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Texas | Columns | "Letters from Central Texas"

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. If you've never heard of Helena, what's left of it is about 70 miles southwest of San Antonio at the intersection of U.S. Highways 80 and 81. It's one of those blink-and-you'll-miss it kind of towns. But it wasn't always so. The town that William Butler might or might not have killed traced its beginnings back to Spanish colonial times when it functioned as an important trade post on the Old Bahia Road.

First Karnes County Courthouse, Helena, Texas

The Old Helena Courthouse
TE Photo, 2001

Thomas Ruckman and Lewis S. Owings named the settlement it in honor of Dr. Owing's wife, Helena, in 1852. The settlement grew into a town that grew into a county, Karnes County, in 1854. Helena was the county seat and boasted a courthouse, jail, church, Masonic lodge, drugstore, blacksmith shop, two hotels, two newspapers, a school, a slew of saloons and Methodist, Baptist and Presbyterian churches. By the 1880s, Helena had 300 residents and a lot of visitors. It also had a reputation.

Though many of the town's 300 residents were law-abiding citizens, many were not and they were the ones who gave Helena a reputation as the "toughest town on earth." The town was famous - infamous - for the "Helena Duel," a barbaric piece of business in which two opponents fought each other with three-inch knives while their wrists were tied together. The idea was to make it impossible for one man to kill the other with a single stab, but to bring about death by a thousand cuts, or however many it took for one or both of the opponents to bleed to death.

That brings us, in a roundabout way, to William G. Butler, who came to Karnes County in 1852 with his parents and 12 siblings when he was 18 years old. He married, served the Confederacy during the Civil War and was one of those who cashed in on the vast herds of cattle roaming Texas in the war's aftermath. He and his partner Seth Mabry of Austin combined to send an estimated 100,000 cattle to northern markets. In due time he owned 75,000 acres in Karnes County, leased another 25,000 and owned about 10, 000 cattle. According to accounts that have filtered down from J. Frank Dobie and others, Butler was a man to be reckoned with. The town of Helena would soon learn that.

There are several stories about how Helena went from a thriving center of commerce and debauchery to ghost town, but the most popular one places the beginning of the end as occurring on Dec. 26, 1884 when somebody shot and killed Butler's son, Emmett, in the streets of Helena. His father rode into town the next day, demanding justice and an answer to the question: "Who killed my son?" When no one came across with the information Butler vowed to "kill the town that killed my son."

Butler did that, the story goes, by contacting Benjamin Yoakum, general manager of the San Antonio and Aransas Pass Railway, and offering free right-of-way to the railroad, thus providing an alternative route around Helena. The townspeople believed the railroad needed Helena more than Helena needed the railroad. The citizens were wrong. A new city, Karnes City, came to be by the railroad tracks. In 1894, after a ferocious election, Karnes City became the new county seat. Helena withered away.

There are a lot off variations and alternatives to that story, but whether William Butler killed Helena or simply assisted in its suicide, it's just as gone.

Clay Coppedge
"Letters from Central Texas" November 17, 2017 column

Clay Coppedge's "Letters from Central Texas"

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  • See Helena | Karnes City

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    Clay Coppedge's "Letters from Central Texas"

  • Quotable Sheridan 10-16-17
  • Skyline Club 10-16-17
  • Bobby Layne's (alleged) curse 10-2-17
  • Harvey's Ancestor 9-20-17
  • Saltpeter and Bat Bombs 9-3-17

    See more »

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