Located in Fort Worth, Texas – the White Elephant Saloon has been revered as one of the wildest bars of the Old West and is simultaneously one of the most iconic. Hell’s Half Acre has hosted many cowboys, criminals, and tourists since the late 1890s – but this specific venue at the Stockyards lives in infamy.
By all accounts, Fort Worth’s White Elephant has seen more gunfights, sketchy dealings, prostitution, and entrepreneurship than most venues in the Wild West.
But what’s so special about the White Elephant bar?
Well, that’s easy…
The last gunfight of the Wild West took place at the White Elephant. The bar’s owner Luke Short, and Sheriff “Longhair” Jim Courtright – one of Fort Worth’s most corrupt lawmen – had their final duel here. A rare site, this bar has survived over 125 years of economic and technological advances, closures, and legal disputes.
Initially, the establishment was a simple eatery, opened by F.A. Borodino in 1884. Within a year, it reopened as a ‘Saloon and Billiard Parlor’ under the ownership of Jewish businessmen. But they weren’t accepted into the local business fraternity and their profits remained anemic.
Then Billy Ward came along and knew if the White Elephant was going to thrive – he would have to improve the gambling situation. He converted the upstairs into a lavish casino with cockfighting and $2,000 purses. Surprisingly, drinking and gambling were the main attractions as opposed to sex.
Features of The White Elephant
According to locals, it became one of the most popular dance houses in Cowtown. A well-stocked bar, good food & music, and home to one of the most famous shootouts during Westward expansion – made the White Elephant a real “gentlemen’s saloon.”
They carried ‘the best brands of old sour mash whiskeys in the state.’ Like many other saloons of the day, they had the traditional ‘free’ bar lunch if customers bought a 5-cent beer. They served home-style cooking, provided private clubrooms, and eventually branded themselves as a billiard bar.
In the Old West, the one thing that seemed to destroy a bar’s reputation faster than bad whiskey or prostitution was sketchy gambling.
A “Men-Only” Establishment
Ward’s improvements got the attention of the local press and the White Elephant became ‘an elegant place of resort with a reputation second to no place of the kind in the south.’
The Fort Worth Mail claimed that there was “no drink known to modern or ancient times they cannot concoct with all the [White Elephant’s] latest improvements.” Fancy saloons often turned over their gambling franchise to high-profile individuals, and in this case, Ward selected Luke Short.
Short had a reputation that spanned far and wide for being a gentleman. A smooth gambler, who never went anywhere unarmed. Ward sold the gambling concession to Short making him the third – and final – owner of the establishment during its prime.
Rags to Riches
He spent no time building the White Elephant’s reputation for being an honest gambling establishment with excellent players, and a nice ambiance. The bar was never reported to the local authorities or frowned on for being disruptive like many other bars back in the day.
But Luke’s gambling reign was cut short in 1887. Former sheriff, Long-haired Jim Courtright – in a heated, drunken state – called Short outside onto the boardwalk. The two exchanged words, gunshots rang out, and when the authorities arrived Courtright bled to death in the doorway of a shooting gallery next to the White Elephant Saloon.
Apparently, the day prior, Short sold the White Elephant for $1,000. It’s suspected that he was attempting to leave town in a hurry, and was confronted by Courtright in route. The coroner concluded that the case was one of self-defense and Short fled.
After the shootout, Bill Ward re-purchased the White Elephant and then sold a portion back to Short for the same amount ($1,000). Unfortunately this time, Short was an independent contractor working for Ward. He left for good in 1887.
Over the next century, the saloon went in and out of business – maintaining its status only in the minds & hearts of the locals.
The Deadly Draw
Unfortunately, the shootout of February 8, 1887, broke the magic spell that kept trouble away from the White Elephant Saloon. A month after the shootout, there was another shootout, but no charges were filed. Five years later, bullets flew inside the White Elephant. A ‘deadly misunderstanding,’ as the local newspaper called it, erupted between two gamblers. Luckily, nobody was injured, and no one pressed charges. Somehow, the White Elephant maintained it’s reputation for keeping prostitution out of its business model.
Several investors took interest in the venue, converting it into a recording studio, pool hall, celebrity hangout, and chili parlor before it quietly went out of business.
Today you can visit a revived version of the White Elephant Saloon right in the middle of the Stockyards. It’s regarded as “a place to see how the real West was, and still is.” As one of Fort Worth’s most legendary spots, the White Elephant Saloon is now under the ownership of celebrity chef & restauranteur, Tim Love. They see a variety of musicians and a weekly dancehall crowd that still rivals that of modern-day bars & casual drinking establishments.
Today, the historic “shootout” is reenacted each year on February 8th, outside of the White Elephant Saloon in the Stockyards.