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Waterless and Bisonless Fort Phantom Hill

A soldier's rendering of the Fort on the Clear Fork of the Brazos River, Fort Phantom Hill's original name.

Fort Phantom Hill isn't in the Red River Valley; it's about 90 miles south of the valley. But it's too interesting not to share. Just a few miles north of Abilene are its picturesque ruins. It was a frontier fort that shouldn't have been there in the first place.

In the 1840s and 1850s, the U.S. Military ordered several military forts constructed to guard settlers from Comanche raids - and to establish the lands for the U.S. General William G. Belknap had decided to place a fort southwest of Fort Belknap along the Brazos river, but General Persifor F. Smith, unfamiliar with the area, ordered the fort to be built on a hill on the Clear Fork of the Brazos River instead. That was a bad idea: this area was sparsely timbered, and for miles there was no source of potable water. The fort had to be constructed of stone quarried a good two miles away, and the wood used for most buildings had to be brought in by oxen. (Ironically, a reservoir now lies just a few minutes away, and timber planted by later farmers seems quite abundant.)

In its short life, the fort —which was plainly called Fort on the Clear Fork of the Brazos River and not by its colorful name until years later —saw little action. Several tribes friendly to the Texans came to trade and visit. The soldiers had to fight boredom and the elements, but not men. The fort was abandoned in 1854. Though the wooden buildings mysteriously burned soon after, what remained found a second life as a stop on the Butterfield Overland Stage Coach route. During the Civil War the outpost acted as a sort of way station for Texas Rangers, and both General William Tecumseh Sherman and Colonel Ranald S. Mackenzie spent time there during the Red River War campaigns.

Fort Phantom Hill centered a small town of the same name in the 1880s, where the main source of income derived from buffalo slaughter. When the supply of animals diminished and the railroad bypassed the town in favor of Abilene, the town and the fort faded from maps. Today, the fort sits on private land. A local historical society has made the fort accessible, with informational brochures available to guide the visitor along foot paths.

The former fort now offers a guided walking tour, and one of the buildings served as a station for the Butterfield Overland Stage Coach.

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