Fort Worth’s great expectations for prosperity were soon cut short in September by the Panic of 1873. Crushing financial crisis and nationwide depression caused railroad construction to come to a halt. Texas and Pacific Railroad stopped laying tracks 30 miles from Fort Worth’s boundaries. The population dwindled rapidly, mercantile and homes were abandoned, the grass literally grew in the streets. A Dallas Times Herald story written by Robert E. Cowart characterized Fort Worth as “a town so sleepy that he once saw a panther napping on the steps of the courthouse”. Cowart’s jab was turned to the city’s advantage adopting “Panther City” as its nickname.
A new spirit arose in Fort Worth as panther madness became the rage. The volunteers adopted a panther masthead for their second fire company along with a live panther mascot. Prominent citizens launched a bootstrap effort to complete the remaining rail lines leading to Fort Worth. A local finance company was organized and citizens worked around the clock to construct a railroad before the deadline set by Texas legislature. A jubilant crowd cheered the arrival of the first train to Fort Worth on July 19, 1876.
The railroad boom increased Fort Worth’s population drastically. Meanwhile, public outcry called for more fire protection. On October 3, 1876, a Silsby steam pumper was ordered at a cost of $6,250 and Panther Engine Company # 1 was organized to man it. Four minutes after a fire was ignited within the steamer’s fire box, a whistle blew to announce that a good head of steam was ready to power the pump. One minute later the first signs of water appeared from 100 feet of rubber hose. The steam powered pump sent a 100 foot stream of water skyward. This impressive sight was not to be exaggerated. It was now possible to deliver a large deluge of water into the heart of a fire without relying on inadequate man-powered pumps.
As one problem was resolved another arose, such as the lack of a reliable water works system for fire suppression. The city council allocated $1,025 for the construction of three water cisterns, which when combined held over 63,000 gallons of water. These cisterns provided water for fire suppression until 1882 when the first water mains were constructed. The ever-present threat of change was combated with the volunteers long standing traditions. The notion of their new Panther steamer being horse drawn to a fire was an insult to their manhood.
Only after embarrassing attempts to pull the massive 4-ton steamer through the city streets did they realize it was futile. The city adopted a policy of renting horses. The sum of 10 dollars was paid to the man who would hitch his horses to the steamer in the event of an alarm. Mayor R. E. Beckham was elected in 18 7 8 and campaigned for improvements of Fort Worth’s volunteer companies. The city purchased its first team of horses at a cost of $427.
The 1880’s brought growth and advancement to Fort Worth and to its fire department. The city boasted a population mark of 6,500 residents, horse drawn street cars, major thoroughfares, a water works system with six miles of main and hydrants flowing a water capacity of 4 million gallons a day. The fire department received the state’s first electrical fire alarm system and 11 Gamewell pull boxes were installed, increasing the fire company’s response times.
Significant fire department improvements on equipment and apparatus had begun to put a strain on the city funds. Despite enthusiasm generated by improvements in equipment, the volunteer department soon faced their greatest challenge. The rage during the era of the Panther City was to construct a palace and Fort Worth was certainly with the times. In 1889, the Texas Spring Palace was playing host to the nation, with a huge structure that was “built to burn”. The Spring Palace was constructed entirely of agricultural products from Texas. A framework of large timber pine from east Texas was constructed and covered with wheat, corn, cotton, oats, Spanish moss, and any organic materials available. Captain Paddock was quoted as saying “the Texas Spring Palace is easily the most beautiful structure ever erected on earth.” The great civic pride generated from its construction soon turned to tragedy.
On the night of May 30, 1890, while 7,000 people were dancing on the second floor, a fire broke out. Within 11 minutes, the building was engulfed in flame as guests leaped for their lives from second floor windows. An Englishman, Al Hayne, was killed after he rescued several guests. Miraculously, he was the only fire fatality. Today, at the intersection of South Main and Lancaster, stands a statue that salutes that Englishman, and dedicated to the brave firefighters of the City of Fort Worth. Because of the Spring Palace Fire, it became painfully clear that further progress was needed in fire equipment and personnel.
The Fort Worth Volunteer Fire Department stood against a salary proposal. For years the hardy men had valued their fire operation and celebrity status among the citizens whom they served. City politicians, more interested in balancing financial accounts rather than preserving a romantic tradition in existence for 20 years, began to push for a salaried department. On November 30, 1893, Fort Worth’s first salaried fire department, with 34 members, reported for duty. The beginning of one era marked the end of another. The proud volunteer brigade quietly stepped into the background, proudly carrying with them the knowledge that Fort Worth, Texas, may not have existed without them.