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Karnes  County
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Karnes County, South Texas

28 57' 14"N, 97 49' 24" W (28.953889, -97.823333)

Hwy 80 and FM 81
NE of Karnes City the county seat
5 Miles E of Panna Maria
70 Miles SE of San Antonio via Hwy 181
Population: 35 est. (2010, 2000, 1990)

Helena, Texas Area Hotels › San Antonio Hotels

Helena TX City Limit Sign
Helena City Limit
Photo courtesy William Beauchamp, April 2012

History in a Pecan Shell

Helena once held great promise. It was founded by Lewis Owings and Thomas Ruckman. The name came from Owings wife Helen. Ownings went on to become the first Governor of Arizona (Territory). Helena's situation on the San Antonio River and the Chihuahua Trail guaranteed it would become a major city.

Helena became the first Karnes County Seat when the county organized in 1854 and during the Civil War it served as a major point on the "Cotton Road" between Matamoros, Mexico and Alleyton, Texas (Colorado County).

(See The First Karnes County Courthouse )

According to story, the demise of Helena can be traced to one man. He was a rancher whose son was shot and killed in Helena. He demanded revenge and when he couldn't find the individual(s) responsible, he instead swore to kill the entire town. When the San Antonio and Aransas Pass Railway came through the area, the rancher practically gave the railroad their right-of-way and we can see the results today.

The other story was that the railroad was demanding a bounty of 35,000 dollars and the town could only come up with 32,000. The railroad insisted on the full amount and moved on to Karnes City when the extra money couldn't be raised. The second story is believable, but doesn't have the pathos of a father's grief.

Helena Historical Marker:

Helena, Texas historical marker
Helena Historical Marker
Photo courtesy William Beauchamp, April 2012


Founded in 1852 on San Antonio River by Thomas Ruckman, a graduate of Princeton, and Lewis Owings, later first governor of Arizona Territory. Town was named in honor of Owings' wife, Helen.

Situated on branch of famed Chihuahua Trail (running from Indianola to San Antonio to Northern Mexico), Helena was to experience quick growth. Much traffic of wagon freight and gold bullion traveled trail. Four-horse stages daily passed through town.

Helena was designated county seat when Karnes County was created and organized in 1854. First election of county officials was held on gallery of Ruckman-Owings Store.

During Civil War, Karnes County mustered six companies, including Helena Guards, for service. Helena was a Confederate post office and issued its own stamps. Much Confederate cotton destined for Mexican ports passed through Helena.

During its heyday, Helena had a courthouse, jail, newspaper, academy, drugstore, blacksmith shop, two hotels, and several saloons and general stores.

Bypassed by the S.A. & A.P. Railroad in 1886, town died. County seat was moved to Karnes City in 1894 after hotly contested election.

Karnes County TX Courthouse / Helena School 1900s
Former (First) Karnes County Courthouse used as a school
Photo circa 1900-1912 courtesy William Beauchamp
The First Karnes County Courthouse

Karnes County Museum

8167 N FM 81
Helena, Texas 78118
Phone: 830-780-3210
Friday - Monday, 11 a.m. - 4 p.m.

TX  - Old Helena Courthouse
The 1873 courthouse / Helena schoolhouse today
Photo courtesy Terry Jeanson, June 2012

Helena, Texas - Karnes County Museum
The Karnes County Museum Complex in Helena
TE Photo, 2001

Photographer's Note -
"The old white Helena house shown was originaly in another Helena location. Was taken apart, moved to the Courthouse grounds & reassembled. It was in use for many years till 2008 by the "Happy Helena Quilters". The house has many interesting community items in it, including the first electric stove in Karnes County.

The old house & Post Office are all part of the Museum Complex at the Courthouse grounds." - William Beauchamp

Helena TX Early Home
Helena early home
Photo courtesy William Beauchamp, April 2012

Helena TX Post Office Bldg

Helena, TX 78118
Helena Post Office rebuilt from the lumber of the original store in 1945.
Now part of the Karnes County Museum Complex
Photo courtesy William Beauchamp, April 2012
More Texas Post Offices

Photographer's Note - "The little post office building holds Post Office related items from several of the early small post offices in Karnes County. The early Helena Post Office was in a store across the street." - William Beauchamp

Helena, TX 5 cents postage
Helene issued its own stamp during the Civil War
Photo courtesy William Beauchamp, April 2012

Helena TX - Black Diamond Elephant Leg
Black Diamond Elephant Leg
Photo courtesy William Beauchamp, April 2012

Black Diamond Elephant Leg

Photographer's Note - "Above photo is of an old "Real" leg of an elephant in a early traveling circus. It sits now in the corner of the little Post Office Building on the Courthouse Grounds in Helena. Story is the Circus Elephant killed someone in Corsicana. They decided to kill the elephant but wait till there next stop in Kenedy. It was killed across the road from were Otto Keiser Hospital now stands and at the location of the Black Diamond Ranch. It took 170 shots to kill the big animal. After it was downed it was found the poor creature had a bad tooth. Probably the reason it went crazy at the stop before." - William Beauchamp

Helena TX Helena Jail
Helena Jail
Photo courtesy William Beauchamp, April 2012

Strap iron cells from Helena jail and Falls City jail. The plaque in the middle is from the former Karnes County jail, dated 1954.
Photo courtesy Terry Jeanson, June 2012
More Texas Jails

TX - Old Helena Union Church Destroyed in 1973
"Old Helena Union Church Buildt in 1866
Destroyed by a Storm in 1973"

Photo courtesy William Beauchamp, April 2012

Helena, TX - Helena Union Church Historical Marker
Helena Union Church Historical Marker
Photo courtesy William Beauchamp, April 2012
More Texas Churches

Henlen, TX -  Thomas Ruckman  historical marker
Thomas Ruckman Historical Marker
Photo courtesy William Beauchamp, April 2012

Thomas Ruckman

(November 8, 1826 - December 2, 1914)

Founding father of Karnes County, Ruckman was born in Northumberland County, Pennsylvania. He graduated in 1848 from the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University) and taught in South Carolina for a year. But the lure of Texas-- then a frontier state where land was cheap and opportunity boundless-- brought him on Christmas morning, 1850, to San Antonio.

In 1851 he started a trading post in the little Mexican settlement of Alamita, located on the Old Ox-Cart Road between San Antonio and Goliad. Other businessmen followed his example, and soon Ruckman was able to build a gristmill near the San Antonio River, enlarge his store, and erect a stately home.

Soon after, Ruckman took as partner Dr. L. S. Owings, and together they foresaw a metropolis arising at this important and inviting roadstop. Their store once stood near the site of this marker.

In 1852, they laid out a new town, which they named "Helena", in honor of Owings' wife. When Karnes County organized in 1854, Helena was chosen county seat.

Ruckman was postmaster here, 1854 to 1857, and he continued nearly 40 years as leading merchant and banker. In 1872, he helped found the Helena Academy.

He is buried in the Masonic Cemetery of Helena.

Helena TX John Ruckman Home
John Ruckman Home
Photo courtesy William Beauchamp, April 2012

Helena TX Home of John Ruckman Historical Marker
Home of John Ruckman Historical Markerbr> Photo courtesy William Beauchamp, April 2012
More Texas Historical Homes

Helena TX Wine Cups in Bloom
Wine Cups in Bloom in Helena
Photo courtesy William Beauchamp, April 2012
See Texas Wildflower Trips

First Karnes County Courthouse, Helena, Texas
The First Karnes County Courthouse in Helena.
TE Photo, 2001

Gulf sign
State Highway 80 through Helena
TE Photo, 2001

Helena TX Old Store
Old Storefront in "downtown" Helena
Photo courtesy William Beauchamp, April 2012

The Mexican Cemetery near Helena

Mexican cemetery tombstones

The Mexican Cemetery near Helena
TE photo

Helena TX - Ox-Cart Road Historical Marker
Ox-Cart Road Historical Marker
On Old courthouse Square, FM 81

Photo courtesy William Beauchamp, April 2012

Historical Marker Text
Ox-Cart Road
(Section of Chihuahua Road)
After centuries of use by buffalo and Indians, this trail from San Antonio to the Texas coast gained importance when opened to colonial travel by the Alarcon Expedition in 1718.

Spanish conquistadores and priests, the Gutierrez-Magee Expedition (which invaded Spanish Texas in 1812), Stephen F. Austin, Alamo heroes, Santa Anna's messenger ordering the death of prisoners at Goliad, Polish and German settlers of Texas-- all traveled on road.

Rich trade in gold, silver, and leather with Mexico and the West was conducted along the road from San Antonio to Powderhorn. The U.S. 2nd Cavalry Forts, established to protect the Texas frontier, moved men and supplies over it. Materials were transported in two-wheeled ox-carts, prairie schooners, Wells-Fargo wagons drawn by sixteen mules, and by pack animals.

In 1852 Helena was founded on road as a midway point between San Antonio and Goliad; Lewis S. Owings operated a daily stage line here, 1854. Major incidents of the Bizarre Cart War of 1857 between Texan and Mexican teamsters occurred near Helena.

Herds of longhorns from South Texas crossed the road here enroute to market. After the railroad came through county in 1886, the Ox-Cart Road was abandoned.

TX - Harmony Baptist Church & Cemetery
Photo courtesy Will Beauchamp, February 2012
Historic Harmony Baptist Church & Cemetery
On FM 627 8 miles N of Helena

Helena Chronicles:

  • How to Kill a Town by Clay Coppedge

    "Here's one way to kill a town.

    First, you move to a place with a lot of wide open country that most people think of as worthless. You establish yourself and your family as upstanding members of a new society you helped create. You show courage and honesty in all your dealings. Then, when somebody messes with your family and the town won't offer support, you kill it.

    That's how William G. Butler killed the town of Helena, Texas, or so the story goes." Read full article

  • The Gunfight that Killed Helena by C. F. Eckhardt

    "... 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." Read full article

  • TX Karnes  County 1920s Map
    Karnes County 1920s map showing Helena
    From Texas state map #10749
    Courtesy Texas General Land Office

    Take a road trip

    South Texas

    Helena, Texas Nearby Towns & Cities:
    Karnes City the county seat
    Panna Maria | Cestohowa | San Antonio

    See Karnes County towns

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