Belle Plain: The Forgotten City of Callahan County

There is a ghost town some 24 miles to the northwest of Cross Plains.  Its stone ruins have been standing like lonely sentinels on the prairie for over a hundred years.  Since this forgotten Texas city is not mentioned in Howard’s letters, we don’t know if he ever visited the ruins, or if he even knew of their existence. But Howard had visited many a ruined, lost city in his imagination, like the one in “Iron Shadows in the Moon:”

Once out of the thicket, he took her hand and led her swiftly through the thinning trees, until they mounted a grassy slope, sparsely treed, and emerged upon a low plateau, where the grass grew taller and the trees were few and scattered. And in the midst of that plateau rose a long broad structure of crumbling greenish stone.

They gazed in wonder. No legends named such a building on any island of Vilayet. They approached it warily, seeing that moss and lichen crawled over the stones, and the broken roof gaped to the sky. On all sides lay bits and shards of masonry, half hidden in the waving grass, giving the impression that once many buildings rose there, perhaps a whole town. But now only the long hall-like structure rose against the sky, and its walls leaned drunkenly among the crawling vines.

Whatever doors had once guarded its portals had long rotted away. Conan and his companion stood in the broad entrance and stared inside. Sunlight streamed in through gaps in the walls and roof, making the interior a dim weave of light and shadow. Grasping his sword firmly, Conan entered, with the slouching gait of a hunting panther, sunken head and noiseless feet. Olivia tiptoed after him.

As for Belle Plain, Texas, it was established on state school land in 1876 and named for first child born there (Katie Belle Magee). Land developer Nelson Smith platted the town carefully, including a commercial district in his plans.  He and others had high hopes for town’s future. Though unforeseeable to them at the time, Belle Plain was doomed from the start.

Callahan County was established in 1858, but hardly anyone was interested in settling this isolated region for the first eighteen years of its existence. Finally, in 1877, the County was formally organized and the Callahan County Commissioners Court held an election in December to name the county seat. Belle Plain was in the running and so was Callahan City, no doubt named with hopes of becoming the permanent county seat. But the name advantage did little good – when the votes were counted, Callahan City lost its county seat status to Belle Plain. This sentenced Callahan City to a slow death.

In its heyday, Belle Plain was one of the most promising towns in West Texas during the 1870s. The town got off to a slow start at first, with only three businesses operating during its first year.  But four years later in 1880, the town’s population had increased to around three hundred, with a hotel, several mercantile stores newspaper and a few other businesses. Professionals such as doctors, dentists and lawyers settled in the growing town.

As the town’s population continued to increase, it was expected to grow into a town as large as San Angelo, Texas. News that the Texas and Pacific Railroad was planning to lay its tracks through the city spurred on the growth. Belle Plain was indeed on a roll. New arrivals, as well as deserting Callahan City residents swelled the population. In 1879 the town got its own newspaper and success was all but assured. The population reached a respectable 400 people by 1884, according to the Handbook of Texas Online. As for Callahan City, today all that remains is a cemetery and a large tree where the center of the town once stood.

The town’s promising future was underlined with numerous permanent stone structures, including Belle Plain College.  Here is some information on one of the first institutions of higher learning in West Texas from The Handbook of Texas:

Belle Plain College, an institution in Belle Plain, Callahan County, noted for its music department, was established in 1881 by the Northwest Conference of the Methodist Church. John Day gave the new school ten acres of land, and local citizens donated generously in the beginning. During its first year (1881–82) the college operated in conjunction with the public school. F. W. Chatfield served as its first president. After a state charter was granted to the institution in the spring of 1882, Rev. J. T. L. Annis took over as president for two years. During his administration enrollment reached 122. Other presidents at Belle Plain College were John W. McIllhenny (1884–85), C. M. Virdel (1885–87), and I. M. Onins (1887–92).

By 1885 Belle Plains College had two buildings on its land, but the entire campus had been heavily mortgaged to pay for furnishings and musical instruments. The school faced difficult times and the fact that operating funds came only from the local school district hastened the institution’s demise. Soon the trustees were unable to make the mortgage payments. Judge I. M. Onins took over the school with its debts in 1887 after a successful school year, but the mortgage company foreclosed on the property in 1889. The company allowed the school to continue to operate until the president’s death in 1892.

As it turned out, the Texas and Pacific Railroad bypassed the town essentially dooming Belle Plain to the same fate as Callahan City. The result of losing the railroad was also meant the loss of county seat status to Baird in 1883. Two years of drought further eroded the town and college’s financial base. These events caused a slow decline in population as many inhabitants moved to Baird and other quickly developing cities along the railroad’s path.  The newspaper moved to Baird and even the stone jail was dismantled brick by brick to be reconstructed in Baird, where it eventually became a Boy Scout meeting place. Somehow the college managed to hold on until 1892. By 1897 only a store and a few diehards were left to keep the post office open until 1909 when it too closed.

Today, Belle Plain is a true ghost town.  Still standing are the remains of the old college building and a few residences, all of which have suffered greatly from the elements.

In addition to being bypassed by the railroad, Belle Plain was bypassed by major roads as well. To get there today one has to head east from US Highway 283 about six and a half miles south of Baird following a winding gravel country road. In addition to the building ruins, the site also has a well maintained cemetery, proving that some folks still remember the remaining citizens of Belle Plain.