According to tradition, the land where the city of Wichita Falls is presently located, in southeast Wichita County, was acquired in a poker game by John A. Scott of Mississippi in 1837. In fact, Scott acquired the tract by purchasing Texas land certificates, which he packed away and promptly forgot. Years later the certificates were rediscovered by Scott's heirs, who commissioned M. W. Seeley to map out a townsite on the tract on the Wichita River. As platted by Seeley in July 1876, the townsite included the location of a small waterfall on the Wichita River that was later washed away, several named streets, and a town square. In a fanciful drawing that accompanied the plat, Seeley also included an imaginary lake, a steamboat on the river, and warehouses laden with cotton and other goods. The town never became a steamboat shipping center, although railroads were very important to its later development. At the time of Seeley's plat there were already a few settlers living in the area. Tom Buntin and his family had been there since the 1860s, making their living hauling buffalo hides, and John Wheeler settled there in 1875, as did John Converse, who built the first store. Seeley himself built a small house at a site now at the corner of Sixth and Ohio streets, and Alexander Craig built a cabin nearby. All of these early settlers eventually moved on. The first permanent settlers were the Barwise family of Dallas. They first came to the townsite on an exploring trip in 1878 and returned to stay the following year. Barwise purchased the Craig cabin and two lots for $105.00. Schooling for the Barwise children was provided by M. W. Seeley's daughter, Hattie Seeley, in her home, where Alexander C. Garrett also conducted Episcopal Church services. A post office was established in 1879; Charles G. Converse was the first postmaster. The first public school opened in the fall of 1880 and the first church, First Methodist, was formally organized in 1881. By that time, according to various reports, there were between eight and thirteen families living at the townsite.
During 1881 and 1882 the residents of Wichita Falls induced the Fort Worth and Denver Railway Company, then building tracks west out of Fort Worth, to run the line through the town by offering substantial property concessions along the right-of-way. The arrival of the first train on September 27, 1882, triggered a boom in the sale of town lots. Also in 1882 the first manufacturing concern, a shingle and sorghum mill, was established along with the first lumberyard. Joseph Alexander Kemp, later to become one of the most prominent of the town's promoters, arrived in 1883 and soon established a general merchandise store. Wichita Falls became the county seat of Wichita County in November 1883. It was officially incorporated on July 29, 1889, and the first meeting of the town council occurred on August 21, with Mayor Otis T. Bacon presiding. Soon the economy was stimulated by the arrival of more railroads. At the turn of the century the Wichita Valley Railroad, the Wichita Falls Railway, the Wichita Falls and Southern Railway, the Wichita Falls and Oklahoma Railway, and the Wichita Falls and Northwestern made the town a transportation and supply center for Northwest Texas and southern Oklahoma. Frank Kell, Kemp's brother-in-law, arrived in 1896 after buying the Wichita Valley Mills Company. Kemp and Kell were to be the two leading promoters of the city for several decades.
By 1890 the population was 1,987, and as the town continued to grow, its leaders recognized the need for a reliable water supply. The Lake Wichita project was begun in 1900 and completed the following year. It was the primary source of water for drinking and irrigation, as well as a major recreation site until the 1920s. Lake Kemp and Lake Diversion were added during the 1920s, followed by Lake Kickapoo in 1947. Today the primary water supply comes from Lake Arrowhead, constructed in 1966. By 1907 the population of Wichita Falls was 5,055, and the economy was firmly based upon railroads. In addition to the population, the infrastructure was also growing. By 1909 Wichita Falls boasted thirty miles of sidewalk, five miles of sewers, and more than 100 businesses. A streetcar system also appeared; it featured an extension to Lake Wichita that made the lake a recreation center. Soon a hotel, a domed pavilion, a racetrack, a boardwalk, and vacation cottages sprang up. The lake remained the center of recreation activity for the city until well after World War I, even though the hotel was destroyed by fire in 1918. The abandoned pavilion burned in 1955.
The town's first newspaper was the Wichita Mirror, printed by Steve Reynolds in the early 1880s. Dr. H. A. Lewis managed the Wichita Herald, which was later owned by Frank T. Daugherty and Ed Howard. The Times, founded in 1887 by Sam Bell Thomas, was purchased by Howard in 1897. He and others organized the Times Publishing Company in 1907 and began printing the Wichita Daily Times and the Record News. The two papers continued to appear separately until 1987, when they were combined into one morning paper.
Oil was discovered just east of the city in Clay County around 1903, but it was the opening of the Electra field in 1911 that triggered a shift in the economic base (see WICHITA COUNTY REGULAR FIELD). By 1913 the North Texas fields were producing 46 percent of all the oil in Texas, and refineries began to appear in Wichita Falls in 1915. The discovery of the Burkburnett fields in 1918 triggered an actual boom. Bank deposits increased by 400 percent in 1919, and oil-related industries increased dramatically. By 1920 there were nine refineries and forty-seven factories within the city. The oil boom also produced a building boom. More than a dozen major building projects were inaugurated in the downtown area during the early 1920s. In addition, the city added a municipal auditorium in 1927 and an airline passenger service in 1928. That same year the city's first commercial broadcasting station, KGKO, was established. The city also adopted the city manager form of government.
The population of Wichita Falls in 1930, on the eve of the Great Depression, was 43,607. There were thirty-two parks, forty-seven churches, four railroads, twenty schools, and 118 industrial establishments. The depression slowed growth but did not stop it, due in part to a major oil discovery at nearby Kamay in 1938. In 1940 the population was 55,200. Bank deposits exceeded $36 million, and there were ninety-two miles of paved streets, seventy-seven manufacturing establishments, 127 wholesale outlets, and 741 retail stores. In 1941 the economy was further bolstered by the opening of Sheppard Field, an Army Air Corps training facility. By May 1945, when the base reached its peak strength, there were 46,000 army personnel stationed there. The base was deactivated on August 31, 1946, but reopened as Sheppard Air Force Base in August 1948. It continued to function as a major training center for air force technicians and a flight training center for NATO.
Wichita Falls had a population of 110,100 in 1955. By 1960 the population had dropped to 101,724, and while oil production in the area still ranked eighth in the state, it would soon be eclipsed by other areas. By 1962 refinery activity had practically ceased. Recognizing that change was coming, the city's leaders formed Industrial Development, Incorporated, which sought to diversify the economy by attracting other types of industries. Gates Rubber Company built a plant in 1964. Sprague Electric and Johnson and Johnson followed in 1966. Tex-Color Labs arrived in 1967, followed by Town and Country Mobile Homes and Dowell Division of Dow Chemical Company in 1968. In 1970 Industrial Development merged with the Chamber of Commerce to form the Board of Commerce and Industry. This organization was successful in attracting fifteen new industries during the 1970s, including Pittsburgh Plate Glass, Certain Teed, Washex, Howmet Turbine, AC Spark Plug, and Cieba Geigy. These successes produced great optimism that the new trend would continue, but it declined by the early 1980s. Moreover, several companies moved their facilities away. These included Johnson and Johnson and Sprague. Meanwhile, because of the construction of a large shopping mall in the southwestern part of the city, the downtown collapsed as a viable shopping area.
Wichita Falls was devastated on April 10, 1979, by one of the largest tornadoes ever recorded. Sweeping through the southern part of the city, the storm destroyed twenty percent of all the dwellings in town and damaged or destroyed numerous business establishments. Miraculously only forty-five people were killed, although more than 3,200 were injured. The city made a rapid recovery, and within three years most of the damage had been repaired. Also, the boom in oil prices during the early 1980s caused a brief flurry of activity in business. However, when oil prices slumped again in the mid-1980s, the economy became stagnant. In 1993 Wichita Falls had a population of 97,710 and 2,933 listed businesses. In 2000 the community had grown to 104,197 inhabitants and reported 4,335 businesses.