THAT KILLED HELENA
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. |
| 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? |
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.
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.
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.
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