Belton in 1881
Located on Nolan Creek, a tributary of the Leon River, Belton, the county seat of Bell County, was a small town of fewer than 1,800 persons when Koch visited in 1881. But the town was already rebounding from the economically disastrous years of the Civil War and a terrible fire of the year before that had destroyed much of the downtown area. The nearby Chisholm Trail, which ran along the eastern edge of town, provided part of the economic incentive, but most of it came from the booming cotton business as Belton developed into the regional center for the area’s growing number of farmers. Although the arrival of the Gulf, Colorado and Santa Fe Railway in 1881 provided some economic incentive, the railroad established its division headquarters at the new town of Temple, which it developed and aggressively promoted, despite Belton’s offer of funds and land. Koch shows only two mills in this picture: the Belton City Mills and a planing mill and furniture factory, but an additional planing mill, cotton gin and compress, and cottonseed oil mill had been added by 1885.
Near the left-center of the image, as shown from the southeast, Koch shows the second Bell County Courthouse, which was constructed of limestone quarried west of the city and finished in 1860. Numerous photographs of this era show market day around public squares, but this is one of the few city views that shows wagons full of cotton around the courthouse, suggesting the increasing importance of that crop to the regional economy. Koch’s depiction of the buildings near the corner of Main and Water streets is precise, according to both the Sanborn map of 1885 and one of the earliest surviving photographs of the city, even down to the Chinese laundry that is the last building on the east side of Main Street, near Nolan Creek. Koch shows the iron bridge over the creek, but he also shows a wagon fording the creek upstream from the bridge and a buggy fording downstream. Koch shows a number of churches, including the Union Church, and schools for both males and females. The City Hotel (8 on map) is the dominant structure on the northwest corner of the courthouse square, while the Opera House (4) one block north is equally imposing. As was his habit, Koch also shows the African-American Methodist Episcopal Church (9).