How Fort Worth was saved by the railroad

Citizens came together to ensure that a rail line between Fort Worth and Dallas was completed in 1876 ahead of a deadline set by the Legislature.

By W.F. StrongAugust 16, 2023 3:31 pm, , ,

I was watching the hit show “1883” recently. In one of the early scenes, James Dutton, ancestor of John Dutton of “Yellowstone,” is waiting in Fort Worth for his family to arrive on the train. It struck me as impressively accurate because that very railroad had made it to Fort Worth just a few years before. Its timely arrival saved the fledgling town from years of painful decline – and maybe even oblivion.

July 19, 1876, was a day of jubilation and rest for many Fort Worthians because a steam engine chugged its way into town by the predetermined deadline. This event qualified the town, the investors, and the Texas & Pacific Railway for state aid in paying for it all. Additionally, the citizens who had left their jobs early for many months to volunteer in helping to build the railroad could now catch their breath.

Here’s the short version of what happened. (A more detailed version is provided by the talented Mike Nichols in his delightful history, “Lost Fort Worth,” and in his incredibly detailed blog, Hometown by Handlebar.)

The Texas & Pacific Railway had completed the tracks all the way to Dallas three years before. They were supposed to continue building that line all the way to Fort Worth, but they made it only about six miles west of Dallas before their investment bank in New York failed and filed for bankruptcy. T&P was out of money.

The railroad was dead, and it looked like Fort Worth would die with it. Investors and the well-heeled who had been waiting for the railroad packed up and moved to Dallas. The population of Fort Worth dropped from 3,000 to about 600 in just under a year.

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During the exodus, an attorney was quoted in the Dallas paper saying that Fort Worth was such a quiet village that he had seen a panther sleeping in the middle of a downtown street, unconcerned and undisturbed. And that is where the nickname Panther City comes from.

It’s a textbook example of this principle: If you get dissed, make it a badge of honor – which is what they did, literally. On the top of every Fort Worth police badge is a crouching panther. But that’s another story.

Now it was crunch time. The Texas Legislature had promised T&P 640 acres per mile of railroad between Dallas and Fort Worth, but they had to finish before the Legislature gaveled out in 1876. No extensions. No compromises. No do-overs.

Some of Fort Worth’s leading citizens of that time came together to form a construction company and offered Texas & Pacific Railway a deal: We will build the road bed, and you lay the rails. T&P agreed.

The closer the uncertain deadline loomed, the more hopeless it looked. But in true Texas fashion, the citizens themselves came to the rescue. They began getting off work early and going out to help build the rail bed or lay tracks or make and deliver sandwiches to the workers.

The last mile or two of rails were not even properly laid – tamped down as best they could to minimal ties or just on dirt roads. And they were crazy crooked, but they just needed the rails to hold together long enough to get a locomotive into town.

They made it. The train arrived in one piece, and on time, just barely.

Special thanks, though, must go to a much unsung hero in this drama, state Rep. Nicholas Henry Darnell of Tarrant County. Mike Nichols wrote: “As the House began to vote to adjourn, Darnell was ill. But each day for 15 days as the railroad got ever closer to Fort Worth, Darnell was carried into the House chamber on a cot to vote ‘nay’ to adjournment.”

There’s a man who deserves a statue: on his cot, thumbs down, signaling “no” to adjournment. It is rare that such great good has been achieved by keeping a legislature in session, but Darnell’s strategy proved an exception.

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