The name of Fort Worth’s founder, U.S. Army Brevet Maj. Ripley Arnold, doesn’t immediately come to mind for many of the city’s residents.
With a dedication of a statue on Friday, the 165th anniversary of the establishment of Fort Worth, officials hope to change that.
The 13-foot statue arrived on a flatbed trailer Wednesday and was slowly lifted by a crane to a position atop a 9-foot pedestal in the newly created John V. McMillan Plaza, not far from the the confluence of the Clear Fork and West Fork of the Trinity River.
The statue will serve a visible reminder that Arnold led a company of dragoons to establish a fort on the bluffs on June 6, 1849.
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Former Fort Worth City Councilman Jim Lane, now a member of the Tarrant Regional Water District board, said the dedication had taken more than a decade to arrive. He became convinced that Arnold’s name was disappearing from the public consciousness after the Ripley Arnold public housing project was torn down in 2003 to make room for the Radio Shack campus, where the Tarrant County College Trinity River Campus is now located.
“We’ve got almost 800,000 people in this city and lot of people don’t realize Fort Worth had a fort,” Lane said. “I think if you went on the street and asked people why was it named Fort Worth, why was it put here — you probably wouldn’t get people who knew anything about it unless they grew up in Fort Worth and were taught it in school.”
The fort was named after Arnold’s commander, Gen. William Jenkins Worth. Arnold didn't know that Worth had died of cholera a few days earlier in San Antonio.
Historians say it is important to acknowledge the city’s founder.
“It is absolutely appropriate that there be a monument to the founder of the fort and the reason the city exits,” said Fort Worth historian Quentin McGown. “What I'm hoping comes out of it is at least a recognition that this city exists because of a pretty significant sacrifice.”
Author Richard Selcer’s book, Fort Worth Characters, includes a chapter on Arnold. He said the statue of Arnold should have happened years ago, but he praised local residents who finally got the statue completed.
“This basically happened because a small group of people got behind it and pushed it full speed ahead,” Selcer said. “I admire the hell of those people who pinned their ears back and got it done.”
Questionable likeness, location
Arnold only lived a few years after the fort’s establishment. He was killed in 1853 during a gunfight with his post surgeon, Dr. Josephus Steiner, at Fort Graham, west of where Hillsboro is now located. Arnold’s body was brought to Fort Worth in 1854 and buried in Pioneers Rest Cemetery.
And the fort itself didn’t last very long. It closed in 1853 as the frontier moved west.
“It was an empty abandoned post when he died,” Selcer said. “He couldn’t even have the satisfaction of knowing what he created.”
Not all historians are pleased with some of the choices made with the statue’s depiction of Arnold or where it is located.
Gene Smith, director of the Center for Texas Studies at TCU and curator of history at the Fort Worth Museum of Science and History, said he would have preferred to see statue placed on the bluff where the fort was located and he has a problem with the statue’s likeness.
“I always felt that it’s kind of questionable that you put up a statue of someone when you don’t what they look like,” Smith said. “It was more tasteful to have a generic or nondescript facial component.”
“… I do think it’s important to acknowledge Ripley Arnold. Without Arnold, Fort Worth may have been in a different place or happened at a later time. I certainly think it’s important to raise awareness,” he said.
Smith was involved in an effort by the Science and History Museum to authenticate a daguerreotype that was purported to be of Arnold that ultimately couldn’t be proven. A daguerreotype is an old type of photograph made on piece of silver or copper.
But Lane said the organizers have never claimed the statue is an exact depiction of Arnold.
“All I was concerned with was the authenticity of the uniform and making him special,” Lane said. “The carriage of how he stands. We aren’t trying to say that’s exactly the way he looked.”
The statue will stand in the new John V. McMillan Plaza.
McMillan, who died in 2001, founded Coors Distributing Company and held a number of civic posts, including president of the North Fort Worth Business Association and chairman of the Fort Worth Convention & Visitors Bureau.
The statue and plaza were built primarily through financial contributions by McMillan’s grandchildren, the Anfin Family, along with the Tarrant Regional Water District. There was also support from The Burnett Foundation, Downtown Fort Worth Initiatives Inc., RadioShack and the Tarrant County College District.
The cost of the statue was donated by the Anfin family, and the plaza came in under the $500,000 budget set by the water district.
The sculptor of the statue, Archie St. Clair, a former Grapevine resident, said he worked to get every detail on the uniform correct. With the statue near a popular section of the river, St. Clair said many will learn about the beginnings of Fort Worth and its founder.
“Now they’ll know him,” St. Clair said.