Easygoing Fort Worth has lived for years in the shadow of Dallas, its brash cousin to the east. Yet the city exudes a quiet confidence, reserve, and sense of comfort that are often missing in Big D. And gradually, people are learning that Fort Worth has plenty that Dallasites might envy.
Nicknamed Cowtown, Fort Worth revels in its role as the gateway to the West; the mythic qualities of the American West -- wide-open spaces and even grander dreams -- are still palpable here. In the mid-19th century, on the heels of the war between Texas and Mexico, Fort Worth began as a frontier army town in the Republic of Texas, assigned with protecting settlers from Native American attacks. The outpost grew into the last major stop along the Chisholm Trail, the major thoroughfare of the great Texas cattle drives that took ranchers and their livestock 500 miles north to the railheads and more lucrative markets of Dodge City and Abilene, Kansas. The trail's importance transformed Fort Worth into a busy trading post. By 1881, more than five million head of cattle had been driven through town on their way to market. Saloons, bordellos, and gambling houses staked out the rough-hewn area of town called "Hell's Half Acre."
With the arrival of the railroad, the stampede of cattle north grew exponentially, and strategically positioned Fort Worth became a place for ranchers to keep their herds before moving them for sale. The Fort Worth Stockyards opened in 1890, followed by the arrival of major meatpacking plants, transforming Fort Worth into a major cattle shipping center and one of the country's top livestock markets. Fort Worth had become a wealthy city, a cow town to be reckoned with. The rise of the oil business in West Texas bolstered Fort Worth's commercial prospects, and oil fortunes replaced the cattle-ranching riches of the early 20th century.
If in frontier days Fort Worth was where the East fizzled out and the West began, today the city is a place where cowboy culture meets high culture. It is probably the most authentically Texan city in the state. The city is home not only to a tenacious pride in its Old West past, and plenty of modern-day cowboys and Western flavor, but also to one of the country's most celebrated cultural scenes. Cultural cognoscenti call it the Museum Capital of the Southwest. Local oil-rich philanthropists have endowed the city with superlative collections of art and hired some of the world's most prestigious architects -- Philip Johnson, Louis Kahn, and Tadao Ando -- to build the esteemed Kimbell, newly expanded Amon Carter, and spectacular new Museum of Modern Art. Fort Worth is also home to a symphony orchestra, an impressive botanic garden, several theater companies, and the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition. It turns out that this cowboy town with a rough-and-tumble past has a remarkably sophisticated and arts-minded soul. Even if you come to the Dallas area with little time to spare, Fort Worth -- laid-back, historic, friendly, and surprisingly progressive -- is absolutely worth a visit. For me, it is the highlight of North Texas.
As if by well-devised plan, Fort Worth's downtown, a charming and dignified center of business and entertainment, is almost perfectly equidistant between the Stockyards National Historic District and the Cultural District. Fort Worth natives may like to keep the essential elements of their city separate, but they seem to recognize that they add up to a cohesive whole.