mustachioed young man from North Carolina hardly seemed the martial
type, but as a citizen soldier in the Austin Grays he demonstrated
the qualities of a leader – even if it was to keep from spending the
night in the guardhouse.
In the early summer of 1886, he and his fellow guardsmen boarded the
train for Lampasas, a
city 70 miles northwest of Austin
then touted as the “Saratoga of the South.”
Since the arrival of the first settlers in the 1850s, the springs
along the aptly named Sulfur Creek had been thought to have medicinal
qualities. When the Santa Fe Railroad reached Lampasas
in 1882, developers sought to transform the town into a resort. Construction
soon started on a grand hotel and bathhouse.
The largest frame overnight accommodation in the state, the two-story
Park Hotel looked like a giant mansion. Wide galleries lined each
floor of the 331-foot long structure, which had 200 guest rooms, hot
and cold bathing pools, dressing rooms, concession facilities and
a ball room large enough to seat a full orchestra.
But the volunteers arriving at the Lampasas
depot had not come to town to take the waters. They had gathered to
sharpen their military skills at the annual encampment of the Texas
Volunteer Guard, the predecessor of today’s National Guard.
Though the Austin Grays stood ready to defend their state, the company
was something of a social group as well. And few Austinites could
be considered more convivial than Lt. Will Porter, a Southern gentleman
known for his bass singing voice, his sense of humor and his taste
for beer. In addition to their membership in the Grays, Porter and
three other guardsmen made up the Hill City Quartette, a well-known
The quartet received permission to go on leave one night to perform
at a grand ball at the equally-grand Park Hotel. Between sets, the
sharply uniformed citizen soldiers from Austin
had no trouble finding attractive, interested dancing partners. Tripping
the light fantastic and perhaps enjoying too many cups of champagne
punch, the quartet lost track of time.
About five minutes after they were supposed to be back in camp, someone
finally noticed the time. By then, the officer of the day at the nearby
military tent city already had a squad en route to the hotel to arrest
the tardy guardsmen.
Thinking fast, Porter got a friend to meet the squad at the door and
suggest that since there were ladies present, the soldiers should
stack their rifles outside before entering.
The corporal in charge agreed that it would not be proper to make
the belles at the ball uncomfortable and ordered his men to put down
their weapons. As the soldiers walked into the hotel, Porter and his
comrades slipped out a side door and retrieved their artillery.
Porter herded all the un-armed AWOL guardsmen into formation, and
then marched them back to camp as if they were under arrest.
As one of the participants later recalled, “None of us knew the countersign,
and our success in getting by the sentry was a matter of pure grit.
As we approached…we were crossing a narrow plank bridge in single
file, at the end of which the sentry threw up his gun and Porter marched
us right straight up to that gun until the front man was marking time
with the point of the gun right at his stomach.”
Staring down the sentry, the lieutenant in charge barked: “Squad under
arrest. “Stand aside!”
Once inside the camp, the impostors stacked their guns and quietly
disappeared into their tents. A short time later the embarrassed corporal
and his unarmed men returned without their prisoners. The sentry did
not buy his story and had the whole squad marched to the guardhouse.
“There was quite a time at the [corporal’s] court-martial next morning,”
Porter’s old guard buddy later recalled, “but no one ever knew our
connection to the story.”
One of Porter’s biographers speculated that the tale might have been
embellished a bit, but its teller had declared: “This adventure is
only one of thousands of such incidents that commonly occurred in
Porter, under the penname of O. Henry, went on to make a career out
of adventure. His world-wide fame has endured, though the incident
at Lampasas is as long-forgotten
as the old Park Hotel, destroyed by fire in 1895.
© Mike Cox
- June 2, 2005 Column
Columns | People
| Texas History | Texas
Towns | Texas
by Mike Cox - Order Here