You can see it looming in the distance for miles as you drive along Interstate 20 about an hour west of Fort Worth: a lonely red smokestack jutting into the Texas sky seemingly from nowhere, silently keeping guard over extreme northwestern Erath County like a forgotten brick sentinel. Nearby, a smattering of matching brick buildings lines a deserted street running perpendicular to Texas 108; across from them, a disused water pump and a wooden frame volunteer fire station. In the hills beyond, a few homes dot the land like oases. Across the Interstate is another cluster of buildings: a wooden church, a bright green shotgun shack, and a modern museum line the service road. A restaurant sits on a hill overlooking the area, giving diners a bird’s eye view of the scattered remains of what once was the most populous city between Fort Worth and El Paso; the mining community of Thurber.
A company town in every sense of the word, Thurber’s birth, development, and death were purely dictated by the coal industry and every inch of the ground it sat on was owned by the Texas and Pacific Coal Company. At its zenith, Thurber was home to an eclectic mix of several thousand miners of dozens of ethnicities and their families, including large numbers of Polish and Italian workers lured to the United States by the promise of plentiful work. Since these often transient laborers accepted rates of pay much lower than that of their American counterparts both they and T&P Coal enjoyed, from about 1890 to 1915, a four-decade heyday that saw Thurber stand as the unquestionable king of the Texas coal industry.
Founded in 1888 by Colonel R.D. Hunter with the financial backing of New York bank magnate Horace K. Thurber, T&P established a community to house the company’s extensive mining operations and its workers, naming it after its primary financial backer. Completely self-contained, Thurber boasted the amenities of many of the country’s most cosmopolitan cities; by 1900 it was home to a top-notch opera house, several hotels, and a company store as well stocked as anything found in Dallas or Fort Worth. The city economy, while vibrant and fluid, was one hundred percent company controlled: miners and their families purchased items and sundries with company script, issued bi-weekly. The community’s wide mix of ethnicities bred an unusually colorful atmosphere, with frequent (often simultaneous) celebrations held in varying traditions and languages; Thurber’s miners celebrated every bit as heartily as they worked.
The life of a Thurber miner, however, was far from a party and the city’s day-to-day life was wholly governed by the mine’s steam whistles. Every morning, miners were roused by the 5 am blast announcing that the work day had begun. A second at high noon initiated a thirty-minute lunch break, and at 5 pm the final whistle signified the close of the day’s business. Working conditions were quite uncomfortable; the Thurber coal vein was no wider than three feet and miners spent the majority of the twelve-hour work day lying on their backs swinging their pickaxes at a deposit of coal mere inches from their faces. The less than ideal working conditions frequently led to unrest, and Thurber’s existence is dotted with dozens of labor strikes as T&P owners fought to keep out labor unions. In 1898, a particularly violent strike occurred when miners, fed up with the tyrannical management of T&P founder Hunter, refused to work; the atmosphere was so thick with impending violence that Hunter ordered a barbed wire fence erected around the T&P company compound and the Texas Rangers were eventually called in to keep the peace due to increased threats on the life of Hunter and his family.
During this time, it was discovered that the rich deposits of shale clay underneath the city made for top quality bricks. Never one to waste an opportunity, Col. Hunter ordered the construction of a massive brick-kiln in 1897 and in a very short time Thurber became as well-known for its paving and building bricks as its coal, eventually shipping them all over the United States. Many Thurber bricks can still be seen today in Fort Worth’s Camp Bowie Boulevard and Stockyard District, Austin’s Congress Avenue, and the Galveston sea wall.
When Hunter retired in 1899, the company and its town fell under the direction of his son-in-law E.L. Marston who, though now T&P’s president, still resided in his native New York and was thus not practically able to actively manage operations. Instead of relocating to Texas, Marston turned over the reins to an energetic young mining engineer from Virginia by the name of W.K. Gordon. Gordon, having been a miner himself, was much more understanding of the miners’ plight than the money-hungry Col. Hunter and under his direction life as a Thurber miner improved drastically; it was under his tenure that both company and community enjoyed its greatest age of development and productivity. At the turn of the Twentieth Century, Thurber was home to more than ten thousand miners and their families and was the first city in Texas to boast electric street lighting. In 1908 the ice plant (and its still surviving smokestack) were built and in 1910, a full half of the soft coal consumed in the United States was culled from Thurber’s mine shafts.
However, in 1916, both T&P and Thurber’s fortunes changed forever when a massive oil field was discovered on company-owned land just outside the nearby community of Ranger. The shift from coal to oil as a primary fuel accelerated throughout the late 1910’s; by 1917 even Thurber’s brick plant was relying on natural gas as means of fuel rather than its own native coal. A mine shaft sunk in July of that year will sit unused, and in 1918 T&P will officially rename itself the “Texas and Pacific Coal and Oil Company”. Tragedy struck in 1919 when W.K. Gordon’s eight-year-old daughter Louise drowned while swimming on a family outing at nearby Palo Pinto Creek, bringing an ominous end to the decade. J.R. Penn will take T&P’s reigns as president upon the retirement of E.L. Marston late that year, bringing a symbolic end to Thurber’s golden age.
In 1920 T&P’s trains officially switched from coal to crude oil as their primary fuel, leaving the mines with few viable outside consumers for their product. In 1921, Thurber miners struck for a final time, but it was futile; mining operations decreased throughout the Twenties and Thurber’s population dwindled as miners migrated to the Northeast in search of work. Though the community remained somewhat viable as a center for operations of the T&P oil drilling operations, the city’s structures were steadily either demolished or relocated. By 1926 only eight hundred residents remained, and in 1927 the last load of coal was taken from the mines. The brick plant closed for good in 1931, the company store was ordered to liquidate all stock in July of 1933, and dwindling attendance levels forced Thurber’s schools to consolidate with nearby Strawn in 1935. In 1936 the post office closed, and by the following year, the site was almost completely abandoned.
Thurber, Texas – 2016
Today, traffic roars by on Interstate 20 largely oblivious that they are passing through what once was a bustling community marked only by its few remaining buildings, approximately eight permanent residents, and the one hundred and forty-eight foot watchman; the 1908 ice plant smokestack silently standing by as the memory of Thurber, Texas fades into the annals of history.
About the Images
All images including the vintage photos are from Danny Pitt (from Ghost Towns of Texas). Vintage photos were collected from family members and were from hard copies. Sources are unknown as to where they came from.
The current non watermarked pictures were taken September 4th, 2011 with a Nikon CoolPix L3 and the images are unprocessed.
The watermarked image of the Thurber Smoke Stack was taken in June 2015 by James Johnston. The image was taken with a Canon EOS Rebel T1i. Images were recently processed with Adobe Lightroom CC and Topaz Clarity.