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By all accounts, the wildest places in the Wild West were the saloons, and Texas had some of the wildest of the wild. Fort Worth's White Elephant, site of more than a few gunfights, shady deals and high-stakes games in its day, was plenty wild at times, yet it was also a business model for successful saloon entrepreneurship.
A true Western saloon, such as the White Elephant, was a different critter from any of its nearest kin — the dance house, parlor house or variety theater — even though they were often to be found right next door to each other. The saloon was first and foremost a men-only establishment where drinking and gambling were the main attractions, not retail sex. By contrast, the dance house mixed the sexes, dispensing with any pretense of conventional decorum. Many concerned citizens considered the dance houses the greatest curse to befall their Western towns. The parlor house, or bordello, though, could be worse. A well-stocked bar was usually among its amenities, but not the main attraction. The variety theater was a precursor to vaudeville, encouraging men to drink while they viewed scantily clad women. Among these four Western institutions, only the saloon combined drinking, gambling and male fellowship under one roof. Most gentlemen's saloons (there were other types, too) would not serve proper ladies and frowned upon the other kind of women hanging around the premises.
The White Elephant name was such a familiar one to Texans in its day that it could have been a franchise. There were White Elephants in San Antonio, El Paso, Denison and Wichita Falls, but none possessed the elegance or refinement of Fort Worth's White Elephant. The origins of the name are uncertain. By the mid-19th century,'seeing the elephant' meant having a great adventure, especially in faraway places. However, a 'white elephant' could also be a worthless investment. The color white also has a certain racist subtext, too, because frontier saloons tended to be strictly segregated places. For instance, Fort Worth also had an African-American bar called the Black Elephant.
Fort Worth's White Elephant staked its claim to fame on offering the highest quality gambling and food service anywhere in the Southwest for three decades. It was memorable enough to merit respectful mention in the 1902 memoirs of outlaw-lawman James McIntire and the 1907 recollections of lawman-gambler Bat Masterson. It also won a different type of fame as the site of the famous shootout between Luke Short and Timothy I. Courtright.
The Fort Worth establishment began as a simple eatery, opened by F.A. Borodino in 1884 in the 300 block of Main Street. The food was inferior to that at two nearby places — the Planter's House and the Commercial Restaurant — and the owner's profits remained anemic, so the place was seized by attachment. Within a year, the White Elephant reopened as a 'Saloon and Billiard Parlor' with a small restaurant attached. The new ownership consisted of Jewish businessmen Gabriel Burgower, Nathaniel Bornstein and Samuel Berliner, who were not accepted by the local business fraternity. None of the new owners ever put down roots in the community, which did not help business either. Traditionally, saloons were home owned and home operated, and an owner was expected to greet customers and mingle with the crowd. Burgower, who was the on-site manager, split his time between the saloon and his more profitable jewelry business two doors up the block. Bornstein ran the eatery competently but without the flair that would later become a hallmark of the White Elephant's dining room, and Berliner was an absentee partner who also had part interest in San Antonio's White Elephant Saloon.
Burgower and company ran a modest operation built around a bar, some pool tables and a short-order kitchen. It was scarcely the kind of place calculated to appeal to the'sporting fraternity' of professional gamblers, nor did it draw the deep-pocketed amateurs. It took less than a year for the Jewish partners to realize they possessed a white elephant in the pejorative sense of the term.
The pedigree of the White Elephant at this time was pure workingman's saloon. Fort Worth was still a trail town, longing to achieve respectability but proud of its frontier heritage. 'The Fort,' as it was sometimes called, was only a little more than 30 years old, dating back to its beginnings as an Army outpost from 1849-1853. By the 1870s it had grown up to become a stopover on the Chisholm Trail, going up to the Kansas railheads. A decade later, it was still wrestling with respectability, reflected most clearly in its public entertainments. On the south end of town, below Eighth Street, the notorious vice district known as 'Hell's Half Acre' still held sway, with its cowboy bars and cribs, wide-open gambling joints and raunchy dance halls. On the north end of town, closer to the public square, legitimate businesses operated alongside gentlemen's saloons and private clubs. The White Elephant aspired to be among the latter category. Its chief competition came from the El Paso Hotel Bar, which claimed to be 'the First-class Saloon of the City.'
To put itself in the front ranks of gentlemen's saloons, the White Elephant would have to build a loyal clientele among the locals and establish a solid reputation beyond the city's limits. First-class food and bar service and top-of-the-line gambling would help achieve those goals. The White Elephant bragged that it served 'the best brands of old sour mash whiskeys in the state' as well as 'ice cold' beer. The first was a demonstrable boast; the second was possible only after the Crystal Ice Company began manufacturing the stuff year-round starting in March 1887.
The quality and variety of food, however, is what set the White Elephant apart from the competition. Every saloon offered the traditional 'free' bar lunch to customers who bought a 5-cent beer, but the food was typically cold, greasy and heavily salted. The White Elephant's little kitchen in the back served up a light menu of home-style cooking but not full dinners. There was a seating section for customers who did not want to eat alongside the serious drinkers. The second way the White Elephant aimed to make a name for itself was by providing clubrooms, available to anyone who wanted to rent them for private parties or invitation-only games. Burgower and his associates had an image problem, though. As long as their establishment called itself a Saloon and Billiard Parlor, they could never hope to achieve the saloon equivalent of a five-star rating.
Along with the usual collection of cronies and family members working at the White Elephant was one budding entrepreneur. John Ward ran the cigar shop, just inside the front door, as an independent contractor, selling cigars, tobacco and smokers articles. The cigar 'apartment,' as it was called, served as an antechamber to the rest of the saloon and gave Ward a perfect location to make the acquaintance of virtually every customer who came through the front doors. Near the end of 1885, when the Jewish owners decided to sell, Ward was ready to buy, but he needed a partner. He found that ally in his brother, William Ward, who had landed in Fort Worth in 1884 after long years of working for the Missouri, Kansas & Texas Railroad out of Denison. The Ward brothers raised the money to buy out Burgower's group, giving the White Elephant its third ownership in as many years. They immediately set about transforming a bar-and-billiards joint into one of the premier establishments of its kind anywhere in the Southwest — a magnet for big-time gamblers as well as for the high rollers of Fort Worth society.
John and Bill Ward began with the city's grandest of grand openings. They threw open the doors, opened up the bar and invited Fort Worth to come celebrate with them. The leading lights of the community turned out in their Sunday best, and nobody saw any ethical dilemma in having city councilmen, law officers and even church deacons help to launch the latest addition to the town's drinking emporiums. Bill Ward performed the customary saloon-opening ritual of tossing the front door key out into the street with a great flourish, thereby announcing that henceforward, the doors would never close. After about a year, John Ward dropped out of the saloon business, took a variety of other jobs and then helped launch Texas League baseball. Meanwhile, the plump, balding Bill Ward became the public face of the White Elephant. His genial manners made well-heeled customers feel welcome. He was soon on a first-name basis with city fathers, and by 1892 he was in a position to win a seat on the city council. In 1907, when Fort Worth switched to the commission form of government, he grabbed the police commissioner's portfolio, positioning himself perfectly to protect his business interests. For more than two decades he successfully juggled the demands of the saloon business and civic responsibilities.
A local lawyer named John Templeton actually owned title to the Main Street property, but he tried to keep his association with the saloon quiet while he was state attorney general. He was never a saloon man. It was Bill Ward who transformed the White Elephant into a drinking, gambling and eating emporium of near legendary status by introducing the sort of improvements they don't teach at Harvard Business School. He began by screening customers to keep out the riffraff that patronized dives down in Hell's Half Acre. He put doormen at the front door, hired special policemen to circulate inside and stop trouble before it erupted, and put out the word that the sort of floozies who freelanced out of the nearby cribs and cheap boarding houses were unwelcome. He also rearranged the place, moving the pool tables into a back room on the ground floor and setting up a cigar factory in the rear that produced 'Billy Ward's Choice' cheroots, on sale for 5 cents apiece. Ward turned what had been a modest short-order kitchen into an elegant restaurant that attracted its own clientele. All the improvements were accompanied by an expansion, as the White Elephant took over the space next door and added a connecting doorway. Restaurant and bar area together now comprised 4,458 square feet, making it one of the largest saloons in Texas. This was reflected in the official address, which was now listed as 308-310 Main.
To make his establishment truly tops, Bill Ward knew he must improve the quality of the gambling operation. He wanted the White Elephant to become Fort Worth's gambling headquarters, a regular stop on the so-called Western Gamblers' Circuit. He turned the upstairs into a fancy casino with both public and private rooms. There were facilities for faro, monte and roulette, as well as a cockfighting pit, where $2,000 purses were regularly offered. Cockfighting was technically illegal in Texas, but the practice was so common that the pit was even labeled on Sanborn Fire Maps in 1891.
Entrance to the casino area was up a narrow stairway along the north wall, then through a closely monitored door at the top. On any given night a steady parade of men climbed the stairway to gambling heaven, passing those who were busted and coming down to reality. Ward was as eager to make a profit as the next saloon man, but he put his dealers on notice that all games must be honest; there would be no 'brace' games at the White Elephant. Nothing could destroy a saloon faster than a reputation for crooked gambling, not even bad whiskey or bad women. Thanks to Ward's improvements, the local press began taking notice of the White Elephant, calling it 'an elegant place of resort with a reputation second to no place of the kind in the south.'
Ward's natural business smarts even extended to advertising. He not only placed ads in the local newspapers and the Fort Worth city directory but also advertised in other major Texas cities. To further attract customers, he liberally dispensed small metal tokens (each stamped with the words '2 good for one free drink') and business cards all around town.
The improved White Elephant probably employed a staff of as many as 20-25 men to maintain round-the-clock operations. These included dealers and doormen, porters and shoeshine boys. But the aristocrats of the staff were the bartenders, a band of brothers who liked to call themselves 'mixologists.' They could prepare the recently invented cocktail on demand; indeed, the Fort Worth Mail stated, 'There's no drink known to modern or ancient times they cannot concoct with all the latest improvements.'
Ward's next move was to shake up the management by bringing in big-name partners with ties to the gambling fraternity. The first was 36-year-old Jacob G. 'Jake' Johnson, a former cattleman who had found more profitable and less grubby work investing in other people's business enterprises and collecting race horses on the side. In 1882, Jake Johnson described himself as a 'capitalist'; by 1886 he was a self-styled 'turfman,' a fancy term for a man who kept a string of race horses. Eventually his wealth approached $60,000, making him one of Fort Worth's richest men. In the mid-1880s, he also ran the clubroom at the Cattle Exchange Saloon. Such a man was a fitting partner for Bill Ward, but Ward was still on the lookout for a third partner to bring both capital and instant credibility to the gambling operations. He wanted a big-name sport to act as pit boss upstairs. Fancy saloons routinely turned over their gambling concession to high-profile practitioners, such as the arrangement at one point between Tombstone's Oriental Saloon and Wyatt Earp. Ward found his man in Luke Short, who had moved to Forth Worth in late 1883.
Short landed in Fort Worth carrying a reputation that stretched from Tombstone to Dodge City. Known as a gentleman gambler like his friend Bat Masterson, the dapper Short was a wizard with the cards. But lest his preference for silk top hats and elegant walking canes deceive, he was also a bearcat in a fight, having already killed one challenger in Tombstone and stood up to a gambling cabal trying to run him out of Dodge. He never went anywhere unarmed, carrying his handgun in a leather-lined inner pocket.
Short had come to the little town on the Trinity River to make a fresh start, with a satchel full of cash and a long list of gambling contacts in his pocket. His search for a home base in his new town eventually brought him and Bill Ward together. Ward sold the gambling concession to 'Little Luke,' which made him one-third owner in the saloon, but more important gave him free rein upstairs. Short wasted no time putting his personal stamp on his fiefdom. He had the public area redecorated with fancy rosewood and mahogany fixtures shipped in from the East, thick carpets on the floor and heavy draperies over the windows.
He set up living quarters for himself and Mrs. Short adjacent to his workplace in a custom-built, two-bedroom apartment that had a special staircase to the alley behind the saloon and a dumbwaiter to the restaurant downstairs so that they could take their meals privately. Somehow his name also became attached to the most remarkable piece of furniture ever seen in a Fort Worth saloon, the so-called Luke Short Bar. It was a genuine work of art consisting of three large pieces that took up most of an entire wall — a front counter where customers stood, a liquor case holding the merchandise, and a mirrored backbar stretching the length of the front counter. The whole thing was made of dark-stained mahogany with onyx decorations and crystal lighting fixtures. How much it cost or how it came to be built in the White Elephant are still a mystery, but Short obviously had something to do with it. He solidified the White Elephant's reputation for honest games with first-rate players, genteel surroundings and discretion in all things. Not once during his tenure was the White Elephant raided by police or criticized by its neighbors for rowdiness. Short also introduced the duffer's game of keno, a glorified form of bingo popular with the silk-stocking crowd. By starting a keno craze in Fort Worth, Short padded the saloon's bottom line.
Luke Short's cronies, as opposed to his customers, preferred big-stakes poker. There was a clubroom at the White Elephant for such men, who generally traveled the Gamblers' Circuit from town to town. A particularly big game at the White Elephant in August 1885 featured a 'Who's Who' of Western card sharks — Luke Short, Bat Masterson, Wyatt Earp, Charlie Coe and local bad boy Timothy Isaiah Courtright. Masterson's bankroll alone was $9,000. At the end of the evening, the final hand came down to Coe versus Short. Coe's four kings beat Short's full house, and Coe left town with this victory — the sole basis for later claims that he was 'the most successful and also the most feared gambler of them all.' Meanwhile, Short's presence at the White Elephant continued to attract major players like Masterson and Earp whenever they came through north Texas.
Little Luke's reign in Fort Worth as the 'King of Gamblers' was cut short early in 1887. A bitter feud with Timothy Courtright, a former city marshal in Fort Worth known locally as 'Long-haired Jim,' climaxed in gunfire on the night of February 8. The feud, borne out of a power struggle and personal animosity, fueled by liquor and testosterone, brought Courtright to the foyer of the White Elephant that night in a typical drunken state. Long-haired Jim loudly called Short out, and the unflappable gambler agreed. The two men stepped outside onto the boardwalk, where they exchanged terse words. The next thing anybody knew, gunshots echoed up and down Main Street. When the authorities arrived moments later, the former marshal lay bleeding to death half in and half out of the doorway of a shooting gallery next door to the White Elephant. The day before the shootout, Short had sold the White Elephant gambling concession to Jake Johnson for $1,000, perhaps anticipating having to leave town in a hurry, or perhaps with the idea of providing for his widow should the worst occur. On February 9, a hastily summoned coroner's inquest called the shooting self-defense, and the town seemed to accept the verdict, with only a few do-gooders calling Short a murderer.
In the months after the shootout, Bill Ward first purchased the gambling concession from Johnson, then turned around and sold it back to Short for the same amount ($1,000) that earlier had changed hands between Johnson and Short. The slayer of Courtright was no longer a full partner in the saloon, but rather an independent contractor working for Ward. It was not an arrangement Short enjoyed, so in December 1887, he cashed out the gambling concession for the last time, cutting all ties to the White Elephant.
When Short left, he followed Johnson out the door, leaving Ward as sole proprietor of the business. Short and Johnson soon hooked up with another local saloon man, Vic Foster, to open the Palais Royal Saloon at 406 Main Street in 1888. The Palais Royal owners no doubt hoped that their establishment would replace the White Elephant as the top fancy saloon in Fort Worth. But not long after the grand opening, the Palais Royal became just another flavor of the month.
At some point in 1894, John Templeton sold his White Elephant interest to Winfield Scott, a cattle baron and real estate developer who was buying up many local properties. Scott kept the property in his holdings for the next 19 years. During most of that time, Bill Ward called the shots as manager. The record is murky, but Ward may have even been proprietor of the business while Scott owned the building and the real estate it sat on. In any event, Ward continued to be the frontman for the White Elephant while a succession of minority investors and faceless site managers came and went.
The 1894 change in ownership coincided with a relocation to new digs that took nearly a year to get ready. The White Elephant had simply outgrown its original site and moved to more spacious quarters down the street, at 604-610 Main. Under the name 'White Elephant Turf Exchange,' the saloon and gambling operations occupied 608-610 Main, in the so-called Winfree Building. The restaurant was at 604-606 Main. A 5-foot-wide alley separated the two buildings, and with windows on each side, this created an early form of 'Texas air conditioning.' The upstairs at 608-610 Main was taken up by the clubrooms while the downstairs was for walk-in business. The heart of the gambling operation now was no longer the big poker game but the telegraph hookup that brought in the latest reports of horse races, prizefights and ballgames from all over the country. Gambling had gone high-tech! The saloon area boasted a massive 40-foot bar that outdid even the old Luke Short Bar. Electric lights had replaced the old gas fixtures, and telephone outlets were located around the room for customers' use. But the most welcome improvement may have been the three water closets (indoor toilets) on the premises, with separate facilities for gents and ladies. Altogether, the usable space of the saloon and turf exchange totaled 4,370 square feet.
In its second location, the White Elephant Restaurant prospered more than ever. Bill Ward had transformed the restaurant part of the business from a sideline into a main attraction by introducing family dining and gourmet food. 'Stop here for good dinner or lunch,' trumpeted his advertisements in the local newspapers. In addition to the usual fare of steaks and chops, he added fresh fish and wild game, but the house specialty remained fresh oysters, imported from the Gulf in ice-filled kegs. Customers were encouraged to top off their meals with a selection from 'the choicest wines, liquors and cigars' from the house stocks.
The new White Elephant on the 600 block of Main had its grand reopening in January 1896. When the big day arrived, longtime customers pushed in through the front doors, mixing with specially invited guests and the strictly curious. The restaurant's reopening menu included lake trout, Spanish mackerel, black bass, Gulf trout, redfish, pickerel and fresh lobster.
Over the years, the White Elephant had maintained a remarkably clean image, at least for a saloon. It was never linked to the unsavory sex-for-sale business. Ladies were always welcome with their gentlemen in the 'wine room,' the clubrooms upstairs and the restaurant, but soiled doves seeking to ply their trade were barred from the premises, and private rooms were never rented out for assignations. The saloon's record on mayhem was not quite as spotless, but it did not have the daily knifings and fisticuffs that usually went with the territory.
In 1886, a year before the Short-Courtright affray, the Evening Mail had praised management for 'the perfect order maintained on the premises.' The shootout of February 8, 1887, however, seemed to break the magic spell that had kept trouble to a minimum. A month after Courtright's death, two more members of the sporting fraternity had a falling out over what the newspaper called 'money matters.' Harry Williams, an out-of-towner, had been matching his card skills against local gambler Bob Hayward. After a long evening of steady losing on March 15, Hayward stormed out of the White Elephant. Later, while Williams was standing outside the 310 entrance, Hayward pulled up in a hack. After cursing his nemesis as a 'damned son of a bitch,' he leaped out of the hack and pulled his pistol. Williams was likewise 'heeled' but obviously more adept, because he put two slugs into Hayward before his attacker could get off a shot. The hack driver testified for Williams at the coroner's inquest the next morning, and no charges were filed.
Five years later, on April 17, 1892, bullets were flying around inside the White Elephant. A couple of sports, H.L. Cobb and James Nichols, were playing cards upstairs that Sunday night when a 'deadly misunderstanding,' as the newspaper called it, occurred over how the cards were falling. Cobb angrily exited the saloon, not to cool off but to get his gun. When he returned, Nichols was standing at the head of the stairs with his own gun in hand. Dispensing with preliminaries, the two men opened fire, shooting a total of eight shots at each other. Neither man hit his target, but they did considerable damage to the walls and fixtures around them. The police came running, but Nichols had already fled into the night, and he soon afterward left town. Cobb was arrested, but he was released the next day because nobody had been injured, and the White Elephant management did not press charges.
No more shootouts occurred at the White Elephant; times were changing. In 1901 local entrepreneur Joseph G. Wheat opened a 'rooftop garden' (restaurant-club) on his building at 800 Main St. The Wheat Building, at six stories, was the city's first'skyscraper,' and the rooftop garden there promised to pull in a good crowd nightly. Bill Ward took note and launched an extensive three-month face-lift of the White Elephant, capped by another grand reopening on June 8. Instead of the cattlemen and gunmen-gamblers of old, the new breed of customer included such men as legendary baseball manager John 'Little Napoleon' McGraw, boxers James J. Corbett and John L. Sullivan, promoter Tex Rickard and Harvard music historian John A. Lomax. Lomax came to town in 1908 with a $500 research grant and a primitive Ediphone recorder to gather genuine American cowboy songs. He turned a back room of the White Elephant into a recording studio and invited grizzled old-timers of the Chisholm Trail drives to come and sing for him.
But celebrity visits and folk song recordings did not placate the moral uplifters who were determined to close down all the saloons. The Anti-Saloon League of Texas and the leadership of the state's Baptist Church formed an alliance in their crusade against gambling, drinking and prostitution. In 1912, fiery preacher J. Frank Norris began denouncing the city's 'liquor interests' from the pulpit of the First Baptist Church. A series of state laws and local ordinances had already forced gambling to retreat behind closed doors, turning it into a clandestine activity constantly under threat of police raids. A new Sunday closing law with teeth now restricted the hours of operation for saloons, putting an end to the old '24/7' business hours.
Winfield Scott had died the year before, sparking a long-running battle within the family for control of the estate. While the White Elephant was tied up in the legal wrangling, his prudish widow, Elizabeth, aimed to separate the family name from the disreputable place by divesting herself of it at the first opportunity. Bill Ward was also desirous of moving on, but for different reasons. He decided he wanted to devote more time to the new entertainment industries of professional baseball and moving pictures. Neither required a liquor license or payoffs to the authorities. Sometime around 1913, the White Elephant, after being turned into a chili parlor, quietly went out of business. There is no record of when the last drink was served or the doors were shut for the last time. Not long after the fancy furnishings were removed, the doors reopened and the White Elephant became a pool hall. But soon that business moved out, delighting the old saloon's more prestigious 600-block neighbors, the Fort Worth Club and Zale's Jewelers.
The White Elephant name was unofficially retired for the next 60 years, while various other businesses occupied the space at Main and Sixth streets. In 1976, new ownership resurrected the famous name for a new saloon on Fort Worth's historic North Side, two miles from either of the original downtown locations. Today, the reborn White Elephant is doing good business and the hospitality of the place would have made Bill Ward proud. And every February 8, the Short-Courtright gunfight is staged on Exchange Avenue in front of the saloon.
The White Elephant occupies an honored place in Western history. It was the first place in the Southwest to combine a bar and first-class restaurant under one roof. It provided luxurious surroundings for the prosaic pursuits of dining, drinking and gambling, helping to put Fort Worth on the map and setting a five-star standard for other Western saloons.
This article was written by Richard F. Selcer and originally appeared in the October 2003 issue of Wild West. For more great articles be sure to subscribe to Wild West magazine today!
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