The Legend of the Sleeping Panther
Fort Worth almost didn't make it into the twentieth century.
Shortly after the Civil War, Railroads were the path to the future. That shipping and travel connection to the rest of the country promised growth and riches. Cities competed for an all important spot on the railroad line.
Dallas made the cut... and so did Fort Worth.
The rails arrived in Dallas on schedule, but then, about halfway to Fort Worth, disaster struck.
Railroad conglomerates had been engaging in over-expansion and risky speculation, and finally the bubble burst.
Banks, railroads and other companies went bankrupt. Loan defaults triggered a nationwide depression, which lasted more than five years. Wall street trading stopped completely for ten days. The Texas and Pacific Railroad, which was promised land grants from the State of Texas if the railroad reached Fort Worth by January 1, 1874, simply stopped laying tracks a few miles east of Fort Worth. The dream was over.
The population dwindled as people went looking elsewhere for work. Fort Worth suspended city government as much as possible. The city teetered on the brink, a near ghost town.
Enter Robert E. Cowart, who had lived in Fort Worth briefly before moving to Dallas to practice law. Cowart wrote the editor of the Dallas Herald that he had been to a meeting in Fort Worth the other day and things were so quiet, he had seen a live panther asleep on Main Street, undisturbed by the rush of men or the hum of trade.
This was based on an actual event, though the facts are unclear.
Motivated by this gibe, the remaining citizens of Fort Worth rode East and found the endpoint of the rails.
In desperation, they took up the abandoned tools and materials of the absent railroadmen and, with herculean volunteer effort, completed the tracks themselves, just before the deadline.
Then they threw a huge party. That day went down in history as 'Railroad Days', and is still celebrated to this day.
The city's future was secure, and the nickname 'Panther City' stuck. Amused rather than offended by the new moniker, Fort Worth fondly embraced the panther as a mascot, which it remains to this day. Displayed proudly on newspaper banners, Police badges, public buildings, high schools, and baseball teams, it has become an enduring if somewhat overlooked icon. That same spirit of our pioneering forbears lives on in the people of Fort Worth today. Compare our thriving downtown with the deserted cityscapes across the country.
And today the Sleeping Panther of Fort Worth has returned, and rests again on Main Street, in sculptural bronze.
Other Versions of the Story
from "A Ranger of Commerce"
by Howard W. Peak
"It has grown customary for most modern cities to be given an appelation based on their location or the scene of some notable events or accomplishment."
"Fort Worth is named the "Panther City", from the tradition that a panther laid down in one of it's streets."
"The origin of this rather confusing term seems to bother some minds, so I will describe how the term happened to be applied, I having been a witness to it's parentage."
"At the time, Fort Worth had but a few designated streets, and the one known as the "Weatherford Road", now Weatherford street. As a boy, my father's horse and cow lot were about fifty feet south of this road, the residence facing the "Dallas Road" now known as Houston street."
"One spring morning while I was in the lot feeding the horses and milking the cows, I was called for by an old Baptist preacher, named Fitzgerald, who occupied the second story of a building located on the corner adjoining our residence."
"'Howard, come here quick, I want to show you something'. I alertly responded, and was shown by this man of highly imaginative mind, the outlines of what he imagined was a 'panther' described in the dusty roadway. He even traced the indenture of the cat's claws."
"There resided in Fort Worth at the time a young lawyer, Bob Cowart by name, and as he made but a precarious living by law, he was, in addition, a correspondent for the Weekly Herald, published in Dallas.
Being informed of the parson's find, Cowart wrote the incident up in a very graphic manner, which, being duly published, and derisively commented on by that weekly, the name 'Panther City' resulted and stuck."
Lewis Brooks of Young County caught a panther cub on the Brazos River.
His son later recounts the story;
"On the Dead Man Bluff, across the Brazos River not far from here, my father took his saddle blanket and threw it over the panther cub to keep it from biting him."
"He gathered it up in his arms and brought it home. They named it Billy, Billy the Panther."
"Sometime later, he took it to Fort Worth and gave it to the Fire Chief. And that's how come Fort Worth to be The Panther City."