San Angelo, the county seat of Tom Green County, is on U.S. highways 87, 67 and 277, State highways 208 and 126, Farm roads 584, 765, 1223, 388, and 853, and the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway, 220 miles northwest of San Antonio, in the center of the county near the geographical center of the state. The history of the frontier town began in the late 1860s across the North Concho River from Fort Concho, which had been established in 1867. As an early frontier town, San Angelo was characterized by saloons, prostitution, and gambling. Officers of nearby Fort Concho would not leave the garrison after dark. Shortly after the fort was established, Bartholomew (Bart) J. DeWitt, the founder of San Angelo, bought 320 acres of land from Granville Sherwood for a dollar an acre and, over the river, established a trading post, which was later called Santa Angela. There are several stories as to how the town was named, including one in which it was named for DeWitt's sister-in-law, a nun in San Antonio. A local historian found that DeWitt named the town in memory of his wife, Carolina Angela, who died in 1866. The name had changed to San Angela by 1883, when application was made for a post office. The proposed name of San Angela was rejected because of the ungrammatical construction. The name should be Santa Angela or San Angelo. The latter was chosen. Oscar Ruffini, the architect of many of the early business buildings in San Angelo, arrived in the town shortly after the flood of 1882, which destroyed the county courthouse in Ben Ficklin, the county seat. After the voters decided on San Angelo as the new county seat, Ruffini was asked to design and supervise the construction of the new county courthouse. Ruffini remained in San Angelo, where he was the architect of about forty buildings in the downtown area, some of which are still in use.
Contributing to the early growth of San Angelo were Fort Concho, an ample supply of water, ranching, agriculture, and the coming of the railroads. The fort brought a steady flow of money from the soldiers' pay, which in turn brought traders, merchants, and others who catered to the needs of the soldiers. The first legitimate business, a combination general store and saloon, was opened by William S. Veck. San Angelo was located at the juncture of the North, South, and Middle Concho rivers and was surrounded by farms on the east and ranches on the west. The town's economy, therefore, became more diversified than that of many other frontier settlements. During the cattle boom of the 1870s thousands of longhorn cattle were watered and fed along the Concho rivers on their way to market. Richard F. Tankersley introduced cattle ranching on the South Concho as early as 1864. John Arden and Joseph Tweedy introduced sheep ranching in 1877. Arden drove his herd from California, and Tweedy drove his from near Fort Clark.
San Angelo became a shipping center with the coming of the Santa Fe Railroad in 1888 and the Kansas City, Mexico and Orient in 1909. Further communication with the outside world was provided by the telegraph and telephone. The telegraph came with the establishment of Fort Concho. The San Angelo Telephone Company was established in 1899 by John, Jerry, and Lew Rust. In 1946 the company was sold to Southwestern Bell, which in turn was sold to General Telephone Company of the Southwest in 1953. By 1989 San Angelo was one of the regional headquarters of GTE, which employed about 2,400 people.
The town has been served by the news media since its beginning as the town "over the river." James Kibee was editor of the Concho Times from 1880 to 1884, when J. G. Murphy and W. A. Guthrie began publishing the San Angelo Standard, acquired by Harte-Hanks in 1920 (see HARTE-HANKS COMMUNICATIONS). Radio station KGKL began broadcasting as early as 1924. In 1952 television station KGKL began operation. By 1989 there were eight radio stations and Simmons Cablevision, which offered thirty-five channels for 29,000 customers in San Angelo and the surrounding area.
Agriculture, ranching, and later the oil and gas industry became the most important factors in the economy. Wool growers, cattle ranchers, and the railroads combined to make San Angelo one of the leading cattle markets in Texas, the largest sheep market in the United States, and one of the leading inland wool and mohair markets in the nation. San Angelo has one of the most diverse industrial bases in Texas. More than 120 manufacturing companies produce a wide variety of products, including surgical sutures, denim jeans, iron and steel, and electronic and oilfield equipment. In 1991 the San Angelo labor force numbered approximately 37,216. The unemployment rate was 5.9 percent.
The first house of worship was an adobe building erected by the Catholic Church and replaced in 1883 by a stone structure. As late as 1880 the only Protestant minister for Tom Green County was James Walker, a black man from Kentucky. During the 1880s a number of Protestant churches were organized. The First Christian and the First Methodist churches were established in 1882 and the First Baptist Church in 1883. By 1989 San Angelo had more than 175 churches and one synagogue.
San Angelo had become a highly rated medical center by 1989. The first hospital was a post hospital constructed at Fort Concho in the 1870s. In 1910 St. John's Hospital and Health Center was founded by the Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word of San Antonio, making it the oldest nonmilitary hospital in West Texas. In 1912 the state legislature established the State Tuberculosis Sanatorium, which became the McKnight State Sanatorium in 1950. The Shannon Medical Center, founded in 1932 by the estate of Margaret Shannon and including the Shannon West Texas Memorial Hospital and the Medical Plaza, is the largest acute-care facility in the region. The Angelo Community Hospital, a locally owned nonprofit institution organized in 1929, provides a wide range of medical services. The River Crest Hospital, opened in 1988, provides psychiatric and chemical dependency care and specialized services for adolescents, adults, and families. The Baptist Memorial Geriatric Hospital is the only geriatric hospital in West Texas providing long-term care. The West Texas Rehabilitation Center is a private, nonprofit institution that provides outpatient treatment for the handicapped. San Angelo also has become widely known as a retirement center. In 1989 four communities offered low-maintenance residences.
After incorporating in 1903, San Angelo was able to establish a city-controlled educational system designed to improve its schools. Mexican Americans protested the inferior education that their children received in segregated schools by completely boycotting the Mexican-American schools in 1910–11 and 1914–15. Nevertheless, San Angelo schools remained segregated for many years. In 1989 the San Angelo Independent School District operated twenty-one elementary schools, four junior high schools, two senior high schools, and one school for special education. San Angelo College, established in 1928, became an accredited senior college in 1965. In 1990 Angelo State University, with an enrollment of about 6,000 students, offered forty-two undergraduate and nineteen graduate programs.
Fort Concho was one of the best preserved frontier forts in the United States in 1990. It has been declared a National Historical Landmark. In 1940 the United States War Department selected San Angelo as the location for Goodfellow Air Field. In 1958 the air force changed its function from air training command to United States Air Force Security Service, offering intelligence training courses to all branches of the military. Goodfellow Air Force Base also became the home of the $100 million Strategic Air Command long-range radar unit.
In 1920 the population of San Angelo was 10,050. Between 1920 and 1930 the population doubled to 25,308, and by 1950 the number of residents had doubled again to 52,093. The increase between 1920 and 1930 can be attributed in part to the oil boom accompanying the opening of the Permian Basin oilfield in 1923. The huge increase in the 1940s came with the establishment of Goodfellow Air Field. The population increased from 52,093 in 1950 to 73,240 in 1980. In 1990 the population was 84,474. In 2000 the population was 88,439.