Wichita Falls - A Western Town Building Example
For its rather isolated location just south of the Red River and just east of where the Texas panhandle meets North Texas, Wichita Falls has
enjoyed economic good fortune throughout its history. That's not to say it hasn't had its fair share of problems - but even those have made
this town more resilient. If you had a dictionary, and squinted a little, it wouldn't be a stretch to see a photo of Wichita Falls next to the word
"scrappy."

The term "scrappy" can be applied to most western towns that have experienced a boom (whether in railroads, speculations, cattle, or oil).
While during their peak years, they epitomized the boundless wealth of a young and eager country, today they exhibit urban decay that
can't be easily undone.

Wichita Falls can be considered "exhibit a." Its former glory is well-represented in many large, imposing buildings, but just outside this
magic ring lie forgotten stores, warehouses, and roads.

Boomer Generations
The first American settlers arrived in the 1870s, and by 1879 a post office sent and brought the mail. In 1881, the Fort Worth-Denver
Railroad made the fledgling town a depot stop. In short order, other
railroads followed suit: the Wichita Falls Railroad; the Wichita Falls &
Southern Railroad; the Wichita Falls & Northwestern Railroad; and the Wichita Falls & Oklahoma Railroad. Do you gather from this list that
most of these railroads originated in Wichita Falls?

Wichita Falls became the county seat of
Wichita County in 1883, and things only looked up from there. Wichita Falls became a cattle and
farm shipping center, and many a hustler came to town to partake of its high-flying ways. Some genius even gave the town the nickname of
"Whiskey-taw Falls." Clever people, here.

The real boom period for the town came from the discovery of oil, first in Electra, then in the Burkburnett fields just north of town. Oil rush
towns, mainly made up of canvas tents and lots of mud, spread over the prairie like wildfires. Wichita Falls gained notoriety and a lot of
money. Downtown Wichita Falls grew quickly, with broad streets, large buildings, and fancy hotels. During the height of the oil boom in
1922,
Midwestern State University began life as Wichita Falls Junior College.

Population reached its height in the 1950s, when Wichita Falls counted over 110,000 souls on its census. Since that time, the population
numbers have remained fairly stable. Wichita Falls did lose 45 residents on April 10, 1979, when an F5 tornado ("the finger of God"
according to the movie,
Twister) obliterated the southern part of town. The Wichita Falls tornado outbreak is still considered the most
violent in recorded weather history.

"Fatigued" People (Get it?)
Being just down the road from Lawton, Oklahoma, and its military base, Wichita Falls has gotten a lot of residual business over the years.
Wichita Falls still has a strong military history, too. Although one military camp that opened during World War I had to shut down due to the
Spanish Influenza epidemic,
Sheppard Air Force Base opened in 1941 and continues to train pilots today.   

Wichita Falling
The city of Wichita Falls has recreated the "falls" (never really more than a small level change in the river) in a nice roadside park. Several
historical museums and art venues abound. However, the downtown area looks and feels very deserted. This is typical of many western
towns: they boom, then speculators build up as much real estate as they can. Once the boom days are over, however, unused or
abandoned buildings take up whole blocks, and the folly of building too much, too soon, and too wide becomes readily apparent. When I
visited Wichita Falls in April 2008, entire city blocks were boarded up, and many empty, weedy lots collected trash.  

That's not to say Wichita Falls is a dying town. To the contrary, it's alive and well. And it's quite nice. But I would say that by using Wichita
Falls (and other towns like Waco and Oklahoma City) as an example of a badly planned boom city, it would behoove city planners to be more
compact in their designs.
Wichita Falls - Boom Town Then and Now
Wichita Falls is named after the Wichita tribe, a large confederation of semi-nomadic hunters and farmers who along the Cross Timbers
region, which stretches from northern Texas to southern Kansas. Along the Arkansas and Kansas rivers in this region, archaeologists have
found extensive city complexes most likely inhabited by the ancestors of the Wichitas.

Among Wichita kin were the Taovayas and the Tawakonis - the original Red River Valley settlers. A source I found said that the term
"Wichita" comes from a Comanche word meaning "waist deep." Maybe someone used this description  to identify the river, and then the
word was attributed to the people who lived near it.

In the 1760s, Athanase de Mezieres wrote about the
Wichitas while on a reconnaissance mission for the Spanish. He called them the
"nortenos" and, while he encountered no hostilities, he was definitely put off by their extensive tattooing and forceful ritual dances.

Due to disease, and also greed for land by the American pioneers of the late 19th century, the Wichitas were pushed into Indian Territory
(later, Oklahoma). During the Civil War, several Wichitas followed Jesse Chisholm as he carved a trail to Kansas for them, allowing them to
escape the volatile situation in Indian Territory. This
trail would become part of the massive cattle drive network envisioned by Joseph
McCoy.

The
Dallas Morning News reported that only one living Wichitan person exists who can still speak the language. Researchers at the
University of Oklahoma recorded her for posterity, as she died in 2016.
The tracks leading into town pass by the Wichita Falls Railroad Museum. Nearby is also the Museum of North Texas History.
Taken in 2011, this photo shows that Depot Square hasn't changed much... though now, a historical marker denotes its importance. The world's
skinniest skyscraper apparently was built on a swindle - a speculator convinced several people to invest in Wichita Falls' first skyscraper. It was
built, but the plans were in inches, not feet. Today, this building is an antique store.
Old warehouses and storefronts along a broad street indicate what used to be.
The Falls of Wichita Falls are not necessarily... natural.
Other Places to Enjoy in Wichita Falls
Kell House Museum
Kemp Center for the Arts
Finding Wichita Falls isn't that difficult; it sits south of the Red River along the Wichita
River, where US highways 287, 82, 281, 277 and Interstate 44 meet.
Who were the Wichitas?
Questions or comments? E-mail me: robin@redriverhistorian.com
A crew from Wichita Falls works to save the MKT bridge over the Red River during the devastating floods of 1908.
In the 1980s, the Texas Historical Commission did a site survey of historical structures in Wichita Falls and took several photos of Depot Square.
The skinny, tall building is the "Wichita Falls sky scraper" that was built in the 1920s.
This building in the "Depot Square" has been preserved, thanks to the Wichita Falls historical society and the Texas Historical Commission.
How to get there