Thursday, April 21, 2011

Ghost Towns on the Brazos ~ Shades of Forgotten Oil Towns and an Old Grist Mill

This post was originally written several days ago.  Since then, the fires that have raged in the PK area south of Graham have ravaged much of the entire area.  As far as I can find out, neither South Bend or Eliasville which both lie on the south bank of the Clear Fork of the Brazos were engulfed.

Some time ago I picked up a bad postcard of Stovall's Hot Well.  It had been over 20 years since I had been out in that area just south of Graham. So, early in April, I took a Sunday morning scout to see if there was anything left of the old place. The weather was pretty good and it was just at the time that the mesquite was leafing out in sharp contrast to the cedar and hardwoods. I went out through Mineral Wells and Caddo and then slanted back on SH67 up to South Bend.  

Trip map ~Click to enlarge map
South Bend is located on a big bend of the Clear Fork of the Brazos river upstream from Possum Kingdom lake. The Clear Fork is pure hell when it floods, but today it was beautiful and placid. This is the river that John Graves paddled down before he wrote the Texas classic Goodbye to a River in 1959. The area south of Graham down to South Bend was locally known as Tonk Valley, since the land was once part of a short-lived Indian reservation where some of the Tonkawa tribes were placed. 

1925 Young County GLO Oil Map ~ South Bend-Eliasville-Reservation
In the early 1920's South Bend was a roaring boom town, filled with activity. The antique map above shows the scope. Oil wells were coming in, found in multiple sands from 1350 to 4250 feet. Some of them were big gushers. It had its own water system, post office, schools, hotels, gambling hells, churches and even a couple of plants to produce casing head gasoline.  

Now, South Bend is just a sad collection of dilapidated or abandoned little buildings that fully justify its ghost town image.

Click to enlarge image
There are still a few buildings more or less intact in South Bend including one restored as a home as well as a small group of mobile homes around the crossroads..

Abandoned Motel at SH67 & FM701~Click to enlarge image
The oil play in the area from Graham down to Breckenridge was so great that the Kell properties built the Wichita Falls and Southern railroad from Graham to South Bend, Eliasville and south to a junction point just north of Breckenridge to meet the demand. The railroad has been gone for over 50 years but remnants remain.

Piers & massive stone abutments for South Bend Main Street Overpass

Not only did South Bend have an oil boom going, but in 1921 one of the deep wells on the Stovall property just across the Brazos river started pushing up hot mineral water!  Instantly "miracle" cures for almost anything that ailed a person were apparently happening after extended immersion in the healing goop. A little resort developed out on the flats northwest of South Bend.

Click to enlarge image
The Hot Well stayed in business until sometime in the 1990's until a fire took most of it out.  I drove out Hot Wells Road to look, but couldn't find anything much.  South Bend and the Hot Well may be gone, but today, the big and little pump jacks are still turning out that $100+ per barrel oil.

The day was still early and the light was good so I decided to run down FM701 toward Eliasville about 10 miles away.  I don't believe that I have ever traveled this road before.  Staying on the south side to start, it more or less follows the Brazos down and the old Wichita Falls & Southern right-of-way meanders along there as well.  At the first crossing of the Clear Fork several miles from South Bend there are some old road bridge piers that remain in place. 

Bridge Piers~ Click to enlarge image
The road is scenic. It winds a little and you catch some neat glimpses of the river as we head west and a little south. There is less cedar and mesquite along this way.

Steel Truss Bridge ~ Click Image to englarge
About 5 east of Eliasville, FM701 crosses back to the south side of the Clear Fork.  Just to the north of the highway bridge is a fine old steel truss road bridge still in place without any decking. 

At this point the road is pretty level but as we get further along the terrain starts getting more broken.  We're just about at Eliasville.

1920 Ad From the FW Star-Telegram ~ Click to enlarge image
Eliasville was a sleepy little mill and cotton town dating from 1874 until the oil boom hit right after World War I. Then, everything changed. Oil brought money. Money brought developers with big dreams. The promise of the railroad coming in 1921 fueled the fire even more.  Lots were sold, good brick and stone buildings were built. Houses erected. Things looked good. 

As you come into Eliasville from the east, signs start warning us of steep grades. Just before the road drops off, a gravel road leads to the left toward some substantial buildings on the bluff. On this Sunday morning, two old churches of good proportion stood facing each other, along with modest old parsonages and what must be the ruins of the old stone school. There were too many folks getting out of church just then so I didn't get any pictures.

Eliasville Business District ~ Click to enlarge image
After a corkscrew drop down the steep bluff I came to the crossroads of FM1974 and the Breckenridge road, FM701 south. This building which looks abandoned, which was probably once a bank and perhaps the now-gone post office and the home of other businesses, is the sole remainder of what once was a thriving little city.  There once was a nice square, but it is now overgrown.  Eliasville had a tendency to catch fire a lot and when the oil business faded, so did the town with little of it ever rebuilt. 

Grist mill shell and dam ~ Click to enlarge image
I headed west for a little ways past the old building and crossed over the Brazos again on a high bridge. I glanced to the south and was surprised to see this old mill and dam, with a number of people enjoying the grounds. I was totally unaware of its existence for some reason.  There is a huge amount of history here that I don't have space to go into. However, discovering it really made my day.

At that point I headed south down FM701 toward Breckenridge and then back on US 180 toward Fort Worth.  A day well spent..

Note:  Thanks to railroad historian Steve Goen for some corrections to several items related to the Wichita Falls & Southern railroad bridges.  The old oil map above does show that the railroad stayed south of the Brazos between South Bend and Eliasville. 

All maps and images from the Electric Books Collection


  1. Fascinating story, well told, thanks.

  2. Thanks for the trip down memory lane, once a place I called home, now just a place in the heart.
    Katherine K.