W.K. Gordon Center and the History of Thurber

Ken Jones, Ph.D.

Mining for coal at the town of Thurber began in 1886 under the direction of brothers William and Harvey Johnson. Harvey died in 1888, and William sold the enterprise to a Scottish cattleman, Robert D. Hunter. Hunter saw a profitable opportunity in the need of railroads to fuel steam locomotives. The Texas and Pacific Railroad, running westward from Fort Worth, required coal to operate its trains. Having purchased the Johnson brothers’ coalfields in Erath, Palo Pinto, and Eastland counties, Hunter organized the Texas and Pacific Coal Company to extract and sell coal to the railroad and other customers.

Coal mining was already highly unionized in the United States, and the Thurber mines attracted union organizers. The Knights of Labor began a strike just before the Johnson brothers sold out in 1888. In order to control the work force in the mines, the Texas and Pacific Coal Company fenced off its property at Thurber and constructed an entire community for its workers with “schools, churches, saloons, stores, houses, an opera house seating over 650, a hotel, an ice and electric plant, and the only library in the county.” The company then began hiring miners on its own terms, excluding union activists. Because of the relative isolation of the Thurber mines, the company recruited workers from great distances. Though a large percentage of miners came from Italy, Poland, Britain, and Ireland, eighteen nationalities were represented at Thurber.

In order to take best advantage of its resources, the owners of Thurber initiated the manufacture of brick in 1897. During the late nineteenth century, brick making had become a leading industry in Texas, described as second only behind “car building and shop construction by railroads.” Company officers knew that they had virtually inexhaustible supplies of shale at Thurber, so they sent samples to brick makers in St. Louis for analysis. When they received a positive response from St. Louis, the firm incorporated a new entity, the Green and Hunter Brick Company. Using the otherwise nearly worthless “nut and pea” to fire the kilns, workers at Thurber produced a reported 80,000 bricks daily. They made several varieties of brick, but specialized in road paving brick. Advertisements in the Texas Almanac reported the use of Thurber paving brick “in Fort Worth, Dallas, Houston, Galveston, Beaumont, and other cities of the South.” Furthermore, the ads boasted that structures in Dallas (the Dallas Opera House, among others) and Fort Worth (the Texas and Pacific Railway station and the First National Bank) had been built using brick from Thurber.

Initially workers excavated shale from a hill adjacent to the kilns. Then in 1903 the company laid a rail line from the brick plant to a richer shale deposit about a mile north of the kilns. Workers used electrically operated locomotives and dump cars on the spur line until gasoline-fueled engines came into use during the 1920s. Shortly after World War I the plant producing construction brick burned, leaving the company to concentrate on paving brick.

Economic changes spelled the end for the industrial enterprises at Thurber. As railroads changed from coal to oil as fuel for their steam locomotives during the first quarter of the twentieth century, the market weakened for the bituminous coal extracted by Thurber miners. After the company failed to meet demands for higher wages, the union workers organized a strike in 1921. In response to the diminished market the company continued to mine limited quantities of coal until the company closed the mines permanently in 1926. Changing economic times likewise effected this operation, for increased petroleum production led to expanded use of oil-based artificial asphalt as a paving material. Because asphalt was a far more cost effective material than using paving brick, the brick market declined as well. A reduced market, combined with general economic depression starting in 1929, led to the closure of the Thurber brick kilns in 1930.

Although petroleum development in Texas instigated the demise of Thurber, it insured the survival of the Texas and Pacific Coal Company. The company had hired William Knox Gordon, a native of Virginia, in 1889 as a civil and mining engineer. Improvements to the coal mining operations were among his early contributions. Realizing that coal could not continue to compete with other fuels, especially oil, Gordon began to seek petroleum in the area surrounding Thurber. As early as 1915 he discovered an oil well just west of Strawn which produced a great deal of excitement in the area, but not much oil. President Edgar Marston wrote from New York and told Gordon that the company needed to decrease the cost of coal production and increase production of oil.

Convinced that West Texas held oil, Gordon used his knowledge of both geology and the local terrain to continue his search. Professional geologists sent to the region to search for evidence of oil failed to find any, but Gordon was persistent. His enthusiasm unhindered by the low production of the 1915 well near Strawn, he conferred with a committee from the town of Ranger. They offered to exchange a lease for oil that might be produced from 80,000 acres in exchange for drilling four exploratory wells. Gordon convinced company directors to risk $20,000 on the venture. The first well at Ranger produced millions of cubic feet of natural gas, worth almost nothing on the market at the time, but it hinted at the presence of oil.

The second well, the J.H. McCleskey No. 1, blew in as an oil gusher in October 1917. The discovery opened the great Ranger Oil Field, which after expanding into other areas eventually produced almost four million barrels of petroleum and opened oil production in West Texas. As a result, the firm altered its name to Texas Pacific Coal and Oil Company the next year. In 1923 the company relocated its headquarters from New York to Thurber to be closer to physical operations.

The income from oil produced on company leases could not save Thurber. After the mines and the brick kilns ceased operating, the company permitted workers to live rent-free in Thurber until they could relocate to other jobs. In 1933 the firm moved its corporate offices to Fort Worth. Some company businesses continued for a while, including the company store, which did business until 1935. Though Thurber once claimed to be the largest town between Fort Worth and El Paso, boasting 10,000 residents, it was little more than a ghost town by the 1930s. Many of the workers’ homes and other buildings were sold and moved to surrounding towns where they survive today, while other structures were dismantled and their materials salvaged for reuse elsewhere.

The former town site is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and the Texas Historical Commission has placed several markers at the site, but only a handful of buildings remain. Among those are the general mercantile, the ice house smokestack, and many foundations all of which are located on private property. The Thurber Historical Association has moved a miner’s residence, the Catholic Church, and the top of the bandstand to an area adjacent to the museum which is open to the public for special events.