as we walk. You might step in some automobile exhaust.

In the middle of Main Street we see another example of the horse culture: A country cousin of the horse—the mule—pulls the city’s streetcars. A track runs the length of Main Street to the train depot.

The horse culture supports some of the major businesses of the Fort Worth of 1883. One such business is livery stables, which rent horses and buggies. Livery stables are the Hertz and Avis of the day. (A turnout is a horse-and-vehicle rig.)

Then there are wagon yards—the parking lots and motels of 1883. Travelers from out of town park their horses and wagons in wagon yards. Sometimes the travelers sleep under their wagon if they can’t afford a bunk at the yard or a hotel room. The Dugan yard is on West Weatherford Street. (Photo from University of Texas at Arlington Libraries Fort Worth Star-Telegram Collection.)

Other horse-related businesses include blacksmith shops, harness shops, wheelwrights, and carriage repair shops. Such businesses are the AutoZones and Pep Boys of 1883.

In 1883 the great cattle drives that helped to build early Cowtown are over. But the railroads will make Fort Worth a center for processing and shipping cattle. In 1883 John Peter Smith, R. E. Maddox, and others charter the short-lived Fort Worth Stock Yard Company. In 1889 Smith and Maddox will be more successful with the Union Stock Yards Company.

One block east of Main in the 300 block of Rusk Street will be another Fort Worth first: the Opera House. It will open in September with a presentation of Gilbert and Sullivan.

Aside from the courthouse, the Opera House at three stories is one of the tallest buildings in town. Other three-story buildings include the county jail, major hotels, and the train depot.

Another first for Fort Worth in 1883 will be its driving park, where horse races are held. The park will be located in the Samuels Avenue neighborhood on Cold Springs Road. Officers of the driving park association include Robert McCart and J. T. Wilkes, an early undertaker. Note that on opening day Jim Courtright will provide crowd control. He will thank fans for not bringing their dogs to the park.

Baseball is another popular entertainment in 1883.

If baseballs are popular, so are calico balls: Women sew calico dresses and wear them at a ball. Sometimes the women sew a matching accessory for their escort to wear. Couples dance, dresses are judged, and prizes are awarded. Calico balls often benefit a charity. (Deutscher Verein is a Germanic social organization.)

Fort Worth even has a roller-skating rink. And a cornet band. (“Queen City of the Prairies” is a nickname for Fort Worth.)

Another entertainment—made possible by the railroads—is the traveling circus. In 1883 Cowtowners can see Cole’s three-ring circus for one dollar. That’s just thirty-three cents per ring!

Now we are in the 400 block of Main. Taking up most of the west side of the block is the Pickwick Hotel. The Pickwick is popular with drummers (traveling salesmen).

Main Street is graveled, but in 1883 most streets in Fort Worth are just graded dirt. Dirt streets are dusty in dry weather, muddy in wet weather.

As we walk we see men digging trenches in the streets. Fort Worth is installing a sewage system and a water system with mains, fire hydrants, and pipes to some businesses and homes.

But the Trinity River is still used as a swimming pool, bath tub, water fountain, baptismal font, and sewage-treatment plant.

As we progress down Main Street buildings increasingly are made of wood, not brick or stone. We begin to see houses. Houses are small by today’s standards, even though family size is larger. Thanks to the railroads, lumber, nails, shingles, wallpaper, windows, and doors to build houses can be brought in.

In these classified ads, $500 is $14,000 today, $2,000 is $56,000.

Note that people keep cows and hogs in fenced yards, have stables for horses.

When such livestock stray from their enclosure, it is the job of the city marshal to round them up.

The city also employs a “scavenger” to remove and bury carcasses of animals. Sometimes, for example, hogs and other small livestock crawl under buildings and die, creating an offensive odor.

Even though in 1883 the city is installing water and sewage systems, most residents still get their water from a well or a cistern. Indoor plumbing is rare. Bathing is not a daily routine. Bathhouses—and some barber shops—offer baths as an alternative to the wash tub.

Again, to our sanitized, out-of-sight-out-of-mind world of 2022, the Fort Worth of 1883 is very organic.

In 1883 “the smallest room in the house” is in the back yard—an outhouse (privy).

A city ordinance details regulations for digging ditches in which to bury “privy filth.” Note that it is a misdemeanor for a person to deposit “any privy filth” in “any privy ditch not his own.”

In 1883 open flame is ubiquitous: Fire is used to boil water to make steam to power machinery, used to heat water for baths, to cook meals, to heat buildings, to illuminate with candles and coal-oil lamps.

And most buildings in town are made of wood.

All that fire and all that wood are a dangerous combination.

That’s why Fort Worth has had a volunteer fire department since 1873.

We have now reached the corner of Main at 8th Street. It’s getting dark. Want to see some Cowtown nightlife? Then let’s move over one block east to Rusk Street. . . . Now we are moving through Hell’s Half Acre, Fort Worth’s vice district. As we walk, do you notice the change from Main Street? Rusk Street below 8th Street has more saloons. Lots more saloons.

As we pass the doors of saloons we hear singing and laughter against the backdrop of rinky-tink pianos. Occasionally a cowboy bursts through a saloon door—sometimes propelled by a barkeeper or another cowboy—and crumples onto the wooden sidewalk.

The Acre is in the Third Ward, sometimes called “the Bloody Third.” And for good reason: fistfights, knife fights, gunfights.

Notice that Rusk Street also has a lot of boarding houses. As we pass these boarding houses, most of the people entering and leaving are men.

But these men are not tenants. They are clients.

These boarding houses are actually brothels (labeled on Sanborn maps by the euphemism “female boarding”).

Life for the “soiled doves” of the Acre is, to quote Thomas Hobbes, “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” In 1883 morphine and opium are freely available. Prostitutes often die of overdoses.

Many of these offenses no doubt occurred in the Acre.

On the Sanborn map above, note the “Negro shanties.” Fort Worth is racially segregated. Most African Americans live on the eastern fringe of town. The newspaper and city directory identify African Americans by race.

Fort Worth also has a small Asian-American community. Most members live in the Acre and operate laundries.

Rusk Street through the Acre is such a vortex of vice and crime that in 1909 the city will change the street’s name to “Commerce” to stop tainting the memory of namesake Thomas Jefferson Rusk.

In 1883 a city ordinance prohibits deadly weapons, but that ordinance is seldom en— . . . suddenly a man steps out in front of us from the shadows of an alley between two saloons!

He blocks our path and points a six-shooter at us. As he waves the pistol barrel, he stares at our clothing with a quizzical expression.

“Whar the hayull are y’all from?”

Don’t try to explain. I think he’s stumped by your “Led Zeppelin 1975 Tour” T-shirt.

“Oh, well,” he says. “I guess yore money’s good.”

The man behind the six-shooter takes our money and backs into the shadows of the alley.

Just like that, he is gone.

Good luck filing a police report when we get back to 2022!

Composing ourselves, we continue south on Rusk Street to Front Street (Lancaster Avenue today). Now we follow the streetcar track east to the passenger depot, located near today’s Tower 55 railroad intersection.

The depot is the busiest place in town. As the railroad time table above shows, twenty-one trains arrive and depart daily. As we arrive, the next train out is already at the platform: The southbound Santa Fe departs at 6 p.m. People are arriving by streetcar and hacks, buying tickets, and boarding the passenger coaches. Wisps of steam escape from the locomotive as the engineer—a man with a handlebar mustache and the bearing of a prime minister—inspects a driving wheel almost as tall as he is.

At the passenger depot we are on the periphery of town. The periphery produces most of the town’s noise—and smoke. That’s because the periphery houses most of the town’s railroad tracks and most of the town’s steam-driven industry: mills (flour, lumber, feed, cotton seed), the ice plant, waterworks, gasworks, a machine and boiler works, one brickyard, and two railyards.

Look back north toward town. As night falls, most of the town is illuminated by candles and coal-oil lamps. But along Main Street we see another Fort Worth first: Men are lighting the new gas lamps one by one.

Fort Worth will not get electricity until 1885.

With nightfall the city—except for the Acre—becomes quieter. The pace of life, so hectic when we arrived, slackens.

With nightfall fewer locomotives and fewer factories are producing smoke. Overhead the air clears until morning. In 1883 “the stars at night are big and bright.”

Nightfall reminds us that out there beyond the periphery nature is much closer in 1883 than in 2022. Beyond the edges of town after nightfall comes a chorus softer than the chorus of locomotive bellow and streetcar clang: Wolves howl, and coyotes yip amid the four notes of the chuck-will’s-widow, the three notes of the whip-poor-will, the whinny of the screech owl.

But the hour is late, and we’re 139 years from home. It’s time to walk back to the courthouse square—we’ll jog through the Acre—so we can board the Retroplex Cruiser and return to 2022 and the world of COVID-19, $3 gasoline, and telemarketers. But we will take back with us the memory of the gas lamps, the knee pants, the calico balls—and, yes, the corsets—of Cowtown, 1883.


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10 Responses to The Time: 1883. The Place: Cowtown.

  1. RG Smithy says:

    Love Fort Worth history. Thank you for clippings and vintage photos. I live off Camp Bowie Bryce Ave. Horn and to the west. I would love old photos and stories of my old Crestline neighborhood.

  2. Jimmy Pitts says:

    A colorful, entertaining and realistic tour of our past that surely would otherwise be lost. It’s the way history should be written.

  3. Mary Lou Mayer says:

    A most enjoyable read. We all forget how far we have came in such a very short period of time. Thank you for this look at our past.

  4. Colleen P says:

    Amazing article. Sometimes I forget what went on before I arrived on the scene. So much history has preceded me. Thank you for this post.

  5. scooter.pea says:

    I have been reading your work for about two years.. mostly for the entertainment value.. lately as I am closing your sight I find myself trying to explain just what I find so exciting and new about all these things that are our shared past.. that excitement has been evolveing.. I am starting to view your link to our past as a link to our future.. kind of a blueprint to our shared humanity..
    …..or, perhaps it is just
    6:a.m. and I am on my third cup of coffee…..
    Good Monday to you good sir…

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