Monday, July 11, 2011

Where The Heck Was Hell's Half Acre? ~ Probably NOT Where You Think It Was..

The other day I was at JR's Cafe in Saginaw having breakfast surrounded by the conversation of the other regulars, mostly older men.  These are people that have lived in the Fort Worth area most of their lives or at least moved into the area many years ago.  Some had fathers or grandfathers who were ranchers, or had worked for Swift or Armour in the packing plants or who had worked on the railroads. Most of them knew some history about the area.

The subject turned to the story of the famous 1887 gunfight between Jim Courtright and Luke Short near the White Elephant Saloon a few blocks north of Fort Worth's notorious Hell's Half Acre.  As I sat there, I realized that most of these guys believed that all this took place down in the Stockyards District and that the White Elephant was in the Acre.


They weren't alone in their misunderstanding.  Over the years of listening to visitors at the Stockyards Museum and sitting in conversations with other Fort Worth residents I have found that while almost everyone has heard of Hell's Half Acre, for a number of reasons, the true location has drifted from the historical memory of many.

In 2007 at the suggestion of some of the people at the Stockyards Museum, I started work on a large poster map that would give a little more perspective to Hell's Half Acre, define it's true location in early Fort Worth, and dispel some of the other myths that surround it.  I decided to base this work on a number of antique maps in my collection that combined together would show the big picture. To begin with, I used a section from the well-known 1886 perspective or "birds-eye" map of Fort Worth.  The red line shows the approximate boundaries.

1886 Birds-eye Map of Fort Worth ~ Click to zoom
Hell's Half Acre was really a few square blocks south of 9th or 10th street down to the the Texas & Pacific railroad reservation.  Front Street (Lancaster Avenue) was the south boundary. On the west was Throckmorton and Rusk (Commerce) on the east. Above that, to the north as far as the Trinity bluffs and the Courthouse was sometimes known as "Uptown". Far from fading away after the cattle drives stopped, Hell's Half Acre endured in its rowdy way until at least 1918 or the end of World War I surviving numerous attempts to destroy it.  The construction of the Fort Worth Convention Center in the 1950's wiped out almost all the remaining buildings.

Rand, McNally Fort Worth Map ~ Click to zoom
The second map  places Hell's Half Acre in perspective to the rest of the city in the middle 1880's.  The Chisholm Trail cattle drives which had spawned the Acre had dwindled after the coming of the T&P railroad and the roads that came later, but Fort Worth was busy shipping cattle, and there was plenty of customers for an "entertainment district" of questionable morality and for sporting people of all kinds.

The "White Elephant Saloon" was not in the Acre. Instead it was at 3rd & main in the "uptown" district which in many ways was as rough n' tough as the area to the south. The Short/Courtright fight was just a few feet away from the Saloon on 3rd street. One of the reasons that many think that the Acre was in the Stockyards, is that the much later White Elephant Saloon there promotes a re-creation of the fight every year in February on Exchange Avenue.

The Texas cattle trail through Fort Worth is also shown based on the markers placed during the Fort Worth Golden Jubilee in 1927.  Obviously, this route was only used until the railroads began coming in 1876.

1885 Hell's Half Acre Detail Map ~ Click to zoom
An 1885 fire map was used as the base for the Hell's Half Acre detail. Shown is a clip from the central portion. In spite of it's reputation, the Acre was not just a few blocks filled with bawdy houses and saloons. Notice how much empty space there was, much of it used as we do today for parking lots for animals & wagons.

The map shows that it was a diverse community where all races lived more or less side by side. It had grocery, jewelry, tack, and candy stores. There were several churches as well as Chinese laundries.  And the Acre was filled with commercial business of all kinds from an illuminating gas generation plant to cotton & lumber yards.

There was probably little danger in the Acre during daylight hours and probably for the average person, not much more danger in the evening than the Sundance Square area in the 1970's before its development.

This map was fun to make and I was fortunate to have lots of help and advice from a number of prominent Fort Worth scholars. I learned a lot on the way.

I you want the whole story , I highly recommend Rick Selcer's 1991 book "Hell's Half Acre".  It's still in print and available at the Stockyards Museum Store in the Livestock Exchange Building, as well as a number of other local book stores. It's a great read.


  1. I am confused about your placement of the stockyards to the south. The stockyards weren't moved???...the stockyards are north of the courthouse. I am sure there is a sign in front of the white elephant in the stock yards that says "this is the location of the famous battle..."or something like that, but I believe it is a little white sign and not one of those raised type font metal signs. I would be interested to hear of ghost stories from the convention center or the restaurants across the street or the water gardens to the south.

  2. Dear ..mous.. If I am reading your comment correctly, you appear to think that the White Elephant in the Stockyards is in the same location as the original White elephant.

    This is not correct. The first & REAL White Elephant was at 3rd & Main just a couple of block south of the Courthouse and about 6 blocks north of Hell's Half Acre. The White Elephant in the Stockyards started up after the revival of the area as a National Historic District began around the late 1970's. I'm not aware of any sign that claims that the White Elephant in today's Stockyards is the original.

    For most of the original White Elephant's history there was almost nothing in the area where the Stockyards are today. The big development of the Stockyards started around 1902..

  3. Hi - thanks for a great resource! I'm wondering if you might be able to email me the original maps you created... I'd love to see the details in them - some of the text on these web-enabled images are blurred out. Thanks again!
    -Vincent Olivieri

  4. I have read numerous of your posts as I have searched for an ancestor in Fort Worth. The 1880 census shows her living on Bluff Street, but does not give a house number. The previous street on the census page was Belknap. What was this area like in 1880. The census shows her as a widow doing washing and ironing for living.