5.21.2009,12:26 PM
Texas Forts: Phantom Hill, Part 3

The troops at Fort Phantom Hill probably rejoiced at the order to evacuate. Life there had been difficult, monotonous and lonely. Desertions were common and morale was low. Perhaps someone (or two) made sure they would never have to return.

Shortly after the fort was abandoned, it burned. No official record or witnesses can account for how the fire started, so legends fill in the blanks. Amongst the most popular legends place blame on Indians or Confederates. However, a scout that camped there a few months after the evacuation reported the burned fort. Only a few stone buildings and a dozen chimneys remained -and remain today.

The most accepted explanation is that a soldier and a young boy sneaked back to the fort while the rest of the troops camped that first night and started the blaze, assuring there was nothing to ever return to.

Just as mysterious is the source of the name: Phantom Hill. While sitting in the shade, I pondered this. Many legends offer sources and origins, including the romanticized story that a soldier saw a ghostly Indian on top of the hill wrapped in a white blanket. The Indian disappeared as he approached it, hence the name 'phantom'. Another story claims the name originated with the Indians that passed by the hill and reported seeing ghosts. Yet another ascribes the name to the tall ghost-like stone chimneys that remain. What is known is the name was in place and in use even before the fort was officially placed on the top of the Hill.

A more widely accepted explanation, and less then a legend, is founded in an ordinary phenomenon. It is said that when approaching, the hill rises sharply and then flattens at the top, as if it was a phantom hill. On my ride up to the fort, this perception made no sense to me. However, I can see how it might have appeared if a fog or heavy mist blanketed the top of the hill. Perhaps earlier settlers or explorers unfamiliar with the topography of mesas and buttes may have been deceived when arriving on the flat top and considered it 'phantom-like'.

Regardless, the blazing sun and strangling humidity that afternoon dissuaded any perceptions of the fort or hill as a 'phantom'. Perhaps human imagination and the name fueled the prevalence of ghost legends in that area. For there were several more.

Claims exist that the fort is haunted: by restless Indian spirits (despite the absence of altercations between the fort and Indians that passed by and visited), by an innocent man that was hanged near the fort and searches for his murderers, and the "Lady of the Lake."

Apparitions of a woman floating in the vicinity of the nearby lake have been reported as early as 150 years ago. Several versions of associated legends exist, including a wronged woman in love, a woman that accidentally shot and killed her husband and a Hispanic version of a "Lady" that haunts lakes and rivers throughout the Southwest. The immediate local has no shortage of legends and mysteries.

Another interest to me was the fort served as a station stop -1858 until the start of the Civil War- on the Butterfield Stage Trail. The old military road that connected Phantom Hill to its sister forts -Fort Griffin to the north and Fort Chadbourne to the south- ran through the middle of he fort and east of modern FM600. Butterfield arranged to use the still-standing stone guardhouse as the station house, a corral and log pole structure to house the mules for the stages. An older couple lived in the guardhouse to switch mules on the team and prepare meals for the teamsters and passengers. The closest neighbors were dozens of miles away.

Feeling the heat and humidity, I strolled back to the bike for some Gatorade. Before donning gear, I unzipped the bottoms of the pant legs off my convertible pants. These pants are the best things invented since tents. Almost thin as silk, they breathe and let any sweat evaporate away. The ability to instantly turn pants into shorts is a blessing on a hot humid day under bike gear.

With one last look around, I executed a perfect circle in the gravel and made my way back to the road to head south again. I had passed the Fort Phantom Hill cemetery on the way up and wanted to stop for a look-see.

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posted by Macrobe
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