Signal Hill, Texas

From The Town Too Mean To Live by Jim M. Foreman

Magazine source unknown.

Fewer than 300 people lived in Hutchinson County on January 1, 1925, according to the records kept at the courthouse in Plemons, the only town in the county. Ranching was the only business in the county and cattle had to be driven 30 miles to Panhandle for rail shipment to market. At the Saturday night dance in Plemons, small knots of cowboys were talking about that bunch of Okies drilling for oil on the south side of the Canadian River, but anyone with a lick of sense knew that they were wasting their time. They were wrong. A few months later, that well blew in sending a geyser of black crude hundreds of feet into the air. A few weeks later, the twin wells which precipitated the city of Borger blew in at almost the same time. Black gold has been discovered and the rush of humanity began to descend on those once peaceful hills where cows grazed. Towns popped up like pimples on a teenager with names like Roxana, Gewhitt, McLeroy, Whittenburg, Salona, Dixon Creek, Isom, Spring Creek, 42 Steps and others; some came and went in a matter of weeks.

Not only the land salesmen came to grab their share of the wealth but the less desirables: bootleggers, gamblers, prostitutes and outlaws. Borger was the center of activity and soon became known by many unsavory names like Booger Town, Sodom of the Plains and the Sin Capital of Texas. To add to the miseries of those who were trying to build Borger, the place became infested with hoards of rats and packs of wild dogs. When it rained the tent and shack-lined streets became a quagmire of red mud that stopped all traffic from moving.

It was about this time that Earl Thompson of Amarillo visited some friends in California and stayed at their new home near Long Beach in a section called Signal Hill. Most of the new-rich of California had built palatial mansions in that area and it was an awesome sight for someone from the plains of Texas. Mr. Thompson returned to Amarillo where he joined forces with W. P. Sullivan and C. D. Armstrong to establish a new city in Hutchinson County. So impressed with Signal Hill, California that he set out to find a similar situation in Texas where the new-rich Texans could build their showplaces. The only hill of any sort he could find near the oil fields of Hutchinson County was about three miles east of Stinnett so they bought a quarter section of land and formed the townsite of Signal Hill, Texas. Opening day for the new city was Friday, May 14, 1926 and the surveyors were still driving marker stakes when Mr. Armstrong started signing deeds to lots. There were two big selling points for the 25-foot wide lots: first the oil rights went with the lots and second they could be bought for $100 down and $25 a month for a year. Anyone buying a lot from the townsite could also buy lumber from Mr. Thompson’s lumber yard which operated from the backs of wagons for a third down and the rest over a year. By nightfall several tents and a few partially finished shacks dotted the grassy hillside. Signal Hill was founded.

Signal Hill grew and prospered, although not in the grandiose fashion of its namesake. By Christmas of 1926 the population was close to ten thousand, second only to Borger. A main street count of businesses totaled nearly fifty including the only bakery and the only ice house in the county. There were four drug stores, a movie house, a dozen or so filling stations, an automobile dealer, oil well supply houses, welding shops, a boiler factory and even a hospital and a newspaper were being built. The only really permanent building was a two story brick bank building erected by Mr. Thompson, however it never received a charter nor did any banking business. Its only use was as an office of the Signal Hill Town Company. The town also had several dozen hotels and rooming houses where ladies of the evening plied their trade. Strangely enough with all that building, no school was ever planned and no church ever built. The developers were working hard to make the city grow, trying to get the approaching Rock Island Railroad and the highway routed through Signal Hill. It is rather sad, but the very landmark picked for the town was the reason for the loss of the railroad. The surveyors decided it would cost too much to cut through the hill or go around it. The new post office was rather belatedly built and opened December 4, 1926 and it was a local joke that it was the only place in town that one could not buy beer and whiskey. This was during the prohibition days but for some strange reason there was seldom a raid on the local gin mills. Sheriff Ormsbey and his limited number of deputies had more than they could handle in Borger so left Stinnett and Signal Hill to fend for themselves.

About this time the railroad went through Stinnett and the town fell into a heated war between those on the east side of the track and those on the west side of the track. A spite fence was built and armed guards patrolled it, charging up to five dollars to use the gate. Several gunfights broke out over the fence. With no sort of law protection, the residents of Signal Hill started carrying guns and soon became an armed mob. People started leaving by the hundreds, leaving the town to the gamblers, prostitutes and outlaws. The post office closed in September of 1927 and it was estimated that fewer than 300 people remained at that time. The Texas Rangers took over law enforcement in Borger and there was a mass exodus of the criminal element to Signal Hill. The bridge across Cottonwood Creek between Stinnett and Signal Hill was burned leaving only the swinging foot bridge as a way to cross, effectively making a hole-in-the-wall situation for the outlaw residents. The only other way into Signal Hill was via Plemons over primitive oilfield roads.

Many of the more infamous Oklahoma and Texas outlaws made Signal Hill their gathering point during 1928. From Signal Hill such men as Ray Terrill, Mat Kimes, Whitey Walker, Blackie Thompson, Ace Pendleton and others planned and launched bank robberies in Texas, Oklahoma and New Mexico. Occasionally they would hit banks as close to home as Pampa and Panhandle. While the Signal Hill gangs weren’t involved in bigger things, they ranged out on nightly raids on drilling crews where they robbed and sometimes murdered them. The roaring boilers that provided steam for the drilling rigs provided a handy place to dispose of bodies and as many as 300 persons disappeared without a trace in a two year period.

Rumor had it from time to time that Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow were holed up at Signal Hill, but that may have been the local bad guys trying to gain reputation through association with the more infamous pair. 1928 was a bad year for the outlaws of Signal Hill as most of the better known ones were either captured or killed and the place lost its luster to those remaining and they faded away one by one. The end of 1928 found only a watchman hired by Mr. Thompson and a filling station operator as the lone residents. The watchman’s job ended and he was soon followed by the last resident out of town.

During 1929 and 1930 people ranged through the town taking what they wanted. Many of the houses were dismantled and the lumber hauled away while others were moved intact. Finally the only building still standing was the brick bank building. The windows and doors went first and then in 1934 the walls were salvaged for the brick. The ovens from the bakery, a few rusted out boilers and the other scrap was hauled away during World War II and sold.

A few old-time residents of Stinnett still remember Signal Hill but their memory of it faded over the years. One can turn east at the traffic light in Stinnett, go about two miles and he will cross the now dry Cottonwood Creek. About half a mile on east a seldom used dirt road turns left towards a unique looking flat-topped mesa. If he takes this road, he will be driving down the main street of what was Signal Hill and the second largest town in Hutchinson County. Today he will find only grass, mesquite trees and prairie yucca. Walk around and he will come across a few old foundations, perhaps a pipe sticking out of the ground marking a dry hole and the end of someone’s dreams or perhaps a depression where a cellar once existed. As the sun grows low and red in the west one can almost hear the sounds of that lawless and bawdy time half a century ago.


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Copyright 2012 by Jim Foreman