I always liked history, but only recently discovered local history.
I remember Texas History class in elementary school. The Alamo was undoubtedly the shining star of the curriculum, with local history tucked away as a mere footnote. I assumed that nothing “history-worthy” happened around here because we didn’t learn about it in school.
Fast forward 30-something years. My journey with local history started unexpectedly in April 2020. I went to explore Downtown Fort Worth. I was mainly there to take photos of the buildings and the cityscape, as I like photographing architecture as a hobby. It was early in the pandemic, and I didn’t expect many people there on a Sunday morning. (There may have also been a stay-at-home order that I ignored, but I promise that I practiced social distancing!)
The best way to explore any area is on foot. I kept walking and ended up near the Fort Worth Water Gardens and Convention Center. The Water Gardens were eerie that day — the water features were turned off, and there was no one around. It would usually be filled with people and at least some noise, but not on this day.
I stumbled upon a Texas Historical Marker at the Fort Worth Water Gardens for “Hell’s Half Acre.” It wasn’t the first Texas Historical Marker that I ever read, but it was the first to make me take notice. Because there was no one around that day, I took my time and read the text without interruption. My eyebrows were soon near the top of my head. What little local history I learned years ago in school definitely didn’t mention anything like this!
Hell’s Half Acre was an infamous red-light district in Fort Worth. Its peak was generally from 1876-1901, yet it lasted until 1919 — although noticeably tamer in its later years. Even so, the area wasn’t wholly revitalized until the 1960s. Hell’s Half Acre had saloons, dance halls, gambling parlors, and bordellos. The activities were generally tolerated unless things got violent, as it provided an economic boost to the town. Most frontier towns had some type of area for these activities, yet Fort Worth’s was rather notorious, comparable to ones in Denver, New Orleans, or San Francisco. Its location, size, longevity, and notoriety helped put Fort Worth on the map.
I’d seen enough western movies to visualize what the area might have looked like, and I soon found myself daydreaming. Suddenly, I was in a different time and place, wandering the dusty streets of Hell’s Half Acre, seeing the sights, hearing the sounds, and immersed in a different world. After a few moments, the daydream slowly fizzled away, and I came back to reality. I looked around in wonder. I had no idea that something like this used to be in Fort Worth, especially right here. The Fort Worth Water Gardens and Convention Center are in a respectable part of town — and that was the intriguing part. The marriage of the past and present left me in awe. This area used to be filled with real-life characters from an old western movie, yet, it’s completely unrecognizable from its past. How could it be?
It must have been kismet — the right time and right place. Had the area been busy that day, I might not have stopped to read the historical marker or been able to daydream about it.
After learning about Hell’s Half Acre, I began to wonder what else was around here that I didn’t know about. I soon discovered Top O’ Hill Terrace, Arlington Downs, and the Bankhead Highway, which have become favored topics of mine. I had no idea Arlington’s history had things like this.
Top O’ Hill Terrace was known as “Vegas before Vegas.” It had an underground casino with secret rooms, tunnels, armed guards, and an allure that attracted the famous and infamous of the day. Arlington Downs was a horse racing track (and later auto racing) with outstanding facilities and packed grandstands even during the Great Depression. Both were in Arlington along the Bankhead Highway, the first all-weather route to connect the east and west coasts of the U.S. Many other pieces of local history soon began to emerge. Learning about local history tends to build upon itself as one thing leads to another. Hell’s Half Acre opened up a whole world that I never knew existed, and it continues to do so. About six months after reading that influential historical marker, I joined the Arlington Historical Society. The rest, as they say, is history.
My journey with local history may have started with the sordid and salacious backdrop of a red-light district, but it didn’t stop there. It led to so much more. And, a Texas Historical Marker in Downtown Fort Worth — almost as a mirage in an urban desert — introduced me to it all. Today, I’m a staunch admirer of historical markers and local history. The two help tell our story — and what a fascinating story it is if you take the time to learn it.
P.S. — I mentioned earlier my fateful trip to Fort Worth to photograph architecture. If you’re interested: Downtown Fort Worth – Photo Essay.
P.P.S. — I later read the book Hell’s Half Acre: The Life and Legend of a Red-Light District by Richard F. Selcer. It goes far beyond the content on the Texas Historical Marker. I have it in my personal library and highly recommend it!
Blog post by Jason S. Sullivan, 11-17-21