San Angelo, Texas — Despite its name, this town near the geographic center of Texas is devilishly charming.
The town’s forerunner, Fort Concho, was established on the Concho River in 1867. The U.S. Army outpost was a kind of gateway to West Texas, offering protection to settlers and to the cowboys, bawdy women, gunfighters and gamblers also moving through the vast frontier.
Across the river from the fort, saloons, cathouses, gambling dens and eventually the town of San Angelo sprang up. But the relatively abundant river water attracted ranchers and farmers, too. And the coming of the railroads made San Angelo a center of transportation.
Only a hint of those wild frontier days still lingers. Today, San Angelo is a midsized city with a pretty, tourist-friendly historic downtown and several interesting attractions.
Pleasantly quirky and colorful businesses line Concho Avenue downtown, including Miss Hattie’s Bordello Museum. The museum, located above a jewelry store in a building constructed in the 1890s, purports to be the site where a famous local madam ran her operation until the 1950s.
The accuracy of the museum’s presentation is a point of some contention. In fact, Cactus Book Shop, a couple of doors down from Miss Hattie’s, offers a free, two-page photocopied discourse claiming to debunk the cathouse myth and prove that the real, historical Miss Hattie’s was elsewhere in town. Be that as it may, the controversy, to me, just adds to the town’s charm.
The madam gets another hat tip at Miss Hattie’s Restaurant & Cathouse Bar and Lounge, an acclaimed steakhouse with a frilly peacock decor paying homage to its namesake. These days, though, the entertainment is limited to live music on Friday and Saturday nights.
Several other downtown restaurants, bars and taverns also offer live music, giving San Angelo a nightlife notable for a city its size.
Other colorful Concho Avenue businesses include sprawling Eggemeyer’s General Store, with an incredibly diverse assortment of merchandise — a great place to pick up a cowboy hat, jewelry, fudge, a ham, wine by the glass or just a souvenir trinket.
Jessie Rose Mercantile is a plus-size women’s fashion store in a beautiful 1884 building that’s worth a visit whether or not you’re a plus-size woman. (For what it’s worth, the store claims that old tunnels run from the building, under Concho Street, to Miss Hattie’s place. You might want to ask at the book shop about that.)
Among the friendly downtown watering holes are Brix Winery, with its own good wine made on-site; and the Casual Pint, a tavern with many local and other craft beers on tap.
I can also recommend the creamery goodness at the Latest Scoop ice-cream shop.
Another downtown landmark that can’t be missed, mainly because it towers above its surroundings, is the historic Cactus Hotel. Built in 1929 by Conrad Hilton, the 14-story site has been renovated as office space and a meeting venue. Be sure to take a peek inside to appreciate the building’s notable art deco style.
From downtown, visitors can cross a picturesque pedestrian bridge spanning the Concho River to the San Angelo Museum of Fine Arts and the Old Town neighborhood, a collection of colorful buildings from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. They’ll also find Fort Concho itself, now a National Historic Landmark.
The fort is said to be one of the best-preserved sites from the Indian Wars era. Decommissioned in 1889, Fort Concho is now owned by the city of San Angelo and encompasses 23 original and authentically restored structures, including barracks, mess hall, hospital, chapel and a headquarters building that serves as a welcome center and museum.
Visitors will learn about the history of the Indian Wars, the fort and the soldiers stationed there, including several regiments of the so-called Buffalo Soldiers, the all-black Army units formed after the Civil War. A memorial at the site honors five soldiers who served at Fort Concho and received the Congressional Medal of Honor.
The fort also houses the E.H. Danner Museum of Telephony. Although the large exhibit of antique telephones, located in one of the old officers’ quarters, is a bit incongruous given its surroundings, the display is quite unusual and charming, just like the town in which it’s located.
— Steve Stephens can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @SteveStephens.