Border Studies at EPCC
NW Library and EPCC Links
Other Local Libraries
We do NOT have the resources to assist with genealogical research.
For GENEALOGICAL RESEARCH please contact:
*El Paso Genealogical Society
O. T. Bassett and Charles R. Morehead Left Mark on City
By Veronica Moreno, Will Daugherty, Ashley Harris, Larry Aguirre & Michael Phillips
More than 150 years ago, two men risked Indian country and traveled across Texas on a mission that would change their destiny as well as that of the West Texas town of El Paso. O. T. Bassett and Charles R. Morehead found a desert and built a financial empire, helping to turn the small town into a prosperous city.
Image caption: O. T. Bassett helped launched the State National Bank in 1881. Photo courtesy of Wells Fargo
Oscar T. Bassett’s early years were rough. He was born in Vermont in 1850 and orphaned early. With little formal education, he enlisted in the Army at 14, desiring to join Union forces and fight in the Civil War. However, not long after he enlisted, officers evaluating his capabilities sent Bassett home.
Bassett decided to settle in the quiet town of Clinton, Indiana. He learned to use tools and became a contractor. Although he achieved success, Bassett quit the contracting business and moved on to become a lumber dealer, something he would continue for life.
Despite his lack of education and earlier disappointments with the military, he proved to have a keen sense of knowing how to make money. By 30, Bassett was already an accomplished entrepreneur. He had matured into a stocky, quiet-natured man sporting a heavy mustache.
While in Clinton, Bassett met his future wife, Myrtle Nebeker, a beautiful charismatic blonde of Dutch descent. Intelligent and ambitious, she was one of the first women to graduate from the University of Indiana, as well as one of the first members of Kappa Alpha Theta Sorority. Her natural cheerfulness contrasted with the less social Bassett.
O. T. and Myrtle soon wed, but she fell ill early in their marriage, a victim of tuberculosis. Even though she was weak, she gave birth to their only child, a son named Charles. Her health remained poor, and she chose to stay in Indiana. However, Bassett decided to go to Fort Worth, Texas, to look for new business opportunities, forcing him to travel back and forth between Indiana and Texas.
After only a year in Fort Worth, Bassett decided to go further west to El Paso to start a new lumberyard. Fate was about to take him on an adventure that he could not have imagined. Bassett’s fellow passenger on the stagecoach would be a man named Charles R. Morehead. These two visionaries would change forever the lives of those living in the dusty town of El Paso.
Charles Robert Morehead was born in Richmond, Missouri, on Feb. 28, 1836, to Fanny Warden and Charles R. Morehead, Sr. The elder Morehead owned a bank and store where his son experienced the practical side of business. He received his education in public schools and at the Masonic College in Lexington, Missouri. In 1855, he began work in the freight business with the Russell, Majors and Waddell Company.
This freight company supplied frontier Army posts west of Fort Leavenworth in Indian country. As assistant wagon master of the company, Morehead witnessed and survived many Indian attacks. William Connolley’s book “Doniphan’s Expedition,” quotes a portion of Morehead’s diary in which he stated, “Nothing unusual happened in this trip, except that we were ‘held-up’ by a band of Indians. They demanded some flour, sugar and coffee, which was given them, and they moved on.”
Image caption: Charles Morehead ran the State National Bank for 40 years. Photo courtesy of the El Paso Public Library
Because of Morehead’s experience as wagon master across the Midwest, he was called to Washington, D. C., to serve on a national panel for the postal service. In 1858, he met with President James Buchanan, Secretary of War John B. Floyd and postal authorities. He sat on a planning commission discussing the feasibility of a fast mail service across the middle of the country. Upon the recommendation of Morehead and his employer, William H. Russell, the Pony Express was formed.
Morehead eventually left the freight company to move to Leavenworth, Kansas, where he opened his own mercantile and cattle company and later served as mayor. While delivering cattle to Forts Larned and Lyons in, Kansas, Moorhead almost lost his life in another Indian attack.
In 1859, he married Lemire Morris, a distant relative. Her family was related to William Morris, the financier of the American Revolution. Two of Lemire’s sisters married the Newman brothers, H. L. (Henry) and E. S. (Zeke), cattle kings and frontier capitalists. Morehead brought the Newman brothers to El Paso, where they would become major stockholders of the State National Bank.
Historians C. L. Sonnichsen and M. G. McKinney described Morehead as “a small, wiry, intense man with a Kentucky-Colonel goatee.” By the age of 42, Morehead had experienced more than most men twice his age. Known for his expertise on the frontier and his acute business sense, the Texas and Pacific Railroad commissioned him in 1880 to investigate the feasibility of bringing the railroad to El Paso.
If indeed a railroad connecting Fort Worth to El Paso turned out to be valuable to the Texas and Pacific, the plan was to send a road building crew to El Paso to work toward another crew starting from Fort Worth. The railroad would make its decision based on Morehead’s advice.
The stage was now set for O. T. Bassett and Charles R. Moorhead to begin an adventure that would set them on a path to riches and forge a lasting friendship. It is not known whether they knew each other prior to the ride, but by the time the Southern Overland Stagecoach came to a halt, Bassett and Morehead had become friends. Morehead wrote in his diary when the trip was over, “We never passed a cross word and remained friends until the end.”
The trip to El Paso in February 1880 took nine days. Shortly after the stage left Fort Worth, a sandstorm slowed the travelers’ progress considerably. Then the stage happened on a band of Apaches, led by Victorio, one of the most cunning leaders of his tribe. Some 3,000 soldiers, both American and Mexican, would chase Victorio before his capture in Tres Castillos, north of Chihuahua in October, 1880. Bassett and Morehead were on the same route between Fort Davis and the first settlements in the Rio Grande Valley where frequent ambushes occurred.
After their driver spotted some moccasin tracks and a smoldering campfire, the men held their breath, their hands on their guns, ready to give their best fight. Morehead had endured greater challenges with the Indians back in his wagon master days, but it must have been an unsettling experience for Bassett. The stage passed the encampment without incident.
On February 13, 1880, the men arrived in El Paso and stayed at Mrs. Rohman’s adobe hotel where the Mills Building presently stands. The first night they had dinner with Mayor Joseph Magoffin, one of the largest landowners in El Paso. A longtime resident, Magoffin saw the potential that his fledgling town had. It didn’t take much to convince Morehead of the town’s promise. He knew that as soon as the railroads were completed in and around El Paso, business opportunities would be plenty.
After dinner they drove out to look at land for sale. They mingled with people on the streets and listened to their excitement about the day the railroad would finally arrive and make everyone rich. Morehead wrote in his diary, “Plenty of room here for a big city, which it will be in time after the railroads come. It is a natural pass from east to west, north to south, and it may become a mining center".”
Bassett and Morehead bought 400 acres of land from Joseph Magoffin, and sent the deed back to the Texas and Pacific with a letter giving the go to start the project. After Morehead completed railroad business, the men continued on to Arizona. Morehead had been asked by a group of men in St. Louis to determine whether investments in the Arizona mines would be profitable. After traveling on to California, the two returned East, Morehead to St. Louis and Bassett to Indiana to be with his ailing wife. The two men made plans to meet in St. Louis and then to move to El Paso permanently within the year.
In St. Louis, Morehead and Bassett convinced a group of capitalists to reject the mining idea and consider investing in a bank in El Paso instead. The group agreed with the two adventurers and drew up an application to begin the establishment of a national bank.
In January 1881, the two men, along with Morehead’s wife and daughter Ida, left St. Louis by train and began their momentous trip to El Paso, which proved to be uneventful until they arrived in San Marcial, New Mexico, 150 miles north of their destination. There, the porter came to their sleeping car to tell them that eight dead men lay on the depot platform, having been killed by Indians. Morehead told his wife to take the train back home, but she told him she would not return without him. After a brief discussion among the family, they continued south to Rincon, north of Las Cruces, and caught the stage to El Paso.
The pioneers arrived on Feb. 2, 1881, and were received at the home of the Magoffins. Because houses for rent or sale did not exist, and rooms were scarce, the Moreheads lived with the Magoffins for three years, and a very strong friendship formed between the families.
On the day after their arrival in El Paso, the men began organizing the bank. On March 23, 1981, stockholders met for the first time. Fifteen stockholders with a combined 550 shares at $100 each voted on a board of directors and officers, electing Morehead President, Joseph Magoffin, Vice President, and Bassett one of the directors. Morehead and Magoffin would maintain their offices for 40 years.
The bank opened its doors for business on April 23, 1881. The first home of the State National Bank was a small, one-story rented building on the corner of San Antonio and El Paso Streets. The bricks had been made in Zach White’s factory, and it was either the first or second brick building in town. The adobe village soon would give way to brick and wood construction ― a lot of it.
The year 1881 was a milestone in El Paso’s history. The first banks, the first railroads, two new newspapers and the first Catholic and Protestant Churches were all established. As El Paso grew, so did its premiere bank. When the State National first opened in1881, the bank’s original capital was $55,000 and by the early 1900s, its capital had soared to $408,433.
It did not take long for the bank to outgrow its original one-story home. In September 1882, the bank built a two-story building on the corner of Oregon and San Antonio, with second floor offices rented to doctors, lawyers and insurance companies. This building had a few elegant touches such as oil lamp chandeliers and wooden floors later covered with marble mosaic.
As the State National prospered, so did Bassett’s biggest investment: his lumberyard, located on the corner of North Mills and Stanton Streets. For a period of 18 months, he could not keep enough lumber or hardware in his yard to supply the fast-growing city. Once the trains were running, Bassett’s business and clientele grew rapidly from Texas to California. It was Bassett’s lumber that built El Paso in the great railroad expansion of the late 1800s.
While his business prospered, Bassett would suffer a personal loss. His wife Myrtle died in Indiana on September 26, 1882, of tuberculosis. Their son Charles was only 18 months old. After her death, Bassett would focus his attention on his business and the town he loved. He never remarried.
Bassett became very active in the community. In December 1882, when the El Paso Independent School District came into being, Bassett became President of the board of trustees. The newly elected board’s first act was to purchase land to build Central School, El Paso’s first public school. Bassett also served as city councilman. He was an active director of the State National until 1888 when he resigned, most likely because he detested attending bank meetings, according to early historian Owen White.
Bassett participated in other business adventures as well. He was one of the original investors of the early newspaper called the Times. He was also appointed to a “hotel committee,” looking into the need for public lodging since the arrival of the railroad. Bassett would remain active up until his untimely death.
By the late 1890s, Bassett was having heart problems. As his health deteriorated, Bassett had his son promise to finish college before he took over the family business. Bassett also arranged for his good friend Charles R. Morehead to act as his son’s guardian. On January 3, 1898, O. T. Bassett went to bed in his quarters located above his lumberyard and never awoke. He was only 48 years old.
Charles Bassett arrived in El Paso in 1901. After fulfilling his promise to his father, he carried on the family’s lumberyard business and became the Vice President of the State National Bank in 1908. He also inherited the Bassett desire and reputation for community service. As for Morehead, his influence would continue not only in young Charles Bassett but in the city of El Paso as well.
Morehead’s bank would become one of the three most important banks in El Paso. In a history of the State National, Sonnichsen and McKinney wrote that Morehead would become known as the “unofficial boss” of El Paso, a leading force in the community. One of Morehead’s biggest desires was to bring good water to El Paso. In 1882, the El Paso Water Company was established, and Morehead continued working to make sure the city had a permanent supply of potable water.
Morehead also cared deeply about educating El Pasoans. Like Bassett, he served on the school board, often as chairman, and did much to establish and support the public school system. He worked so tirelessly for El Paso public schools that the local system has always maintained a school with his name. In 1901, the first Morehead School was located on Arizona Street between Kansas and Campbell, and when that had to be torn down in 1966, the board named Morehead Middle School in West El Paso in his honor.
As a bank president and community leader, it was natural that Morehead would also turn to politics, at one time the most powerful person in the Democratic Party. For many years, the Democrats wanted to preserve the status quo and the Republicans were the reformers. The reformers took a stand against the evils that infiltrated the city while the Democrats tolerated the gamblers and saloonkeepers.Sonnichsen and McKinney wrote that Morehead had always been suspicious of reformers and “do-gooders.” In 1889, Morehead ran for mayor against Adolph Krakauer. Republican alderman James P. Hague called the Democratic party the “Morehead Bank Gang.” Both parties were guilty of dirty politics, however. Morehead lost this election, but in 1903, Morehead was elected mayor and served until 1905.< p />
Morehead continued to run the bank until 1920 when he was asked to leave after 40 years as its President. The bank was stagnating, Morehead refused to change with the times, and he was suffering from the infirmities of old age. The bank directors relieved him of his duties at the annual stockholders’ meeting, ironically presided over by O. T. Bassett’s son, Charles. He would take over as bank president.
Charles R. Morehead, 86, died soon after at his residence at 1119 Myrtle Avenue, a street named after his best friend’s wife. He is buried in the Masonic section of Concordia Cemetery. In his book “City at the Pass,” Leon Metz wrote, “Morehead, the Father of El Paso’s schools, died leaving a legacy of improved education, better water service, and better banking.” Besides Morehead Middle School, a street also bears his name.
The bank that Bassett and Morehead built saw many changes. In 1922, the bank moved into its third home, a Henry Trost design based on Roman and Italian Renaissance styles, located on the corner of East San Antonio and South Oregon Streets. In 1980, this building was entered in the National Register of Historic Places. The State National financed the development of El Paso into a real city and survived World War I, the Great Depression and World War II. In 1971, the State National built a stunning 22-story building on the block where Bassett had begun his lumberyard. The State National Bank conducted business for almost a century before it was sold to M Corp of Dallas in 1984.
In 1929, as a tribute to his father, Charles Bassett built the O. T. Bassett Tower, a 15-story skyscraper, and another of Henry Trost’s designs. The building today is known simply as Bassett Tower and is still a work of art, albeit overshadowed by much taller buildings downtown.
Charles would continue as a civic leader and President of the State National Bank until 1943 when ill health prevented him from actively directing the bank. He died five months after his resignation in Santa Monica, California. El Paso’s first shopping mall, Bassett Center, would be named in his honor.
O. T. Bassett and Charles R. Morehead stepped out of the stagecoach one cold February day in 1881 and saw the potential of a little adobe village, and helped realize it. They became important architects and builders of the West. Their story is preserved in the bricks and mortar of the buildings that have remained long after their deaths.Go to top