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 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 notiriety 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 lived all
around the central portions of the Red River for centuries.
Among their kin were the Taovayas and the Tawakonis - the
original Texas and Oklahoma 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.

Recently, the
Dallas Morning News reported that only one
Wichita exists today who can still speak the language.
Researchers at the University of Oklahoma are recording her for
posterity, but as she is over 80 years old, one could surmise that
the days of the living Wichita culture are numbered.

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 tracks leading into town pass by the Wichita Falls Railroad
Museum. Nearby is also the Museum of North Texas History.
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.
Other Places to Enjoy in
Wichita Falls
Kell House Museum
Kemp Center for the Arts
How to get there
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