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Saturday, April 10, 2021

In Market: Fort Worth’s train love keeps a rollin’

We love our trains

It’s the Fort Worth Way

When the TEXRail train from Downtown Fort Worth to the airport was – briefly – delayed from its scheduled start date, there was plenty of chagrin and no doubt some discussion and cussin’ behind the scenes.

Years, if not decades in the planning, this bump in the railroad was a bit embarrassing. Couldn’t we just get this damn thing done?

But, in a way, it was historically fitting. Fort Worth, railroads and delays have danced together before.

In the early 1870s rumors were flying in North Texas, and not just about that new dance hall girl. The Amazon HQ2 of its day – the railroad – was coming. City leaders in Fort Worth wanted to make sure it made a stop here, where we had a then-bustling population of about 500.

On March 3, 1871, Congress granted the first charter to a Texas railroad company, the Texas & Pacific, with rights to build a rail line along the 32nd parallel, pretty much along modern day Interstate 30. The rail line would make it possible for cattle to be shipped directly from Panther City instead of from Abilene, Kansas, making the city the market center for West Texas. And, looking to the future, it set us up for the later coming of the meat packing plants that set the city’s economy on fire in the first part of the 20th century.

But back to the 1870s, when times were good. Fort Worth businessmen and businesswomen prepared for the party that was to come by partying. That was The Fort Worth Way, at least in 1871.

Civic booster B.B. Paddock, publisher of the Fort Worth Democrat, created a map showing nine rail lines that he said should one day come through his beloved city. He was derided for the map by others, who said it looked like a tarantula with nine legs. Thankfully, Fort Worth did not become known as Tarantula Town.

Despite the tarantula calls from the peanut gallery of other economic developers, Fort Worth’s railroad dream captured the imagination of others. The city grew from about 500 in 1870 to more than 6,000 by 1880. I’m sure I-35W north of downtown was jammed then, too.

Much like TEXRail, the state legislature got involved in the “train fever” sweeping North Texas. They authorized local governments to give out bonuses to construction companies and approved $6 million in bonds to two in-state companies already laying tracks in East Texas. The legislature also offered Texas & Pacific sixteen square miles of land for every mile of track if they finished the railroad by Jan. 1, 1874.

Man, was it going to be a party with the liquor flowing like the Trinity River in a rainstorm, when the train arrived. Only … well, there was this thing called a recession. It started, of course, in New York. Jay Cook & Co. caused a panic that reverberated all the way down to Panther City, though we weren’t known as that at the time. Construction on the railroad to Fort Worth was stopped, literally dead in its tracks. Fort Worth’s fair weather population growth left, too. And the legend of the city being so sleepy and boring that it was “such a drowsy place that a panther has been found asleep in the street” was born.

But, as they say, alas she persevered.

City leaders asked the state to give the Texas & Pacific a new deadline and they did, giving the company until the close of the legislature in 1876. Construction began again, but with about a mile of track being laid per day, the company still wasn’t going to make it.

Or were they? Fort Worth wasn’t a bunch of sleepy panthers after all. We were the little city that could, though it’s probably best we didn’t get that nickname either.

Businesses gave workers time off to help on the railroad, many laying tracks at night. Women took Chipotle and Starbucks to the workers. The city council even pitched in, in true Fort Worth fashion. They moved the city limits a quarter of a mile east.

And, of course, it rained. That too, is the Fort Worth Way.

At Sycamore Creek, workers didn’t build a bridge, but used an old one. They laid tracks on a dirt road, they put big rocks on the crossties to hold them in place. Paddock called the track “crooked as a ram’s horn.” You could say they cut corners or were just being creative, depending on your point of view.

Finally, on July 19, 1876, a crowd gathered at the tracks and watched as the train came slowly (the engineer was no fool) down the track.

Reports say the citizens celebrated all night. No one was sober enough to write down what took place. What happened in Cowtown that night, stayed in Cowtown.

The train has stayed in Fort Worth’s collective mind ever since. It’s no fluke that the recent (and great) compilation of early Fort Worth rock ‘n’ roll, Fort Worth Teen Scene, has, as its first track a great version of Train Kept a Rollin’ by local band The Cynics. We love our trains.

We didn’t party quite so much when TEXRail got the go-ahead to toot its horn all the way to the Dallas Fort Worth Airport, but maybe we should. That’s The Fort Worth Way.

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Robert Francis
Robert is a Fort Worth native and longtime editor of the Fort Worth Business Press. He is a former president of the local Society of Professional Journalists and was a freelancer for a variety of newspapers, weeklies and magazines, including American Way, BrandWeek and InformatonWeek. A graduate of TCU, Robert has held a variety of writing and editing positions at publications such as the Grand Prairie Daily News and InfoWorld. He is also a musician and playwright.

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