Other Views from 1883

Where is Abilene?

Above: Augustus Koch (1840–?). Bird’s Eye View of Abilene, Taylor County, Texas. 1883, 1883. Toned lithograph, 16 x 22.4 in. Lithographer unknown. Courtesy of Special Collections, The University of Texas at Arlington Libraries.

Abilene in 1883

Abilene came into being as the Texas and Pacific Railway rapidly built its way from Fort Worth across West Texas. As the railroad industry recovered from the Panic of 1873, New York financier and railroad magnate Jay Gould organized a syndicate to provide new investment muscle for the T&P, and he put engineer and former General Grenville M. Dodge in charge of construction. Work began in Fort Worth on April 1, 1880. As the tracks approached the newly organized Taylor County later that year, local landowners persuaded the railroad officials to establish a new town rather than go to Buffalo Gap, the county seat. The railroad arrived at the site of Abilene in January 1881.[1] The new town boasted a population of 300 within weeks, and the railroad began selling town lots in this “city of tents and mud” on March 15, 1881. Citizens claimed that Abilene was the “biggest canvas town in Texas,” and they soon wrested the county seat away from Buffalo Gap.[2] By the time Augustus Koch arrived to document the city, the population had reached more than 2,200, and one landowner had provided the sobriquet, “The Future Great City of West Texas.”[3]

Koch accurately depicted the topography of the city as well as its layout. One of the town’s planners and promoters, J. Stoddard Johnston of Kentucky, recalled a “rolling prairie of mesquite grass…dotted with mesquite trees” when he arrived in 1881.[4] Koch shows the city from the south-southeast, with the railroad cutting through the image from right to left and the hotel and passenger depot (3 on map) near its center. Abilene was such a new county seat that the Taylor County Courthouse, which would be located on the block bounded by South Third, South Fourth, Oak, and Pecan streets, on the south side of the tracks, would not be built for another year or so. The only church shown is the Methodist Church (1), at the corner of South Second and Butternut, its spire visible from anywhere in town. The school house (2) is pictured at the corner of North Third and Cedar. The north-south streets end at the railroad track and face the middle of the blocks across the tracks, a design conceit that today still plagues Abilene drivers as they negotiate the curves in the few streets that connect across the tracks today.

Local ranchers intended for the city to become a cattle shipping center, which Koch illustrated with the stock pens adjacent to the railroad in the right margin of the print. He also emphasized the city’s rapid growth with two large lumberyards, William Cameron and Company (5) and J. G. Hays (6), near the railroad freight depot.