THE BLIND MAN’S TOWN

In 1854 Adam Rankin Johnson, a twenty-year-old from Kentucky settled in Burnet County on the edge of the western frontier. He fought Indians, which could be expected since he worked as a surveyor and Indians believed the surveyor’s compass was the instrument that

Adam Rankin Johnson (1834-1922)

was pushing them off the land. In 1854, Johnson stood on the banks of the Colorado River and a dream took shape as he viewed a waterfall cascading down fifty feet over a series of three limestone formations. He had found the spot for building an industrial city.

“Quaker Guns” made with a charred log and a stovepipe set between wagon wheels.

During the Civil War, Johnson went back to Kentucky to enlist as a scout. He rose in the ranks as his Rangers fought behind enemy lines, harassing Union supply centers. In July 1862, Johnson’s men were outnumbered by federal troops guarding supplies at Newburgh, Indiana. He had his men construct two “Quaker Guns,” using a stovepipe and a charred log which they anchored between wagon wheels. Placing the assemblage on a hillside, the Union troops believed they were looking down the barrel of two cannons. Johnson led his band of about thirty-five guerillas across the Ohio River and captured the Union supplies without firing a shot. From then on, his men called him “Stovepipe Johnson.”

His exploits during the war eventually earned him the rank of brigadier general by June 1864. However, two months later, in a battle in Kentucky, Johnson was accidentally shot by his own men, permanently blinded, captured by the federals, and imprisoned until the end of the war.

General Adam Johnson came home to his wife and family and set about fulfilling his dream. Although he could no longer see, he had not lost his vision. Some accounts say he directed from memory one his sons to drive his carriage about the county as he made land purchases.

In 1881, General Johnson’s land ownership suddenly took on new importance when the Texas state capitol burned. In the rush to rebuild, the planners discovered that the intended limestone for the capitol’s exterior was inferior. It so happened that Johnson’s land lay within a mile of Granite Mountain, and the owners of the 180-acre batholith that rose above the landscape offered to give the granite for the capitol if the state constructed a railroad from Austin. General Johnson immediately set about getting the land donated for the right of way.

Granite Mountain provided for Galveston’s seawall and many state buildings.

When the railroad arrived to begin hauling what was eventually 4,000 flatcars of granite for construction of the Texas capitol, General Johnson and his partners were ready to lay out their town. Within a week Johnson held a public sale of lots from a grandstand in the center the new town. Although many people called it “The Blind Man’s Town,” the official name of Marble Falls finally took root.

The Old Mill overlooking the limestone series of falls

Johnson’s dream of harnessing the Colorado River kept meeting setbacks until 1893 when The Ice, Light and Water Company provided power for the city and the nearby textile plant. But it was 1951 before The Blind Man’s Dream was fulfilled in a different form. The Lower Colorado River Authority (LCRA) completed a series of six dams beginning at a site on the river that General Johnson had marked in 1854 as the perfect site for industrial development. Buchanan Dam is the first in the chain of dams that create the Highland Lakes, known not for industry, but for hydroelectric power, flood control, and recreation.

Max Starcke Dam, the fourth in the chain, created Lake Marble Falls, which covers the old limestone outcropping that General Johnson gazed upon in 1854. The city he dreamed of building has become the center of a vast recreational region.

General Adam Johnson’s other legacies include one son, Rankin Johnson, Sr. who became a Major League pitcher for the Boston Red Sox and St. Louis Cardinals.  General Johnson died in 1922 and is buried at the Texas State Cemetery in Austin next to his wife Josephine and near his grandson, Judge George Christian Sr., and a great-grandson George Christian Jr., White House Press Secretary for President Lyndon Johnson.

Adam Johnson standing before the old mill.

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Millions in Silver Hauled Across Texas

Hundreds of freight wagons, each drawn by six to eight mules, and brightly colored Mexican carretas, each pulled by four to six oxen, formed dusty weaving trains on the Chihuahua Road from the silver mines of

Mexican Carreta in El Paso, c. 1885  Photo courtesy SMU

Mexican Carreta in El Paso, c. 1885
Photo courtesy SMU

northern Mexico to the port town of Indianola on the central Texas coast. The trail across Texas opened in 1848 at the end of the Mexican-American War when the U.S. laid claim to Texas and the entire southwest all the way to the Pacific Ocean. The following year, the California Gold Rush set the get-rich-quickers into a frenzy looking for a shorter route across the country than the old Santa Fe Trail that ran from Missouri to Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Port of Indianola

Port of Indianola

The new port of Indianola on Matagorda Bay offered dockage for U.S. military personnel and equipment bound for the western settlements of Texas as far as El Paso (future Fort Bliss), and it provided the perfect jumping-off place for settlers and gold-hungry Americans heading west. The ships, anchored at piers stretching out into the shallow bay, took on the Mexican silver and transported it to the mint in New Orleans. The vessels returned with trade goods destined for the interior of Texas and the towns developing in the west and the villages of Mexico.

The Chihuahuan Road headed northwest from Indianola, made quick stops in San Antonio and Del Rio, twisted north along the Devils River, forded the steep ledges along the Pecos River, and then plunged southwest through the Chihuahuan Desert to cross the Rio Grande at Presidio, entering the mineral-rich state of Chihuahua, Mexico.

The Spanish, as early as 1567, had discovered northern Mexico’s mineral wealth—gold, copper, zinc and lead—but silver was overwhelmingly the richest lode. By the time Mexico opened its commerce with the U.S. after the Mexican-American War, there were six mines in the area near Ciudad Chihuahua, capital of the Mexican state of Chihuahua.

The raw outcroppings of the richest mine, Santa Eulalia, had been discovered in 1652, but persistent Indian troubles chased away the Spanish explorer who had found the site. Fifty years later, three men who were fugitives from the law, hide in a deep ravine tucked into Santa Eulalia’s steep hills. They stacked some boulders to create a fireplace, and as the flames grew hotter, the boulders began leaking a shiny white metal, which they recognized as silver. Knowing their fortune awaited, they sent word via a friendly Indian to the padre in the nearby mission community of Chihuahua, offering to build the grandest cathedral in New Spain if the padre would absolve their sins and pardon them of their crimes. It worked. The fugitives received absolution and pardon; they became fabulously wealthy; and they built the Church of the Holy Cross,

Church of the Holy Cross, Our Lady of Regla, Ciudad Chihuahua

Church of the Holy Cross, Our Lady of Regla, Ciudad Chihuahua

Our Lady of Regla, the finest example of colonial architecture in northern Mexico. Miners flocked to the Santa Eulalia mine and Ciudad Chihuahua grew into a large and wealthy city.

Millions of dollars in silver and trade goods were hauled over the road between Indianola and Chihuahua, except for the years of the Civil War. The road served as the corridor for western settlement until 1883 when the Texas and Pacific Railroad from the east met the Southern Pacific from California. The new southern transcontinental railroad opened a direct route between New Orleans and California. The final blow to the Chihuahua Road arrived with the devastating hurricane of 1886 that turned the thriving seaport of Indianola into a ghost town.

Route of the Southern Transcontinental Railroad

Route of the Southern Transcontinental Railroad

The Harvey Girls Go West

Their uniform consisted of black dresses covered by starched white pinafores, opaque black stockings, black shoes, and hairnets secured with a regulation white ribbon.  They were

The Harvey Uniform

The Harvey Uniform

Harvey Girls who could serve a meal in thirty minutes that included fillet of whitefish with Madeira sauce or roast beef au jus and lobster salad.  The homemade pie was cut and served in generous quarters unlike the customary one-sixth portions.

Harvey House locations in Texas

Harvey House locations in Texas

As railroads had spread across the country, passengers either carried their own food, endured meals that often included rancid meat and cold beans, or simply did without.  Fred Harvey, a dapper British immigrant who worked as a railroad freight agent, observed the terrible conditions on trains and convinced the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway in 1876 to let him open a restaurant in Topeka, Kansas.  His idea of fine fresh food at a reasonable price proved so popular that his establishments began spreading along the railroad.  Harvey Houses reached the isolated cattle towns of West Texas in the 1890s, and crossed the state from El Paso and Amarillo to Dallas and Houston and south to Kingsville.  Even in remote towns, up to four passenger trains came

Harvey Girls o Somerville, TX from the Gordon Chappell Collection

Harvey Girls o Somerville, TX from the Gordon Chappell Collection

through daily carrying from fifty to eighty people who expected to be fed in thirty minutes.

From the beginning, the railroad allowed Harvey to set up his restaurants as he saw fit, which meant fine China and Irish table linens. He demanded civility, cleanliness, and high standards of efficiency.  The Harvey girls were not called waitresses; they could not wear makeup or chew gum while on duty.  He personally inspected his restaurants and was reported to have sometimes overturned a table that was not set to his standards.  He advertised for “white, young women, 18 to 30 years of age, of good character, attractive and intelligent.” Upon entering their month of training they quickly learned that their work would be demanding—serving meals, polishing silver, brewing fresh coffee every two hours, and following a strict code in dealing with customers.  Beginning pay was $17.50 a month, including room, board, and tips.  They lived in dormitories with a 10:00. PM. curfew, and were supervised by a senior Harvey Girl who served much like a housemother.

Although the environment sounds harsh by today’s standards, it allowed young women a rare career opportunity.  In later years, married women entered the program and benefited from the chance to add to family income. Some of the women were widows who claimed that they and their children were welcomed like family into the Harvey House environment.

Harvey branched into hotels alongside depots, eventually opening eighty-four facilities.  When railroads began offering food service, he reluctantly agreed to staff dining cars with Fred Harvey Company personnel.  The Harvey brand began moving in the 1930s into locations away from the Santa Fe Railroad and in 1959 the restaurants started lining the Illinois Tollway.  Although the Harvey House era came to an end with the death in 1965 of Fred Harvey’s grandson, the company is credited with offering the first “blue plate special”—a good meal at a reasonable price, creating the first restaurant chain in the United States, and opening tourism to the American Southwest by making railroad travel more enjoyable.

Judy Garland in 1946 musical, The Harvey Girls

Judy Garland in 1946 musical, The Harvey Girls

Judge Roy Bean: Law West of the Pecos

Pecos River

Pecos River

As the railroad spread westward across Texas it was often said, “West of the Pecos there is no law; west of El Paso there is no God.” The Texas Rangers were called in to quell the criminal element that followed the railroad crews through the desolate Chihuahuan Desert of southwest Texas.  The rangers had been hauling prisoners to the county seat at Fort Stockton—a 400-mile round trip—and they needed a local justice of the peace in Vinegarroon, a town just west of the Pecos River.  It was August 1882 and Roy Bean,

Judge Roy Bean

Judge Roy Bean

who had left his wife and four children in San Antonio earlier that year, won the appointment.  He kept the job with only two off years, when he lost elections, until 1902.

Bean’s training in the law consisted of a talent for avoiding it.  He was in his early twenties when he made a quick exit from the law in Chihuahua, Mexico.  He made a jail break in San Diego and avoided being hanged in San Gabriel, California.  He prospered for a time in the saloon business in Mesilla, New Mexico, with his older brother.  After the Civil War he settled in a part of San Antonio that became known as Beanville.  He married in 1866 and spent several years in various jobs—a firewood business until he was caught cutting his neighbor’s timber; a dairy business until he began watering down the milk; and a butcher shop that sold meat from cattle rustled from nearby ranches. When he began operating a saloon, a rival saloonkeeper was so eager to see him out of the business, that she bought out his entire operation for $900, all the money he needed to head west and set up his own tent saloon along the new railroad construction in Vinegarroon.

Postcard--Jersey Lilly Saloon

Postcard–Jersey Lilly Saloon

With his new position as justice of the peace, Bean acquired an 1879 edition of the Revised Statues of Texas and undertook his first action—he shot up the saloon shack of a Jewish competitor.  His tent saloon served as a part-time courtroom where his jurors were selected from an array of his best bar customers.  When an Irishman named O’Rourke killed a Chinese railroad laborer, a mob of O’Rourke supporters surrounded Bean’s court and threatened to lynch him if he didn’t free O’Rourke.  After looking through his law book Bean said homicide was killing of a human being; however he could find no law against killing a Chinaman.  He dismissed the case.

As railroad construction moved westward, Bean followed the line to a town that became known as Langtry, which Bean claimed he named for the English actress Emilie Charlotte (Lillie) Langtry whom he fell in love with after seeing her picture in a newspaper.  In truth, the town, sitting on a bluff above the Rio Grande, was named for George Langtry an engineer and foreman who supervised the Chinese immigrants who constructed the railroad.

Apparently Bean’s reputation preceded him because the landowner sold to the railroad on the condition that no part of the land could be sold or leased to Bean.  O’Rourke, the gentlemen Bean acquitted, suggested Bean establish his saloon on the railroad right-of-way because that land was not covered in the railroad contract.

Bean built his saloon, which he named The Jersey Lilly in honor of Lillie Langtry who was born on Jersey, one of the islands in the English Channel.  He claimed to know Miss Lillie and wrote to her several times inviting her to visit his town.  When his saloon burned, he built a new home and called it an opera house where he insisted Miss Lillie would come to perform.

Lillie Langtry

Lillie Langtry

Her visit actually came ten months after Bean’s death.

Bean’s creative court decisions in The Jersey Lilly included the time he fined a corpse $40 for carrying a concealed weapon.  It just so happened that in addition to his gun, the dead man had $40 in his pocket, which paid for his burial and court costs.  Bean was known as “the hanging judge,” despite never hanging anybody.  Whereas horse thieves were hanged in other jurisdictions, in Bean’s court, they were let go if the horses were returned to their owners.  Since there was no jail, all cases ended with fines, which Bean kept, refusing to send the money to the state. Usually the fine consisted of the amount of money found in the prisoner’s pockets.  Although a justice of the peace was not authorized to grant divorces, Bean did it anyway, charging $10 for the service.  He charged $5 for performing a wedding and ended each ceremony with “and may God have mercy on your souls.”  Bean was noted for his colorful language such as, “It is the judgment of this court that you are hereby tried and convicted of illegally and unlawfully committing certain grave offenses against the peace and dignity of the State of Texas, particularly in my bailiwick,” and then he added, “I fine you two dollars; then get the hell out of here and never show yourself in this court again.  That’s my rulin’.”  But he also maintained tight control of the language used in his courtroom, even threatened a lawyer with hanging for using “profane language” when the lawyer referred to the “habeas corpus” of his client.

When Bean heard that Jay Gould was on a train heading toward Langtry, Bean used a danger signal to flag down the train.  Thinking the bridge over the Pecos River was out, the train stopped and Bean entertained Gould and his daughter at The Jersey Lilly during a two-hour visit.  The delay sent tremors through the New York Stock Exchange when reports circulated that Gould had been killed in a train wreck.

While the trains stopped to take on water, passengers poured into The Jersey Lilly where Bean served them quickly and then became very slow giving them their change.  When the warning whistle blew announcing the train’s departure, the rush was on with passengers demanding their money and Bean eventually fining them the amount they were owed.  His reputation grew as the passengers ran cursing back to the waiting train and future travelers could not resist stopping to visit the ramshackle saloon and its famous proprietor.

Prizefighting became illegal in most of the Southwest and in Mexico, which prompted Bean to open a side business promoting fights on a sandbar in the middle of the Rio Grande.  In 1898 when promoters could not find a place to hold the world championship title prizefight between Bob Fitzsimmons and Peter Maher, Bean welcomed the event to Langtry.  An excursion train arrived with 200 spectators on February 22 and Bean entertained them for a time in The Jersey Lilly before leading them to a bridge he had constructed to reach the makeshift ring.  The Texas Rangers watched helplessly from a bluff on the Texas side of the river while Fitzsimmons beat Maher in 95 seconds.  The fans and sportswriters enjoyed a few more drinks at The Jersey Lilly before the train carried them to El Paso to spread the news throughout the United States.

Books, movies, TV shows, and Roy Bean himself spread the legend of Judge Roy Bean, “the law west of the Pecos,” with tales true and tainted.  Despite failing health, Bean he went on a drinking binge in Del Rio in March 1903 and died in his bed the following morning. The Texas Department of Public Transportation has restored The Jersey Lilly Saloon in Langtry and created a Visitors Center just south of US Hwy. 90

Jersey Lilly Visitors Center

Jersey Lilly Visitors Center

Lance Rosier, “Mr. Big Thicket”

A Texas historical marker on FM 770, a few miles east of Saratoga in deep East Texas credits Lancelot “Lance” Rosier with being one of the individuals responsible for the creation of the Big Mr. Big Thicket, Lance RosierThicket National Preserve, a sprawling wonderland of biodiversity so unique that UNESCO designated the region as a Biosphere Reserve in 1981.  A self-taught naturalist, Lance Rosier was born and grew up in the heart of the Big Thicket.  As a child he roamed the forest, grew familiar with every trail; he knew every baygall (shallow, stagnant water), and the name of every plant. An avid reader of botanical publications, he became the foremost authority on the flora of the Big Thicket.  Rosier served as a guide for Hal B. Parks and Victor L. Cory, botanists in the 1930s who authored the Biological Survey of the East Texas Big Thicket, the “Bible” of those wishing to preserve the area.

Big Thicket Cypress Swamp

Big Thicket Cypress Swamp

The Big Thicket has always presented a challenge to those who wanted to exploit its riches and to men like Rosier who worked to preserve its unique character.  As early as the 17th Century, when Texas was part of the Spanish Colonial Empire, the forest of ninety-eight-foot Longleaf pine trees measuring five and six feet in diameter towered over dense growths of six-foot palmetto trees, beech trees, fern, cacti, orchids, and carnivorous plants.  The padres who established Spanish missions in East Texas traveled a route that circled north of the 3.5 million-acre swath of Southeast Texas from near Nacogdoches to near present Beaumont.  Long before the Spanish arrived, mound-building Caddo Indians and other tribes from along the Gulf coast used the thicket for hunting deer, bear, panthers, and wolves.  At the end of the 18th Century Alabama and Coushatta Indians migrated into the region and settled in the thicket in the 1830s.

Original Big Thicket

Original Big Thicket

Called “the thicket” because of the dense plant growth and cypress swamps, the region offered ideal hiding places for emigrants coming to Texas to escape legal problems such as bankruptcy and criminal charges in the United States.  During the Civil War, when the Confederate government began conscription in 1862, men who did not want to get in the war, men who did not own slaves and saw no reason to fight for big plantation owners, hid out in the thicket.  They survived on the abundance of fish, small game, and wild berries.  They set up secret locales where their families brought them coffee and tobacco in exchange for honey, wild game, and fish the families sold in nearby Beaumont.

Lance Rosier grew up listening to the stories about the thicket and the timber barons who began clear-cutting the forests in the mid-1800s and turned the region into a lumber bonanza after the railroad arrived in the 1880s.  By the time Spindletop blew in south of Beaumont in 1901, the thicket had been reduced to about 300,000 acres and the oil industry brought more frantic development into the area.

After serving in the army in World War I, Rosier returned to his homeland and worked as a timber cruiser (someone who measures a plot of forest to estimate the quality and quantity of timber in that stand) and he led Big Thicket tours for anyone seeking his expertise including scientists, photographers, students, scholars, and conservationists.  Rosier also led politicians such as Texas Governor Price Daniel and Speaker of the U.S. House Sam Rayburn as they explored possibilities of making the Big Thicket a Texas state park.

A shy and retiring little man, Rosier is said to have lent a sense of spiritual zeal to his quest to save the thicket.  He catalogued hundreds of species of new plants and discovered plants that had been considered extinct. Rosier worked with the original East Texas Big Thicket Association that began in 1927 hoping to save the land and waterways.  When that project met political headwinds, he led a new movement that became the Big Thicket Association in the early 1960s.  Lance Rosier died in 1970, four years before his dream was fulfilled—the United States Congress passed a bill in 1974 establishing an 84,550-acre Big Thicket National Preserve—a string of pearls consisting of nine land units and several creek corridors.  Today, the preserve manages twelve land units covering over 105,000 acres.  The Lance Rosier Unit at 25,024 acres is the largest and most diversified preserve in the thicket.  It encompasses the land where Rosier was born and roamed as a child.

Lance Rosier Unit

Lance Rosier Unit

The Four Gospels Railroad

The twenty-two mile rail line did not begin in 1909 as anything other than a central Texas business scheme to move Williamson County’s huge cotton crops to the Missouri-Kansas and Texas

The Bartlett-Western Railroad

The Bartlett-Western Railroad

“Katy” Railroad at Bartlett.  Granted, farmers and residents along the line were so happy to have a railroad that when the last of the track was laid in Florence on December 27, 1911, an excursion train arrived loaded with 250 to 300 people who paid $1 for the round trip. They dressed in their Sunday best and enjoyed the daylong celebration.

It was after The Bartlett-Western Railroad changed owners a couple of times and was sold in 1916 to Thomas Cronin that the route took on a new flair.  Cronin had retired from a highly successful career with the International and Great Northern Railroad and was looking for a new challenge.  He found it in the BW.  Cronin began by turning the operation into a family affair naming his daughter Marie the vice-president, his daughter Ida became treasurer, Ida’s husband William Branagan served as general manager, and nephew Thomas Wolfe who had been injured in his former railroad position came along in a wheelchair and may have simply supervised.  The entire clan moved into an apartment on the second floor of a brick commercial building next to the Katy Railroad and a few blocks from the Bartlett-Western depot.

Marie and Ida Cronin grew up in the East Texas railroad town of Palestine, but both girls studied in Paris.  Marie had remained in Paris until the beginning of World War I and earned an international reputation as a fine portraiture. Upon her return home, she won commissions for many of the portraits in the Texas State Capitol.  Ida, a gifted singer-organist, studied music in Paris, retuned to Palestine, married William Branagan and became very active in Catholic women’s work.  This rather unusual family set about developing a relationship with the 2,200 townspeople of Bartlett and soon found the community welcoming, if not a little surprised by their new neighbors.

Marie Cronin, called “Mamie” by her family, took the town by surprise with her flamboyant European-style clothing, wide-brimmed Parisians hats, and way more makeup than women of Bartlett found acceptable.  She moved her art studio to the second floor of the BW depot where she could perform her duties as vice-president for the railroad and continue with her painting. Ida Cronin Branagan, as BW treasurer, set about renaming four of the small flag stations for the “Four Gospels.”  The small flag stations were not actually towns; they were locales where farmers waited to load their cotton or other produce for market or to catch the train for a trip to Florence or Bartlett and consisted of a roof with benches on each side.  Ida had the gospel names framed along with the verses for each gospel to offer passengers an opportunity to read while waiting for the train.  For instance, the first stop after Bartlett was Caffrey and it became “St. Matthew.”  At the John Camp station, which became “St. Mark,” there was a small store.  A surplus car stood on an extra railroad siding at Atkinson that was designated “St. Luke.”  “St. John” was the stop on Salado Creek where the train engines refilled at a water storage tank.  Passengers began calling the line the “Four Gospels Railroad,” but it also became know as the “Bullfrog Line” because it jumped the track so often.  The folks in Florence called it the “dinky” and others said the initials BW stood for “Better Walk.”

Despite derisive remarks, the BW in 1916 earned $3,817 in passenger revenue and $30,327 from freight.  Cronin set about improving the BW service and maintenance of its equipment, bridges, and roadbed.  At some point a tractor was fitted with flanged wheels, allowing it to pull flat cars loaded with up to 130 bales of cotton.  Crews carried sand to sprinkle on the tracks when the train, carrying a heavy load, had difficulty gaining traction on the up or down grade.  When the BW secured the mail contract, it used Ford trucks equipped with railroad wheels to carry the mail.  Although cotton was the largest commodity transported over the BW, it also carried the needs of the communities along its route including lignite, livestock, forest products, fruits, vegetables, drugs and, furniture.  Cronin overhauled the trolley-style passenger car and tried, unsuccessfully, to get financing to extend the line to connect with the Santa Fe in Lampasas.

Ironically, Ida Cronin Branagan fell in 1926 while getting off the BW and died from her injuries.  That same year Thomas Cronin died, leaving Marie to serve as president of the BW while William Branagan continued as general manager.  Marie, William, and cousin Thomas remained as a family living in the old commercial building.

Marie Cronin relished her role as president of a railroad, even riding the BW to give attention to every detail.  She appeared perfectly confident in herself and her abilities and showed more self-assurance than the people of Bartlett expected from a woman.  One person said she “always dressed like she was going to meet the Queen.”  Others said her strong voice dominated the room and she showed other eccentricities such as her long-time desire to be a lawyer.  Despite never having studied the law, she took the bar exam many times without success.  Many others found Marie friendly and generous to everyone without regard to race.  One account claims she gave her Willys-Graham to her chauffer because he needed a car for his family.

In the 1920s and 30s the BW struggled with damage from frequent flooding that tore out the tracks and continually drained the family’s savings.  The boll weevil spread across Texas by 1926 causing cotton prices to drop from $1.59 to forty-five cents a bale, starting the downward spiral of revenue for the BW.  Some family members have said Marie enjoyed being president of a railroad so much that she waited longer than reasonable to admit that the BW needed to be shut down.  One nephew says Marie was what would be described today as a Type-A personality.  The Texas Railroad Commission finally granted Marie Cronin’s request to close the BW on October 11, 1935.  No one denies, however, that Marie Cronin and her family added color, charm, and a sense of excitement to life along the Bartlett-Western Railroad.

Niles City: “Richest Little City in Texas”

Three miles north of Fort Worth’s business center, Niles City, a tiny strip of land spreading over a little more than one-half square mile and boasting a population of 508, incorporated in 1911.  Within its bounds sat the Fort Worth Stock Yards, Swift & Company, Armour & Company, two grain elevators, and a cotton-oil company, which placed the city’s property value at $12 million.  Six railroads came through the town with the Belt Railway owning and operating a roundhouse.  Niles City had a town council and enjoyed complete utility service, good roads, and fine schools.

The town was named for Louville Veranus Niles, a successful Boston businessman who reorganized the Fort Worth Packing Company in 1899 and was instrumental in convincing Armour and Swift to locate in Niles City in 1902.

There were no fine homes in the town, just the houses belonging to the plant workers and about seventy rental houses erected by the Fort Worth Stock Yards for its employees.  Niles City claimed other important venues including the Live Stock Exchange Building,

Live Stock Exchange Building, 1902

Live Stock Exchange Building, 1902

the horse and mule barns, and the Cowtown Coliseum, where the Fat Stock Show offered the first indoor rodeo in the United States.

Cowtown Coliseum, first indoor rodeo in the US

Cowtown Coliseum, first indoor rodeo in the US

Many big name entertainers performed at the Coliseum including Enrico Caruso who drew a crowd of about 8,000 in 1920.  The Swift and Armour packing plants added significantly to the economy, employing about 4,000 workers from Fort Worth and the surrounding area.

All of the wealth packed into such a small piece of real estate proved too tempting for Niles City’s neighbors.  In 1921 the Texas legislature passed a bill allowing a city of more than 50,000 to incorporate adjacent territory that did not have a population greater than 2,000.  To protect itself from annexation, Niles City quickly took in another square mile of extraterritorial industries including the Gulf Oil Company refinery and its pipeline plant, and two school districts attended by the children of Niles City. The move increased the town’s population to about 2,500 and its taxable property to $30 million.  The legislature passed a second bill raising the population needed to halt annexation to 5,000.  In July 1922 Fort Worth held a special election in which voters passed amendments to the city charter allowing Fort Worth to incorporate Niles City, which occurred on August 1, 1923.

Today the Stockyards, the Cowtown Coliseum, and Billy Bob’s the world famous honky tonk are located on the grounds of the town once known as “the richest little city in the state of Texas.”

Billy Bob's "World's Largest Honky Tonk" at 127,000 sq. ft.

Billy Bob’s “World’s Largest Honky Tonk” at 127,000 sq. ft.