Fort Phantom Hill was located southwest of Fort Griffin and northeast of Fort Chadbourne. The orders to create such a fort were issued by General William Belknap as he was beginning construction at the fort that would later be named for him, although the General died before he could complete either outpost. Construction began in 1851 under the leadership of Lt. Col. J. J. Abercrombie pursuant to the orders of General Persifor F. Smith, Belknap’s successor. Belknap’s plan had been for the outpost to be located in Coleman County, but Smith changed the orders to the current location. A few buildings were built of local stone, but others were built of wood or were even more temporary, such as pole huts. In retrospect, it would have been difficult to find a worse location from a physical standpoint, as it was poorly situated near dry or brackish river branches. Water had to be hauled several miles and there were no nearby wood sources for fires. Wood for construction was at least forty miles away.
(Image credit: Texas Co op Power Magazine)
It was occupied for only a few years, from 1851 to 1854 when it was abandoned by the United States Army. It was later used as a way station for a stage line, also by rangers of the Frontier Battalion and then briefly by the Confederate Army. A town named Phantom Hill sprang up briefly during the area when buffalo hunting was taking place, but no obvious remnants of the town are nearby. When the county seat was located elsewhere and the area was bypassed by rail lines, the town of Phantom Hill also declined.
The fort’s location was along a line of outposts designed to defend against the Lipan, Kiowa, Comanche and other tribes. It was situated on a slight elevation which provided a view of the surroundings. The fort was not in existence long enough to receive an official name, as it was generally just referred to by its location, the fort on the Clear Fork of the Brazos. There are several theories about how it got its common name, Fort Phantom Hill, but most likely it had to do with the view of the elevated outpost from a distance.
Commanders of the fort included Lt. Col. Abercrombie, who served until April of 1852, Lt. Col. Carlos Waite, who was succeeded by Major H. H. Sibley in September of 1853 and finally First Lt. Newton Givens who served until the post was abandoned for about sixteen years. A fire of unknown origin destroyed much of the fort shortly thereafter. It was briefly occupied again in the 1870s and served as a sub-post of Fort Griffin, but was again abandoned as the Indian Wars wound down.
As previously noted, a key factor in the lack of success of this location was its unreliable water supply. Viewed on a current map, the fort’s ruins now lie just north of Lake Phantom Hill. However the lake is man made and was not built until the 1930s. The lake has facilities for boating, camping, picnicking, fishing and other activities. The fort and lake also sport their own urban legends (ghosts of former inhabitants and a legend of the lady of the lake).
For a number of years, the former fort’s site was privately owned, but more recently it was acquired by the Fort Phantom Foundation of Abilene which made improvements to the area and opened it to the public. It is located on FM 600 about eleven miles from the access road to Interstate 20. One building has been restored, the shells of other buildings remain as do the stone chimneys of the former wooden structures. Admission is free and the area is open from daylight to dark.
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