Killeen was founded on May 15, 1882, when the first Gulf, Colorado & Santa Fe Railway Company (GC&SF) locomotive arrived from east Bell County.
The Gulf, Colorado and Santa Fe Railway was a subsidiary of the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railway. From its starting point in Galveston, Texas, the railroad eventually extended northwestwards across the state to Sweetwater and northwards via Fort Worth to Purcell, Oklahoma.
Killeen was originally known as Paolo Alto. It was a small farming community that came to life in 1872. In 1881, the Gulf, Colorado and Santa Fe Railway extended its tracks through central Texas, buying 360 acres a few miles southwest of Palo Alto. The land was purchased from Susan Spofford for $960. GC&SF honored its assistant general manager, Frank Patrick Killeen, by naming the new town for him.
By the next year, the town included a railroad depot, a saloon, several stores, and a school. Many of the residents of the surrounding smaller communities in the area moved to Killeen. By 1884, the town had grown to include about 350 people, served by five general stores, two gristmills, two cotton gins, two saloons, a lumberyard, a blacksmith shop, and a hotel.
Killeen expanded as it became an important shipping point for cotton, wool, and grain in western Bell and eastern Coryell Counties. By 1900, its population was about 780.
Around 1905, local politicians and businessmen convinced the Texas legislature to build bridges over Cowhouse Creek and other streams, doubling Killeen’s trade area. A public water system began operation in 1914 and its population had increased to 1,300 residents.
It remained a town of approximately 1,300 until 1942, when a tank destroyer center was opened nearby and became Killeen’s close neighbor–physically, economically, and socially–displacing farms and ranches and converting the town from an agricultural to a military-based economy. In 1950, Camp Hood, named for Confederate general John Bell Hood, became a permanent military installation and was renamed Fort Hood. Laborers, construction workers, contractors, soldiers, and their families moved into the area by the thousands, and Killeen became a military boomtown.
The loss of more than 300 farms and ranches led to the demise of Killeen’s cotton gins and other farm-related businesses. New businesses were started to provide services for the military camp. Killeen then suffered a recession when Camp Hood was all but abandoned after the end of the Second World War, but when Southern congressmen got it established in 1950 as a permanent army post, the city boomed again. Its population increased from about 1,300 in 1949 to 7,045 in 1950, and between 1950 and 1951, about 100 new commercial buildings were constructed in Killeen.
In addition to shaping local economic development after 1950, the military presence at Fort Hood also changed the city’s racial, religious, and ethnic composition. No blacks lived in the city in 1950, for example. By the early 1950s, Marlboro Heights, an all-black subdivision, had been developed. In 1956, the city school board voted to integrate the local high school. The city’s first resident Catholic priest was assigned to the St. Joseph’s parish in 1954, and around the same time, new Presbyterian and Episcopal churches were built.
By 1955, Killeen had an estimated 21,076 residents and 224 businesses. Troop cutbacks and transfers in the mid-1950s led to another recession in Killeen, which lasted until 1959, when various divisions were reassigned to Fort Hood. The town continued to grow through the 1960s, especially after US involvement deepened in the Vietnam War and demand for troops kept rising.
By 1970, Killeen had developed into a city of 35,507 inhabitants and had added a municipal airport, a new municipal library, and a junior college (Central Texas College). By 1980, when the census counted 49,307 people in Killeen, it was the largest city in Bell County. The city had a heterogeneous population including whites, blacks, Mexican Americans, Koreans, and a number of other foreign nationals. By 1990, the population had increased to 63,535, and 265,301 people lived in the Killeen/Temple metropolitan area.
After the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in the late summer of 1990, the city prepared for war, sending thousands of troops from the 2nd Armored Division and the 1st Cavalry Division to the Middle East.
On October 16, 1991, George Hennard murdered 23 people and then committed suicide at the Luby’s Cafeteria in Killeen.
In December 1991, one of Killeen’s high school football teams, the Killeen Kangaroos, won the 5-A Division I state football championship by defeating Sugar Land Dulles 14–10 in the Astrodome.
By 2000, the census listed Killeen’s population as 86,911, and by 2010, it was over 127,000, making it one of the fastest-growing areas in the nation.
Numerous military personnel from Killeen have served in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. As of April 2008, more than 400 of its soldiers had died in the two wars.
On November 5, 2009, only a few miles from the site of the Luby’s massacre, a gunman opened fire on people at the Fort Hood military base with a handgun, killing 13 and wounding 32. Major Nidal Hasan, a career officer and psychiatrist, sustained four gunshot wounds after a brief shootout with a civilian police officer. He suffered paralysis from the waist down. He was arrested and convicted by a court-martial, where he was sentenced to death.
In 2011, Killeen got media attention from a new television series called Surprise Homecoming, hosted by Billy Ray Cyrus, about military families who have loved ones returning home from overseas.
On April 2, 2014, a second shooting spree occurred at several locations at Fort Hood. Ivan Lopez, a career soldier, killed three people and wounded 16 others before committing suicide.
During its first 60 years, Killeen developed into a busy agricultural center specializing in cotton and wool.