The headlines in the Fort Worth Register show how beloved he was and what a shock his death was.
“THE FATHER OF FT. WORTH”: In April 1901 civic leader John Peter Smith was in St. Louis when he was drugged and injured in a robbery. A tooth was broken, and his tongue became swollen and infected.
“HE IS DEAD!”: The news of Smith’s illness was so much on the mind of Fort Worth residents that when he died on April 11, 1901, the top line of the headlines referred to him by merely a pronoun.
Cause of death was listed as glossitis.
The Register eulogized Smith.
Smith, who spent a half-century helping Fort Worth grow, characteristically was in St. Louis to talk with officials of the Frisco railroad about extending the line to Fort Worth.
John Peter Smith was born in Kentucky in 1831 and migrated west to Dallas. Pioneer Fort Worth resident Howard Peak, who wrote a history of Fort Worth, claimed that when Smith moved from Dallas to Fort Worth, to save money, he walked (“‘foot in hand,’ he made his way to Fort Worth from ‘three forks’ [Dallas],” the 1877 city directory said in its profile of Smith).
In 1853 Smith established the first school in Fort Worth, teaching the three Rs in the “pest hospital” (for communicable diseases) of the abandoned fort.
But Smith himself suffered from ill health and was forced to close his school. He then became a surveyor, as this 1856 Dallas Herald ad shows.
Smith later passed the bar exam, fought for the Confederacy, attained the rank of colonel, returned to Fort Worth, and began to deal in real estate. By the early 1880s he was reported to be the largest landowner in Fort Worth.
When a person’s long civic career is compressed into a few paragraphs, it seems that all he did was serve his city. Indeed, John Peter Smith participated in the campaign to have the county seat moved from Birdville to Fort Worth; he was a partner in the Fort Worth Street Railway Company; in 1891 he helped develop the first stockyards in Fort Worth.
John Peter Smith helped organize the first water department, gas light company (ads are from the 1885 city directory), and school system. He served six terms as mayor. He donated the land that John Peter Smith Hospital is built on so that Fort Worth “could have the best of medical care.” He donated land for parks and churches and for Emanuel Hebrew Rest and Oakwood cemeteries.
By 1889 Smith was living in this house on West 3rd Street between Florence and Burnett streets near today’s First United Methodist Church.
Photo from David H. Swartz’s Photographs of Fort Worth, circa 1890-1899.
In 1910 a new school in the Second Ward would be built on the Smith homestead (on West 2nd street at Florence Street) and named for him. (In 1969 Millers Insurance Group would buy the building and in 1970 would demolish it.)
When the Texas Spring Palace burned in 1890, Smith was credited with rescuing a six-year-old girl.
In April 1901 Smith’s body was returned from St. Louis to Fort Worth, fittingly, on the Texas & Pacific railroad, which he had worked to bring to Fort Worth in 1876. Honorary pallbearers, predictably, were a who’s who of Fort Worth, among them K. M. Van Zandt, B. B. Paddock, M. B. Loyd, J. J. Jarvis, J. C. Terrell, M. G. Ellis, and Howard Peak.
John Peter Smith is buried in Oakwood Cemetery on land he donated to the city.
Postscript: Less than a year after Smith’s fateful trip to St. Louis to talk with Frisco officials, the railroad began service in Fort Worth.