(Mineral Wells is 48 miles west of Fort Worth)
In the early 1870s, Texarkana, in the northeast corner of Texas, was a gateway via rail from the northeastern United States, including New York. Marshall, just south of Texarkana, was a gateway to Texas via rail from the east. Texarkana, Marshall, Houston, and Galveston were connected by rail. During that period and following years, the Texas and Pacific Railway expanded westward and connected Marshall to Dallas (1872), Fort Worth (1876), Weatherford and Millsap (1880), and finally El Paso (1881) where it joined the railroad from the west coast. (1885 Rail Map)Paul Proft
The wellwater in Mineral Wells, eight miles northwest of Millsap, became known for its medicinal qualities circa 1881. In 1882, a stagecoach line connected Mineral Wells to Millsap, a terminal of the Texas and Pacific Railway. Mineral Wells boomed as a health resort after 1885.1 "Games were very popular in the pavilions and boarding house lobbies, and the domino game 42 was the most popular."2
Garner, seven miles east of Mineral Wells, was the home of 12-year old William Thomas in 1887, the year he reportedly co-invented the domino game 42. Thomas frequented Mineral Wells in his youth to deliver fruit from his father's orchard. According to a Dallas newspaper interview with Thomas 40 years later (1927), he taught others in Mineral Wells how to play 42.3
Thomas became a prominent businessman later in life and told the Dallas Journal his 42 story in 1927 when he was about 52 years old. This is the documented story that the Fort Worth Star-Telegram cited as the source for their article in 1985, and subsequently in Roberson's book published in 1997 which was widely publicized on the internet. Thomas also relayed a similar story which was later cited by the Parker County Historical Commission.4
I was unable to find documentation with sources that did not trace back to Thomas himself. (No information was found on reported co-inventor Walter Earl.) Perhaps Thomas's recollections are accurate. Perhaps, too, there is more to the story than related in his interview with the Dallas newspaper.
Did the tourists in Mineral Wells learn the game from the locals, or did tourists bring the game to Mineral Wells? If Mineral Wells was playing 42 prior to 1887, then Thomas probably co-invented the game earlier than 1887. There is disparity in how old he was in 1887, and some sources indicate the game originated in 1885,5 possibly as early as 1883.3,4 (age disparities)
Travellers from the east and northeast most likely used the Texas and Pacific Railway (and stagecoach from Millsap) to get to the resort town of Mineral Wells. Tourists from other states, including New York, might have brought the game with them. It was not uncommon for polite society in those days to play card games using dominos, and residents of South Butler, New York were playing 42 "long before the days of the automobile" (perhaps they learned the game from travellers from the Houston/Galveston area).6 The game could also have made its way to Mineral Wells via travellers from other Texas cities that had rail service in the 1880s.
In my quest to find corroboration and validity for Thomas's story, I kept stumbling over references and circumstantial information that indicated 42 might have been played before 1887. Besides the differences in Thomas's reported age (10/12/teen) and the year he developed 42 (1885/1887), one source suggested 42 was a card game that was played as early as 1878.7 The timing for Mineral Wells becoming a health resort (and the expansion of rail service from the east) support the stories that 42 was first introduced in Texas in the vicinity of Garner and Mineral Wells. The nagging question in my mind is, however, which came first. Was 42 played in Mineral Wells before or after the 1885-1887 timeframe when Thomas reportedly "invented" the game?
It doesn't really matter which scenario is played, the Garner story by William Thomas will stand until documentation to the contrary is discovered. I agree with Dennis Roberson that Thomas's story is the best record of how 42 originated in Texas. History is fortunate that William Thomas was able to get his story documented before his death in 1946. If it had not been documented in newspaper and book publications, the legends associated with other origins of 42 would have carried equal weight, and there would be mixed speculation just where the game did, indeed, originate.
If you have more information on the origin of 42, or if you have comments regarding these scenarios, I'd sure like to hear from you.
Added 11 Jan 2017: A Canton visitor cited a 1915 newspaper article that indicates 42 might have originated in Mineral Wells.
~ ~ ~Sources:
1. https://tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/hem04 (Link)
2. Http://www.famouswater.com/story.aspx (Link to archived document))
3. Evans, Christopher. "Texas 42 was in the cards." Fort Wort Star-Telegram 3 Aug 1985 (Summary)
4. History of Parker County, page 34, Parker County Historical Commission, 1980 (Extract)
5. Tolbert, Frank X. "New York Curious About Texas 42." Dallas Morning Newspaper 3 Aug 1961
6. Laurence A Johnson. "A Texas Game in South Butler." New York Folklore Quarterly, Winter 1960
7. William Jennings Demorest, Ellen Louise Curtis Demorest, Jane Cunningham Croly. Demorest's Family Magazine, 1878 (Snippet) 42 card game