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On The Fort Worth Trail

May 2024
5min read

On an outer wall of a small building in Fort Worth’s downtown, and adjacent to a parking lot, a heroic mural called The Chisholm Trail depicts a stream of longhorns. Hooves flying, heads down, the steers fairly burst their frame, ready to pound along a main street of the city that has always been proud to call itself Cowtown. In fact, the Chisholm Trail didn’t stretch this far but lay farther north, in the Indian Territory, now Oklahoma, where several feeder trails from Texas merged. One of these, the Eastern Trail, did head right up Fort Worth’s Commerce Street. Still, it’s the Chisholm that has become imprinted in the city’s memory.

My visit to Fort Worth last June coincided with the annual Chisholm Trail Round-up, which was held in the old stockyards district. The streets were crowded with country-and-western musicians and barbecue vendors, and once in a while a mock gunfight between desperadoes was staged. Taking place at the same time in another part of town was the internationally known Van Cliburn piano competition.

Fort Worth’s first piano arrived in 1850, only a year after the 2d U.S. Dragoons garrisoned an outpost on the Trinity River, where the wife of the commanding officer, Maj. Ripley Arnold, charmed visitors with her music. In 1853 the base was deactivated when the territorial line of defense moved a hundred miles west. Before long, civilian settlers had moved into the abandoned military buildings.

The story of the city’s growth from a crossroads so sleepy that a scornful Dallas journalist claimed he saw a panther dozing on Main Street (hence the second nickname, Panther City) to a metropolis rich first from cattle and then from oil is expertly told at the compact Museum of Science and History. Housed in the city’s first fire station, this is a satellite of the main museum of the same name located a couple miles west of downtown. It is a place worth visiting more than once—which is easy, since it’s in the heart of town. Admission is free, gained through the doors of the huge, glasssheathed City Center building, a Paul Rudolph design, against which the 1907 brick firehouse shelters, a hardy plant in a skyscraper forest.


There is a similar discrepancy of scale in the vicinity of Second and Third streets and along Main and Commerce, where virtually all that remains of the early business district can be found and where many new office buildings rise. Examples of the first lowlying commercial structures have been restored, some reconstructed and some designed from scratch to make up a six-square-block streetscape called Sundance Square. Here the trompe-l’oeil painting Fort Worth loves has been lavishly employed to fill in lost architectural details. At first glance the decorative elements really do fool the eye; then you come to realize that the arched parapet, the fanciful cornice, and the curlicued shop sign are actually two-dimensional.

Only one of Sundance Square’s buildings—the Knights of Pythias Hall, which resembles a Flemish castle—is unaltered enough to qualify for the National Register of Historic Places. Even so, with its colorful facades and pleasant brick walks, this enclave is an attractive, if newly minted, souvenir of the city’s early days.

From about 1867 to the mid-1880s, Fort Worth was a provisioning stop on the way out on the Eastern Trail and a place for cowboys to spend money and let off steam on the way home. To tempt them, one veteran of the trail recalled, “solicitors from the big grocery stores of Fort Worth met us on horseback several miles from the city, bearing such gifts as bottles of whiskey and boxes of fine cigars.”

At the center of all this activity was the longhorn, a hardy, lanky breed evolved from cattle left by the earlier Spanish occupiers. “The Texas Longhorn made more history than any other breed of cattle the civilized world has known,” writes the historian J. Frank Dobie; “...he will remain the bedrock on which the history of the cow country of America is founded.”

With the close of the Civil War, a nation that had mainly eaten pork suddenly favored beef, and cattle that cost Texans as little as four dollars a head were gathered for a great migration to distant markets in Kansas and Missouri where they would command as much as forty dollars. This demand attracted railroads to the Southwest and settlers to West Texas, where two generations later oil would be found. “When it had nothing else...,” says Dobie, “Texas had more and more land for the raising of cattle and more and more cattle for the world beyond.”

As the railroads inched west, the trails withered. Now that cattle could be shipped from various assembly points, the packing plants moved in. The Fort Worth stockyards roared to life just after the turn of the century, quickly to become the second-largest packing center in the country. They still stand, three miles north of the downtown area, and they provide the best possible look at Fort Worth as frontier town. For the stockyards’ survival we can thank a degree of neglect that fell over the north side after the packers, Swift and Armour, closed up shop in the 1960s and 1970s. And much credit is due residents of the area and former stockyards employees who knew what treasure they had in the Livestock Exchange, the Cowtown Coliseum, and the Mule Barns.

This was largely a self-contained company town, a headquarters for livestock dealers and for suppliers of rope, boots, and grain as well as for bankers and merchants. At its peak the place was in action round the clock, seven days a week. Each day five hundred or more cars of livestock arrived and at least seventy-five cars of processed meat were shipped out. There were brawls and the occasional shoot-out as cattlemen and townsfolk crowded into the saloons that lined Exchange Street. There was the bawling of cows and the braying of mules. And there were the smells. Sue McCafferty, who with her husband, Charles, founded the North Fort Worth Historical Society, grew up here. She claims that the only unbearable stench was from the rendering plant: “It could take your head off.” Otherwise she recalls with affection the odor of the cow pens, hay, and alfalfa: “I never felt I was home until I got close enough to smell that.”

It’s not hard to conjure up the gritty, raucous days of the stockyards while wandering the square mile or so that makes them up. Cowboys still amble dusty, arcaded streets, and rails mark the places where horses were tied. Dark, leathery-smelling shops still purvey saddles and boots, and you can buy a drink at the Star Cafe or the White Elephant Saloon. You can even stay overnight at the Stockyards Hotel, a comfortable 1907 building with Western furnishings, reproduction and antique. The majestic 1902 Livestock Exchange Building—all forty-six thousand square feet—continues to preside over the scene, the only exchange of its era left in the country. This was once home to dozens of livestock-related businesses; now there are only a few, along with several art galleries and the historical society. Plenty of offices are empty. The historical society’s director, Sue McCafferty, asked me to write that her group is trying to raise funds to buy the Livestock Exchange from its New York owners to ensure its preservation. I gladly oblige.

The stockyards roared to life in the early 1900s; they provide the best sense of the once gritty, raucous frontier town.

Next to the Exchange stands the Cowtown Coliseum, built in 1908 for livestock shows and now home to a Saturday-night rodeo. The humble mule barns actually have a stake in history; as the largest horse and mule market in the world during the First World War, they drew agents from Europe who came to bid for the stock. Flanked by slender towers, the gateway to the barns achieves a kind of splendor more appropriate to a church than to a mule’s home.

Flaunting a style variously called Cowtown Baroque, Mission, or Spanish Revival, all these buildings have a presence and an aura that goes beyond their homely functions. Their parapets, bell towers, cupolas, shaded verandas, red tile roofs, and graceful railings, their height and breadth and airy interior spaces, seem to express perfectly the pride that drove Fort Worth at just that time and place.

—Carla Davidson 

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