When James Alexander was a boy in the 1940s, he wondered about the mysterious ruins on a slight rise in the countryside north of Abilene. He and his father, a town physician since about 1900, would drive by the lonely stone chimneys and vacant masonry buildings on their way to nearby family land.
“I’d see all those chimneys, and it always interested me,” Alexander says. “Nobody knew anything about it back then.”
About 30 years later, as a successful rancher, Alexander acted on his boyhood curiosity and purchased Fort Phantom Hill, a U.S. military post developed and abandoned in the mid-1800s. He delved into discovering and sharing the site’s history.
“Good history starts with great questions,” says Don Frazier, a history professor at McMurry University in Abilene. “When you start asking the questions is when you start the research hunt. When you walk out there among the chimneys, it leads to all kinds of evocative questions. They lead you down a path that ends up being the story of Fort Phantom Hill.”
A self-guided tour on dirt walking trails reveals partial structures of stone. The imagination works to fill in the gaps of this big picture, today marked only by two buildings, 15 chimneys and a four-walled edifice without a roof. Cacti grow atop jagged masonry, and tall, ragged mesquite claw the sky as wind whistles by. Amid these, a small well has been sealed. A cannon points toward the road. A chuck wagon’s wheels root among dry prairie grasses. On this spring day, raindrops fall from a mostly cloudless sky, landing with an audible crack on the parched ground.
In the 1850s, pioneers began settling the newly annexed state, and prospectors trekked across Texas while heading west during the California gold rush. The federal government sent troops to establish forts for protection against Native American attacks. The first set of forts, built by 1852 from Fort Worth to Eagle Pass, protected a north-south corridor. Fort Phantom Hill, officially called Post on the Clear Fork of the Brazos, was in a second set of forts added to bolster the original defenses. Locals named the location Phantom Hill because the small mound visible from a distance seemed to disappear up close, according to “Fort Phantom Hill: The Mysterious Ruins on the Clear Fork of the Brazos River” by Bill Wright (State House Press, 2013).
“It was a very lonely, remote frontier post,” says Frazier.
The U.S. Army regiment assigned to establish the fort in 1851 faced extreme hot and cold temperatures, including a “blue norther,” and had limited building supplies. The West Texas landscape afforded little clean water, grass for grazing or wood to burn as fuel.
One first lieutenant wrote home to his wife about the conditions. “When I say to you that we have a beautiful valley to look upon, I have said everything favorable that could be said of this place,” he wrote, according to Wright. “Indeed, I cannot imagine that God ever intended for white man to occupy such a barren waste.”
Although the company experienced few encounters with Native Americans at first, tribes soon became more hostile, attacking wagons, and kidnapping and slaying travelers. The military changed its approach to protecting the frontier and abandoned Fort Phantom Hill after about two and a half years of use. Upon leaving in 1854, the last lieutenant in charge reportedly ordered his slave to set fire to the fort, “ ‘so that no other soldiers would ever have to be stationed at such a forsaken spot,’ ” Wright wrote, quoting the lieutenant. The slave was charged with arson.
Yet that era is only one chapter in the existence of Fort Phantom Hill, Frazier explains. The place also served as a stop on an overland mail and passenger route from Missouri to California, became a field operations base during the Civil War, provided a landmark for buffalo hunters and ushered in the development of Abilene.
Because it “has layers and layers and layers of stories to tell,” Frazier says, “it really needs to be in an artistic, symbolic state that really evokes a lot of different stories.”
Therefore, Alexander has made no attempt to restore the ruins of Fort Phantom Hill. He simply stabilized them. The stark chimneys likely look the same as they did when they first fascinated him as a boy.
Alexander opened Fort Phantom Hill to the public in 1972 and founded the Fort Phantom Foundation in 1997, contributing acreage including the ruins to the nonprofit that maintains and operates the site. He also has facilitated archeological exploration, welcomed TV producers to film an episode of “Dig Wars,” which aired nationwide in 2013, and hosted living history re-enactments on the 36-acre property.
“We just think the ruins are more meaningful as they are, rather than trying to rebuild them. I think the ruins are important—the original ruins,” Alexander says. “We think a lot of it. We really do. It’s about the oldest thing in this part of the world.”
Suzanne Halko, staff writer