Clifton is known as a progressive rural community with abundant health care, education and cultural opportunities. But Clifton is also known for its rich and diverse history. Clifton marked its sesquicentennial in 2002. And while folks move to Clifton for the city it has become today, visitors flock to Clifton throughout the year to learn and experience its past.
The Horn Shelter, an ancient archeological site located on Brazos River east of Clifton, contained the prehistoric remains of an adult male and child that have been dated to be 11,200 years old. These remains are not considered to be “Indian,” but Paleo American, or early man predating the Indians.
Indians made their home in the area for many centuries prior to permanent settlement by Anglo pioneers. The local Indian presence included the Tonkawa, Caddo, and three branches of the Wichita. The Tonkawas were the most prevalent, and were considered friendly to early settlers, unlike the dreaded Comanche to the west who would occasionally swoop into the territory. A Spanish expedition in 1721 camped near Waco gave the name of a large tributary running into the Brazos River the name of Bosque, which in Spanish roughly translates as “woodsy.” The name Bosque would be the only contribution to the area by the Spaniards. The Bosque River would become the lifeline and location for Clifton and the other early towns in the county, in addition to becoming the name for the county. As with other early towns on the western frontier, the Clifton area was settled rather slowly due to the Indian presence and harsh conditions.
“Old Town” Clifton, originally known as “Cliff Town,” began settlement in 1852 and was located on both the east and west banks of the Bosque River north of the Bosque River Whipple Truss Bridge of present-day Clifton. Samuel Locker and Francis Marion Kell were two of the first settlers in Clifton and owned much of the land where Clifton had its origins and is now located. Bosque County formally organized two years later in 1854, under the branches of the Treaty Oak, located about four miles south of Clifton off Highway 6.
Clifton is well known for being the largest Norwegian settlement west of the Mississippi River and “The Norwegian Capital of Texas.” The Norwegian settlement began here in 1854, the same year the county was founded, and was led by Ole Canuteson and included Cleng Peerson, “The Father of Norwegian Immigration to America.” Thousands of Norwegian immigrants, some coming directly from Norway and others from northern states, would eventually settle between Clifton and Cranfills Gap by century’s end. The Norwegian influence in the area is still very evident today. Clifton is also known for a large German population, which settled primarily east of Clifton and the Bosque River in the Womack community following the Civil War. The Germans organized a church in that community, as well as a German Lutheran congregation in Clifton.
The Clifton Post Office was established in 1859, and a log schoolhouse and Masonic lodge were the first public buildings, erected in the early 1860s. The Presbyterians established the first church in Clifton in 1861. Originally, a wooden foot bridge was built across the Bosque River to connect the settlers located on both sides of the river. Passengers and mail arrived from a stage line which ran from Waco to Clifton, then north to Meridian.
“The Old Mill,” as it was later called, was built first of logs following the Civil War, and in 1868 of limestone, on the west side of the Bosque River in Clifton. The mill became a magnet for early settlers and merchants. The mill provided flour and meal to Waco and later became Clifton’s first electric plant. Though torn down in the early 1900s, “The Old Mill” remains perhaps Clifton’s most beloved symbol of its past. “The Old Rock School,” a three-story limestone structure, was built in 1870 to replace Clifton’s first log school house. While businesses continued to thrive in Clifton, the majority of early settlers and their offspring would derive their incomes from varied forms of agriculture and farming for the first 100 years.
In 1880, the Santa Fe Railway depot was constructed west of the Bosque River and in 1881 the Gulf, Colorado, and Santa Fe Railroad was completed through Clifton. This progress would lead to the demise of the original town site of Clifton east of the Bosque River. The depot was closed in 1983 after more than 100 years, and moved to its current location in town to serve as the Police Department. Also in 1881, the first business located west of the river closer to the railroad, and the following year, in 1882, a mass migration of merchants began to the “new town” built around the railroad tracks. The old Whipple Truss Bridge was built in 1884 to link the “New Town Clifton” on the west of the Bosque and “Old Town Clifton” on the east. The bridge is still in use today and one of Clifton’s most treasured links to the past.
In 1882, the community boasted two hotels. In 1885, the First Baptist Church built the first church in “New Clifton,” where other congregations also worshipped until the church burned. In 1889, Schow Brothers opened their mercantile business west of the tracks. A new school was built west of the tracks in 1893 to replace the Old Rock School. In 1895, Clifton had its first bank. That same year saw the establishment of The Clifton Record, the first local newspaper and today’s oldest Clifton business. A large portion of the downtown district was destroyed by fire in December of 1906.
In 1896, Clifton Lutheran College was formed, and remained on “College Hill” for 57 years until it was closed in 1954. Today, the remains of the campus form the nucleus of the Bosque Arts Center, a noted fine arts organization which heads a noted cultural district in the city.
In 1939, Drs. Van Goodall and Seth Witcher realized a dream when they opened a 10-bed hospital near downtown Clifton. The hospital served the medical needs of Clifton at this location before a new hospital and clinic were built at the present location in 1972 and renamed Goodall-Witcher Healthcare Foundation. A new clinic was completed in 2008 and the hospital underwent a major modernization as well. Today, after more than 70 years, Goodall-Witcher continues its tradition as one of the finest rural healthcare systems in Central Texas.
Clifton Lutheran Sunset Home had its origins in 1954 on the former Clifton College campus. It was rebuilt into a modern nursing facility in 2008. The city boasts two other nursing facilities today, one housed in the Goodall-Witcher Hospital. In 1957, Bosque Museum built a facility to house the large collection of early artifacts belonging to pioneer Jacob Nelson. The items had been housed in Clifton College until it was closed. Today, the museum has undergone several enlargements and remains one of Clifton’s most popular tourist attractions.
Clifton observed its sesquicentennial anniversary in 2002 and today continues to grow and diversify. More and more people are making Clifton their home, whether to raise families in an old-fashioned climate, or to spend their retirement years. Today, Clifton is a progressive community always moving forward, but ever mindful of its past and those who paved the way.