To the Max: The Man Who Led Six Lives

If you had walked into St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church about 10 a.m. on November 6, 1933 you would have encountered a group of mourners waiting for a funeral to begin. If you had mingled among the mourners as they quietly talked among themselves, remembering the departed, you would have overheard comments such as:

“We bought our first piano from him,” . . . “then he opened the new opera house with Gilbert and Sullivan,” . . . “connected Fort Worth to the outside world,” . . . “drilled the first well in Callahan County,” . . . “served as a city alderman,” . . . “was a director of the newspaper that became the Star-Telegram.”

You might well have concluded that six men were being eulogized, perhaps the victims of some catastrophe.


Just one man was being eulogized.

Maximilian Elser was born in Bath, New York in 1851. His father died when Max was three.

The 1865 census lists Elser and brother Lewis living with their mother and stepfather in Corning, New York. Else would later recall that on a day in April 1865 he tolled the bell of the church in the nearby village of Coopers as the nation mourned the death of President Lincoln. Elser rang the bell fifty-six times, once for each year of Lincoln’s life.

Elser the Communicator

As a youth Max received little formal education, but he learned Morse code, and that gave him the key to advancement—the telegraph key. In an era before telephones, radio, or the Internet, the telegraph was the fastest means of communication.

At age thirteen Elser was hired by the Erie Railroad as a telegraph operator. By 1870 he was in Binghamton, New York working as a telegraph operator for the Binghamton Republican newspaper. He sent and received news dispatches by telegraph, supplying the newspaper, he later recalled, with “several million words hot from the wires.”

In 1871 he sailed from New York City to New Orleans on a steamer. The trip took seven days.

In Shreveport he again got a job as a newspaper telegraph operator.

Elser soon moved on, traveling from Shreveport to Marshall, Texas by stage coach in 1872. Marshall was the headquarters of the Texas & Pacific railroad, which had been chartered in 1871, as its name implies, to build a railroad from Texas to the Pacific.

In 1873 General Grenville Dodge appointed Elser supervisor of telegraphy for the T&P. Dodge had been the Union Pacific railroad’s chief civil engineer for construction of the first transcontinental railroad in 1869 and in 1872 became the T&P’s chief civil engineer as the railroad pushed west across Texas from Longview just west of Marshall.

Elser was in charge of installing a telegraph line along the railroad right-of-way as the track was laid. The track and the telegraph line reached Dallas in August 1873. But 1873 was a bad-to-worse year for the T&P. First a yellow fever epidemic interrupted construction. Then the national economic panic of that year halted construction on the telegraph and the railroad.

Fort Worth, just thirty miles away, would not get the railroad for three more years.

But in 1874 Fort Worth won a consolation prize: The Texas & Pacific hired Elser and Charles Frost, who later was superintendent of the Fort Worth & Denver City railroad, to finish the telegraph line between Dallas and Fort Worth. Elser and Frost cut cedar trees south of Dallas and hired a freighter to haul the posts and deposit them at intervals along the wagon road between Dallas and Fort Worth. They sank the posts and strung the telegraph wire.

The telegraph line was completed in September, initially ending at the real estate office of Lawrence, Cetti, and Brewer at Main and 1st streets.

Fort Worth still did not have the railroad, but it now had state-of-the-art communication.

B. B. Paddock’s Fort Worth Democrat reported that on September 10 J. S. Burton, manager of Western Union in Dallas, sent the first telegram to Fort Worth, addressed to Paddock and J. K. Millican of the Standard.

Paddock and Millican, via Max Elser, replied.

History has given much more attention to a telegraphic exchange that occurred on September 12.

A crowd gathered that evening on the sidewalk and stared through the window of the real estate office as Max Elser, then twenty-three, sat at his telegraph key.

As a crowd watched, Elser began clicking a message from Mayor William Paxton Burts to Mayor William Lewis Cabell of Dallas:

“Today another link has been completed which joins us to your growing and prosperous city. May it increase your happiness as it has ours—and may the prosperity of both be advanced thereby.”

Immediately Cabell replied, probably via J. S. Burton:

“Dallas responds to your greeting most heartily and extends to her sister city, Fort Worth, its congratulations in at last being able to tell of her glories in electric words and trusts that the near future will bind us with iron bands as well as by the great electric tongue of thought.”

(Note the lovey-dovey tone of the four telegrams. Fort Worth and Dallas had declared a temporary truce in the intercity sniping to celebrate the technological advance.)

Elser later recalled: “I remember sending the message with my right hand while I timed with my left. My time on that message was ‘M E 7:45 P.’ A telegrapher understands the mark—it meant the message was sent by Max Elser at 7:45 p.m.”

Instant communication! How magical it must have seemed to those gathered around Elser’s clicking gizmo. Heretofore those two short messages would have had to be handwritten—there were no typewriters yet—and carried on horseback thirty miles and back.

The Star-Telegram years later wrote that upon completion of that telegraphic exchange on September 12 men fired their pistols into the air, and some youngsters dragged an anvil from a blacksmith shop and pounded it with iron bars.

Max Elser and Charles Frost stayed busy stringing telegraph wires across Texas.

In 1876 Fort Worth opened its first telegraph office, consisting of Elser, his telegraph key, and one messenger boy.

Instant communication was not cheap. Elser and Frost charged fifty cents ($45 today) to send a ten-word message to Dallas and three dollars ($70 today) to send a ten-word message to New York via Dallas. Elser and Frost later sold their telegraph company to Western Union.

Between 1880 and 1883 Elser built telegraph lines from Shreveport to New Orleans for the Texas & Pacific railroad; through east Texas and from Denison to Austin for the Missouri, Kansas, & Texas (Katy) railroad; and from Fort Worth to Wichita Falls for the Fort Worth & Denver City railroad.

But Max Elser’s greatest challenge—and achievement—as a communicator was installing the telegraph line along the railroad right-of-way as the Texas & Pacific railroad in 1880 laid track westward from Fort Worth to El Paso, where the T&P track would meet the Southern Pacific track from California to form the nation’s second transcontinental railroad.

Elser brought the telegraph to Weatherford in March 1880—two months before the train arrived—and continued westward along the right-of-way as the track was laid. On some days the telegraph crew would be a little ahead of the track-layers; on other days the telegraph crew might have to blast through solid rock to make holes for the poles and would fall behind the track-layers.

“We used fifteen thousand red cedar posts between Fort Worth and El Paso,” Elser remembered.

Elser was bringing the telegraph to towns that existed (Weatherford, Eastland) and to towns that were being born (Abilene, Midland, Odessa). Abilene, the Abilene Reporter-News later wrote, was known as “Milepost 407” when Elser arrived with his crew. People were living in tents waiting to buy town lots.

By August 1880 Elser’s crew had reached Eastland County. Five hundred miles to the west General J. J. Byrne, also of Fort Worth, was working as a land agent and surveyor for the Texas & Pacific. One night he had a premonition of his own death and wrote a letter to his wife Lilly.

“I have made all my plans and I cannot change them with honor to myself but I feel that I shall never see my darling wife again,” he wrote, “and that this will be my final good-bye. . . . If you determine to form another earthly tie, I only ask and, dying, pray that you will counsel your best judgment to enable you to make a choice in all things worthy of you.”

On August 13 Byrne was the lone passenger on a stage coach that was attacked by Apaches led by chief Victorio. Byrne was killed.

Three years later widow Lilly Byrne did “form another earthly tie”: She married Max Elser.

By 1885 the telephone had replaced the telegraph as the latest form of communication. Wires are wires, poles are poles: For Max Elser the transition was a natural one.

He recalled: “The first telephone line was built in Fort Worth about 1879. In 1885 I supervised the building of the Pan Electric telephone exchange, which, while it lasted, furnished strong competition for the Bell. Afterward Pan Electric exchanges were established in Dallas, Denison, and Abilene. Probably the first copper long distance circuit built in Texas was owned jointly by the Dallas and Fort Worth Pan Electric companies. It connected Dallas and Fort Worth.”

In December 1885 Pan Electric signed up Alfred Horatio Belo, founder of the Dallas Morning News.

Elser recalled that Pan Electric operated for two years until the courts ruled that Pan Electric was infringing upon patents of the Bell telephone system.

Elser the City Official

In 1882 Max Elser began his next life: He was elected to the city council in 1882 and elected city treasurer in 1891.

Elser the Merchant

Some of the six lives of Max Elser were lived concurrently. For example, Elser the communicator overlapped Elser the city official and Elser the merchant.

He owned a store that sold books, stationery, wallpaper, watches, sewing machines, and pianos.

Not surprisingly, Elser’s store also housed Fort Worth’s first telegraph office.

Elser the Entertainment Impresario

Elser was the manager of W. A. Huffman’s Fort Worth Opera House when it opened in 1883. Elser managed the opera house only a year or so. He had intended the job to be temporary. After all, he had telegraph wires to string and city council meetings to attend and pianos to sell.

Elser the Capitalist

Elser was a director of City National Bank, Fort Worth & Denver City railroad, and the Fort Worth Mail newspaper.

The Mail had begun publishing in 1884. As far as I know, no copies survive. But the Mail was mentioned often in the exchange column of other newspapers. In 1894 the Mail became the Mail-Telegram, later the Telegram, and in 1909 the Star-Telegram.

Some of that newspaper ink must have seeped into Elser’s blood. His two sons, born in 1885 and 1889, became writers in New York, one a novelist-playwright, the other a newspaperman who became the press agent of Russian ballerina Anna Pavlova.

Max Elser’s wife Lilly died in 1900.

Elser the Oilman

In 1909 Max Elser began his sixth life. He was among the first men to drill for oil in near west Texas (Callahan, Shackelford, Eastland counties). As one of the first drillers, even when he was not successful, his failures were useful to drillers who came later.

For example, in 1909, he later recalled, he drilled the first well in Callahan County. Oil would not be discovered in that county until 1923.

In 1910, he recalled, he was at a mineral resort hotel in Putnam in Callahan County when a farmer told him that there was natural gas in his well water. Elser went out to the well to have a look-see. Sure enough, the gas in the well could be lit with a match.

Elser went to Pennsylvania to consult with Theodore N. Barnsdall, one of the most aggressive wildcatters of the era. Barnsdall sent an agent to Putnam to look around. The agent picked two drilling sites but never drilled.

About that same time a farmer at nearby Moran in Shackelford County told the Texas Company (Texaco) that there was natural gas in his well water. Unlike Barnsdall, Texaco did drill. In January 1911 it brought in the first gas well in west Texas in what soon became the Moran oil field.

The blue flame burning in that Callahan County water well in 1910 changed Max Elser’s life. About 1912 he moved from Fort Worth to Cisco in Eastland County and spent the next twenty-one years speculating in the gas and oil fields of near west Texas.

In the beginning Elser traveled by horse and buggy through the vastness of the oil fields, buying and selling leases. He eventually controlled the mineral rights on forty-five thousand acres. (Note S. S. Dillow.)

Elser later claimed that his discovery of gas in Callahan County and Texaco’s discovery of gas in Shackelford County sparked interest in the Moran field, which in turn sparked interest in the nearby Ranger field.

In 1917 William Knox Gordon of Texas & Pacific Coal Company struck oil on John H. McCleskey’s farm near Ranger in Eastland County, beginning the oil boom in that area.

In 1918 Elser was again ahead of his time: He drilled a dry hole in Shackelford County eight years before the Cook pool was discovered there in 1926. But he retained his leases in the Cook pool, which produced two million barrels in its first year.

The 1930 census lists Elser, then seventy-eight, still prospecting for liquid gold.

The six lives of Max Elser ended on November 3, 1933. The Abilene newspaper remembered him as Elser the communicator.

The Star-Telegram remembered him as Elser the oilman.

The communicator, the city official, the capitalist, the merchant, the entertainment impresario, and the oilman are buried in a single grave in Oakwood Cemetery.

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