Sundance Square wasn’t named for the beams of light that rhythmically bounce off the windows of towering buildings. It wasn’t named after a favorite ballroom dance. It was, in fact, named after an unlikely historical figure who spent time in downtown Fort Worth in the late 19th and early 20th centuries: Harry Longabaugh. You may know him better as the Sundance Kid, Butch Cassidy’s right hand man in numerous bank and train robberies.
Where Sundance Got His Nickname
Sundance earned the nickname in jail in Sundance, Wyoming while serving an 18 month sentence for stealing a horse. According to the Chamber of Commerce there, theirs was the only town in which Sundance served any jail time. The Chamber currently describes this town as a place where “You will experience small town hospitality. There are no lines to stand in for shopping, dining, getting fuel, or picking up groceries. Sundance is a central location.” It’s a description that could just as easily be used for Sundance Square in Fort Worth.
Hell’s Half Acre
Sundance, Butch Cassidy, and the rest of The Wild Bunch are known to have frequented Fort Worth for recreation. During these days of the old west, the downtown area was known as Hell’s Half Acre (not the best connotation for the family friendly businesses that make their homes in Sundance Square today). Essentially, it was a red light district where cowfolk and outlaws (including Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday) converged along the Chisholm Trail route to Kansas. Dance halls, saloons, gambling and prostitution were common.
In fact, the Sundance Kid’s common law wife (or girlfriend depending on which historian you’re talking to) was either a dance hall girl or the madam of a whorehouse. Her name was Etta Place and you can find a bed and breakfast/corporate lodging bearing her name in Sundance Square to this date: Etta’s Place. Like Sundance Square itself, business there has changed drastically since the early 1900s. The play on words simply pays homage to an unusual part of the area’s history.
The Photo Shoot That Changed Everything
There are many mysteries about the latter part of the Sundance Kid’s life, how and when he died, for example. How can we be sure Sundance and his gang spent time in Fort Worth? Because he and the rest of The Wild Bunch had their picture taken by John Swartz not long after a successful bank robbery in Nevada.
How the picture landed in the hands of so many lawmen that the Bunch fled the country is still the subject of many theories. Some say The Wild Bunch sent a copy of the photo to the bank in Nevada to taunt them. Others say Swartz put the photo on display in his store window and somebody recognized the men. We’re not really sure. What we do know is that Swartz took the picture (his imprint was on the image) and that his studio was in Fort Worth at 705 ½ Main, on the edge of Hell’s Half Acre at the time and south of what is officially Sundance Square today.
Sundance Square Today
History has a way of changing places. Downtown Fort Worth is nothing akin to a red light district any longer. There is no gambling, no prostitution, and no gun-slinging. It is, however, a place people go for entertainment and celebration, to eat and shop, to laugh and experience culture. The great thing about the name Sundance is that it both pays homage to history and looks forward to a bright future. Besides, who would really want to visit Earp Square or Butch Square?