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'The King of Tramps' was here

'The King of Tramps' was here

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We had a legend in our town, and we didn't even know it.

What's worse: We threw him in jail for 30 days.

Tex, "King of Tramps," spent a month in the can for getting crossways with a railroad agent in Fromberg.

The story of Tex, K.T. (or, Tex, "King of Tramps") is literally the stuff of legend. In a small circle of railroad buffs and tramp experts, Tex K.T. is more myth than man.

Tex, K.T., whoever he was, wherever he was from, was a tramp (please don't confuse that with a hobo or a bum) who road the rails, carving his name on stations, viaducts, bridges and just about any other structure that could be chiseled, etched, painted or defaced.

His public signature was well known to the dismay of the railroads, but not as famous as "Kilroy" (of the "Kilroy Was Here") fame or A-No. 1, a tramp who achieved even better fame for his habit of leaving his name wherever he stopped.  

Many of the places Tex literally left his mark have been knocked down, renovated or painted over, but for a few brave graffiti hunters, there are still a few of Tex's inscriptions.

Like the Kilroy markings, Tex tended to sign "Tex, K.T.," a compass point for a direction he was heading and a number.

It's the number that has been the most puzzling for Tex's searchers. The numbers are different, referencing something maybe only Tex knew, but now keeps searchers looking, hunting.

That's where Michael Wray of Texas comes in.

He and his son first discovered an etching carved in a window frame on a weathered train depot in eastern Washington. "TEX K.T." From there, another 250-mile drive hunting for another Tex inscription on a railroad bridge. From there, a journey to find this man who left his mark almost everywhere, but little about himself.

Several folks have built up, speculated or maybe even fabricated stories about this mystery tramp. Even famous journalist Eric Sevareid mentioned him in his cross-country train journey, noting Tex must have had a "terrible straining of the ego to find expression — either that or he was a wandering imbecile having a glorious time."

For all of Tex's "writing" and for all the speculation, little was known about the man whose graffiti starts around the Great Depression and disappears in the 1950s. 

And it just may be that The Billings Gazette in two separate articles provides the only real documented evidence of the legend Tex, K.T.

The first Gazette article appeared in July 26, 1931.

Tex, who gave his real name as "Jesse Wells," claimed to have left his name etched, painted or scribbled into more than 7,300 "cities, towns and stations."

The jail in Billings was giving him a stay because the Fromberg agent said he had "a lack of discretion in selecting places for his sign."

Tex goes on to recount how he mastered his trade, idolizing A-No.1, whose real name was Jack Livingston. In 1931, a sign that Livingston carved in Billings dated 1902 still existed. Livingston died in 1916.

"Whatever it was driving him wasn't cured by a 30-day stay," Wray said.

Several other Tex, K.T. inscriptions are still out there in the area, including one near Forsyth. 

"I always put up my signs in the moonlight," Tex told The Gazette.

Most of the time, he used ink that he purchased from proceeds of panhandling. Sometimes he used shoe polish, carried with him as many as seven knives and had dulled dozens of others beyond use, according to the article. 

The longest period he ever spent working was six days in the harvest fields of North Dakota. Other than that, he spent his time reading and eating by day, carving by night, and knew how to cajole five cents of day-old bread out of three pennies from local bakeries.

Released three days after the first article appeared, Tex told the Gazette, he was Seattle bound, "declaring that he was through writing and carving his initials into railroad stations."

And yet, TEX, K.T. would continue for another two decades carving the same block letters and mysterious numbers.

Addison Bragg even thought he had the number system figured out in a column in 1973. 

Wray has debunked that, though. The numbers that appear to change on nearly every inscription don't work out to Tex's birth year or death year.

Sorry, Addison. 

The number of the inscriptions has decreased as new paint is applied or old depots are ripped down. Still, a few remain, stubborn yet elusive clues to a man who apparently saw every nook and cranny in the country and only left a name.

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