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 Texas : Features : Columns : "Charley Eckhardt's Texas"

THE 'GUNFIGHT'
THAT KILLED HELENA

by C. F. Eckhardt
If you're old enough, you saw the story on Death Valley Days. Jim Davis, after the demise of Stories of the Century and before Dallas, played the grieving father, Col. William Butler. The Colonel's son has been gunned down, in cold blood or so the story implies, on the streets of Helena, Texas. Nobody will tell Col. Butler who murdered his son. He says "This town killed my son, I'll kill this town." He goes to the railroad that is building toward Helena and gives land for right-of-way through his ranch on the condition the railroad miss Helena by at least twenty miles. The railroad takes the free right-of-way and misses the town. The town dies.
First Karnes County Courthouse, Helena, Texas
"The old courthouse is now a museum" in Helena

Photo by John Troesser, 2001
It made for good melodrama on television, but that's not what happened. It's not even close to what happened. So what did happen?

It was Christmas Day. Young Emmett Butler and a friend were in Helena, celebrating in the town's many saloons. Both were drunk. They began waving their pistols around. Somebody told the sheriff, who went to disarm the boys before they hurt somebody or themselves. Emmett then shot the sheriff in the chest at point-blank range. The sheriff said "He's killed me. Don't let him get away."

Emmett bolted for the door, jumped on his horse, and began to gallop out of town. Everybody who had a gun-and in the 1880s in Helena, that was everybody - began to shoot at him. Whose bullet actually brought him down nobody knew then, and nobody knows now. The whole town was shooting at him.

Col. Butler was not noted for a great deal of patience or understanding. The fact that Emmett had just committed a cold-blooded murder didn't seem to register with him. His son was dead - shot down in the streets of Helena. He came to town and collected the body, which he took back to his ranch. After Emmett's funeral the Colonel came back to Helena. So the story goes, he had 25 armed cowboys with him. He demanded to know who killed his son. Nobody would tell him. Of course, nobody knew for sure who fired the fatal shot. The air was literally full of bullets, any one of which might well have brought Emmett Butler down.

That's when the Colonel supposedly said "This town killed my son. I'll kill this town." Most folks around Helena don't think he ever said that. He just did it - or came mighty close to doing it, anyway.

The San Antonio & Aransas Pass railroad was building south from San Antonio to the coast. Helena was the largest town in Karnes County at the time, the county seat. Helena had been raising money to help the railroad, to make sure the rails came to town. As with being bypassed by Interstate highways in the 20th Century, being bypassed by the railroad in the 19th Century almost assured that a town would wither, if not die completely.

In most other states west of the Mississippi, the federal government owned all public land in the state. It granted land to the railroads to help finance construction-alternating square miles on each side of the right-of-way. This land the railroads sold to help finance construction. However, in Texas the state owned all public land-and there wasn't any public land left south of San Antonio by the 1880s. That meant the SA&AP-it eventually became known as 'The Sap Line'- had to buy privately-owned land in order to have right-of-way. Buying right-of-way was a serious, sometimes insurmountable problem for railroads building in Texas.

Col. William Butler went to the SA&AP offices in San Antonio and offered to give the line right-of-way across his extensive ranch, on the condition that the railroad bypass Helena. He didn't say 'by 20 miles,' and in fact the rails missed Helena by only about 8 miles. The gift of right-of-way saved the road a great deal of money - considerably more than Helena raised to lure the rails to the town. The railroad bypassed Helena, and eventually the town withered - but never died completely. A new town - Karnes City - was built up on the railroad, and eventually became the county seat.

The San Antonio & Aransas Pass railroad is gone now. The rails, except for a short stretch outside Sinton, now used by another road to store rolling stock, were taken up in the 1970s. Karnes City has had its ups and downs, from the 'uranium sitting' fad of the 1940s and 1950s to the various oil booms and busts of the 20th Century. Today it's mostly down, not up, but it's still viable, sitting as it does astride Texas 123, one of the main routes for southbound traffic from central Texas to the coast. Kenedy isn't doing too bad, being astride the intersection of US 181 and Texas 72, a couple of fairly major traffic arteries.

Helena? Well, Helena's still there, living largely on its past. The old courthouse is now a museum, and where dozens of saloons once stood there's a single bar serving beer. Where there was once a college there are only ruins. Col. William Butler may not actually have said "This town killed my son. I'll kill this town." What he did was do his best to carry out the threat he probably never voiced. He very nearly succeeded.
C. F. Eckhardt
"Charley Eckhardt's Texas"
>
July 12, 2006 column

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