Sunday, February 27, 2011

Phantom Hill Blues

(Photo Coutesy of The Abilene Convention & Visitors Bureau)

Off a remote stretch of FM 600 near Abilene lie the ruins of Fort Phantom Hill; one of a line of U.S. Army forts built across the West Texas frontier.  These forts were built in the 1850’s to protect settlers and California “Gold Rush” migrants from hostile Comanches.  According to the orders of the North Texas frontier commander, General William G. Belknap, the fort was supposed to have been built on the Pecan Bayou in Coleman County.  Belknap died from illness before construction began and was replaced with General Persifor Smith, who changed Belknap’s orders and built the fort at the Clear Fork of the Brazos instead.  Smith knew little about the area and placed Phantom Hill too far from a reliable water source, a vital necessity for any West Texas fort.  In fact, so little thought was put into the new fort that it wasn’t even given a name, which was usually that of a high ranking army officer.  It was just simply referred to as the “Post on the Clear Fork of the Brazos.”  The Phantom Hill moniker came later when someone noticed the land the fort was built on appeared as a hill in the distance, but mysteriously leveled off upon closer view, hence the name Phantom Hill.
Construction began on November 14, 1851 under the command of Lt. Colonel J.J. Abercrombie.  The buildings were made of stones from nearby Elm Creek and logs hauled in by oxen from forty miles away.  Most of the roofs were thatched with prairie grass.  Only the magazine, guardhouse, and commissary storehouse were built entirely of stone.  Scattered among the fort’s 22 acres were officers’ quarters, barracks, a guardhouse, a commissary storehouse, and a powder magazine.  A cistern was built, but it provided little water for the thirsty garrison.
Five companies of infantry were stationed there to guard the West Texas prairie, a laughable tactic considering the Comanches were the best horsemen in the Western Hemisphere and could ride spirals around a body of foot soldiers.  As a result, there would be no encounters with the Indians unless they wanted to be encountered.   Groups of Lipan Apaches, Kiowas, Kickapoos, and Penateka Comanches did drop by occasionally to visit, trade or check out the fort’s armaments.
Boredom, lousy water, and disease were the real enemies.  The nearby Elm Creek had dried up and the waters of the Clear Fork were too brackish.  Water would have to be hauled in by wagon from a spring 4 to 5 miles away.  Vegetable gardens couldn’t be raised because of the water shortage.  This led to outbreaks of scurvy and dysentery.  If that wasn’t enough, the sheer loneliness of the place led to a sizeable number of desertions. One lieutenant wrote, “Like the Dove after the Deluge, not one green sprig can we find to indicate this was ever intended by man to inhabit.  Indeed I cannot imagine that God ever intended for a white man to occupy such a barren waste.”  
After only four years, the fort was abandoned.  Shortly after the army’s departure, the fort was set on fire, possibly by one or several of the fort’s disgruntled garrison.  Only the magazine, guardhouse, the walls of the commissary, and a multitude of chimneys remained.
In 1858, the fort’s remaining structures became a way station for the Butterfield Overland Stage Trail.  During the Civil War, the Confederate Frontier Battalion used Phantom Hill as a base of operations when tracking down Comanches.  In the 1870’s, a town sprang up near the fort to accommodate the buffalo hunting trade.  The town didn't last long after it lost on its bid to become the county seat.
Today the fort’s ruins are maintained by the nonprofit Fort Phantom Hill Foundation.  There are signs indicating where each building was located and its function.  If you stop by, be sure to grab a brochure from a mailbox affixed to the door of the old guardhouse.  It features a map that will guide you through the fort.  There is plenty of parking but no restrooms or water fountains; you have to use The Big Country Bait Shop and Cafe about a mile down the road.  A recent grant holds promise for upgrades. Restrooms, a new parking area, and a visitor’s kiosk with educational information are to be installed. 
As with any ruins, there are going to be ghost stories, mostly sightings of the fort’s former inhabitants and restless Indian spirits.  Like ancient columns on a Greek Island, Fort Phantom Hill’s chimneys provide a unique Texan sense of romance and mystery.  As the sun sets on the prairie and the orange light reflects off the chimneys, what could be more romantic?

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