Fort Worth

The rise of Fort Worth’s ‘Automobile Age’ put attention on speeders over horse thieves

The Automobile Age arrived in Fort Worth in the summer of 1902 when bicycle-shop owner H.R. Cromer proudly steered his two-cylinder, 16-hp Rambler down Main Street at the terrifying speed of 8 mph. Horses snorted and reared, people gawked or jumped out of the way, and Cromer kept his eyes on the road.

Within two years there were 15 automobiles in Fort Worth. A.B. Wharton, ambitious son-in-law of cattleman W.T. Waggoner, opened the first automobile dealership and repair shop in 1904. He sold a variety of makes but only on special order. He had no showroom.

The first generation of automobile owners were a deep-pocketed and distinguished lot. They formed an Auto Club in 1904 and took the entire city council for a spin one Tuesday afternoon. The following year, photographer Charles Swartz lined them all up for a group picture in front of the Texas & Pacific station. He was the first but not the last Fort Worth professional photographer to find automobiles fascinating.

Among the early owners were Police Chief James Maddox, Dr. I.C. Chase of the Medical College, Guy Waggoner son of W.T. Waggoner, and Marshall Sanguinet, distinguished architect. Reportedly, they owned some of the finest vehicles to be found anywhere in the state.

Automobile owners soon came to believe they owned the roads with the expected results. The first traffic accident occurred in October 1904 when A.B. Wharton, doing about 20 mph, barreled into a Western Union delivery boy on a bicycle. The family sued Wharton for $1,000 but settled out of court for less. In 1906, Dr. Chase collided with a horse and buggy at the corner of Main and Ninth. He was taken home with “a very painful head injury.” Fortunately, no one else was injured, and he recovered.

Alarmed city fathers imposed a 7-mph speed limit in town, which automobile owners complained was ridiculously lower than other cities, including Dallas. Their little runabouts would overheat at such low speeds, they argued. However, most of these privileged young men simply ignored the speed limit.

Marshal Sanguinet and Guy Waggoner were cited for speeding, which only happened because policemen on foot recognized them as they sped by. On July 4, 1904, Sanguinet was speeding past City Park at about 20 mph when he hit and killed A.B. Wharton’s dog, all the more noteworthy because of Wharton’s own history of speeding. He kept right on going but was recognized and reported by Wharton. An officer delivered the citation to Sanguinet at his office.

The city’s Police Court took the new breed of law-breakers in stride, assessing fines of $1 plus court costs. The police department, hustling to catch up with the times, posted mounted officers in “speed traps” before purchasing its first motorcycle in 1909.

Boys will be boys, but it was another matter when some of the town’s prominent young ladies showed it wasn’t just the men who had a heavy foot. In August 1911, Police Court Judge B.D. Shropshire announced, “If women violate the law they will be punished just as the men are for the same offense.”

The first test of that pronouncement came the following month when Martha Shelton, daughter of wealthy cattleman John M. Shelton, was stopped while speeding down Lipscomb. Motorcycle Officer J.W. Edwards caught her after a short chase. It was not her first speeding citation, but it was the first one she pleaded “guilty” to and paid the fine. The city commission had recently raised the fine to $5, so she (or daddy) had to pay $12.95 total. Because of her gender and family name she was not required to appear in court.

People in Fort Worth got used to seeing the elite speeding around town in their ever-more-elegant and powerful vehicles. Amon Carter, recognizing a trend, first purchased his own automobile then had his newspaper issue a special, 28-page automobile edition on March 16, 1910. The city also extended Cowtown hospitality to long-distance road racers, including one race from Fort Worth to Beaumont, and another from Denver to Mexico City.

In the meantime, Fort Worth police began posting the speed limit, putting up STOP signs and eventually traffic signals. But they never did figure out how to stop speeding.

Author-historian Richard Selcer is a Fort Worth native and proud graduate of Paschal High and TCU.

Related stories from Fort Worth Star Telegram