Day Trips

Fort Griffin once served as a lonely military outpost on the Texas frontier.

Walls that tell tales
Walls that tell tales (Photo By Gerald E. McLeod)

Fort Griffin stands on the Texas prairie northeast of Abilene as a lonely, weathered tombstone to the Old West. The wind whips around the last remaining chimneys and collapsing brick walls of a frontier army fort long abandoned, but not forgotten.

The rattle of bridles and squeak of well-oiled saddle leather still seem to echo in the rustle of the waist-deep grass that covers much of the parade ground where hundreds of soldiers once drilled. The few buildings standing around the perimeter illustrate the austere life of the front lines of Western defenses. It's a desolate place that hasn't changed much since the last soldier left more than 120 years ago.

A panoramic view stretches for miles from a cliff 60 feet above the river valley behind the old fort. One unit of the state park encompasses the remains of the frontier fort while across Hwy. 281 is a riverside campground tucked away in a grove of trees where multicolored tents and RVs house the modern traveler.

Surrounded by rugged grasslands filled with cactus and mesquite, the campground illustrates the hidden beauty of the landscape. As a scenic state park that is undiscovered by large crowds, this is also the home pasture of the official state longhorn herd. The area was not always so placid.

Fort Griffin's violent past lies buried beneath the thin topsoil of a plateau overlooking the Clear Fork of the Brazos River. It was once a bustling military fort and settlement that helped define the Old West. The Butterfield stage stopped here to change horses and connect with military escorts.

Established in 1867, the fort was home to four companies of the Sixth Cavalry including units of the famed buffalo soldiers and companies of the 17th Infantry. A company of Tonkawa Indians served as scouts for the patrols.

Early plans called for stone structures to be built at the site. Not intended to be a fortress, the camp never had stockade fortifications. Ultimately, only the commissary, bakery, powder magazine, library, and administration building were built of stone. During the Thirties, the Civilian Conservation Corps rebuilt several of the structures as silent reminders of the frontier conditions.

The other quarters were either rough milled planks or log buildings. Because the wood was green it shrank and warped badly leaving large gaps between the boards. The 42 one-room log cabins built on the west side of the parade ground quartered six enlisted men each. The walls resembled a picket fence and did little to keep out the cold in the winter and the sand storms of the summer, even with a covering of canvas. Officers got wood cabins with a fireplace.

Conditions at the fort were hard, and morale was often low. If the men weren't guarding slow freight wagons or chasing Indians across the desert, then they were working on the compound. The biggest excitement at the fort came with Major Ranald Mackenzie's campaign against the Indians in the 1870s.

As part of a line of forts that stretched across Texas, the simple garrison helped mark America's western expansion. The U.S. Army followed settlers and travelers who expected safe passage across what was then Indian territory. Once Mackenzie limited the Indians' ability to make war in 1874, buffalo hunters descended on the fort to decimate the last of the free-roaming herds.

The shanty town near the garrison was the best watering hole in the barren no man's land between the Red River and El Paso on the California Road. Doc Holliday, the Earp brothers, John Wesley Hardin, and other 19th-century legends passed through the saloons at one time or another. Called "the Flats," all that remains of the town down the hill from the fort is one brick building that is on private property and not open to the public.

When the buffalo began disappearing, an enterprising businessman persuaded the drovers from South Texas to take the Dodge City Trail past the fort rather than the more easterly Chisholm Trail. The railroads that put an end to long cattle drives also spelled the end of Fort Griffin and the Flats.

Of the five stone structures still recognizable, the bakery and powder magazine are the most intact thanks to reconstruction by the CCC. Other wood buildings have also been reconstructed to illustrate the modest accommodations. The historical site is for day use, and camping is allowed only in the campground. A small exhibit at the visitors center contains objects and photos from the fort.

Fort Griffin State Historical Park is about 20 miles north of Albany and about 260 miles from Austin. For information, call the park at 915/762-3592, or go to the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department Web site at www.tpwd.state.tx.us.

554th in a series. Day Trips, Vol. 2, a book of Day Trips 101-200, is available for $8.95, plus $3.05 for shipping, handling, and tax. Mail to: Day Trips, PO Box 33284, South Austin, TX 78704.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

Fort Griffin State Historical Park, Abilene, Butterfield stage, Sixth Cavalry, Tonkawa, Civilian Conservation Corps, Maj. Ranald Mackenzie, Doc Holliday, Earp brothers, John Wesley Hardin, The Flats, Dodge City Trail, Albany, Texas Parks and Wildlife Department

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