Why Dallas? [December 1973]

A search in photographs and old records for the sources of our state's most controversial city. How did it get like it is, and why?

May 2002By Comments

A RIVER BEGAN IT. Sluggish in summer, scant. A red and awesome terror in a wet spring. Too much river . . . or not enough.

Called Daycoa by some Indians, Arkikosa by others, in 1690 Alonso de Leon, a Mexican-born officer of the Spanish crown, bestowed its modern name: La Santisima Trinidad.

The Most Holy Trinity.

Trinity: three-in-one. Was it only a coincidence that the veins of the upper river, coming together as they do in three-part pattern, gave the earliest identity to a place in the wilderness that would someday be Dallas?

The Three Forks, it was called: the West Fork rolling in from the prairies, joined (near the spot where the city would begin) by the Elm Fork from the north, flowing together southward until the East Fork made the Trinity whole.

It was an easy landmark, and although today not all the forks are within the city limits, we may be fairly certain when those old travelers and explorers mention visiting the Three Forks, they crossed some part of the present city of Dallas.

The first Europeans may have come as early as the fall of 1542. Having buried their leader in the waters of the Mississippi, the survivers of Hernando de Soto’s expedition, with Luis Moscoso in command, are believed to have straggled across Dallas in a wandering attempt to reach Mexico.

In journals and reports it keeps cropping up, this description of a river and the three branches that made it; French traders camping on the site in the eighteenth century, Spanish diplomats and priests treating with the Indians. Never staying, but always noting this region of good water, fertile soil, plenteous hunting.

Not until 1837 did citizens of the new Republic of Texas make an appearance in the Three Forks. And it was inauspicious enough. In the autumn of that year some 50 men from La Grange chased an Indian raiding party up the Colorado River to present-day Eastland County. They divided, and 20 men under Lieutenants Van Benthuysen and Miles moved easterly and struck the Trinity in Wise County. There, on November 10, they were ambushed and lost Lieutenant Miles and eight others, plus all the party’s horses.

After a retreat downriver, the survivers camped on the site of downtown Dallas a few days, then limped home.

Sometime early in 1840, a 29-year-old bachelor made an exploring trip to the Three Forks country. His name was John Neely Bryan. He had been a lawyer in his native Tennessee, then a merchant and town planner in Arkansas. He had even clerked a while at Coffee’s trading house, and once (to overcome the after-effects of the cholera) had lived four years with the Indians. His interest in the lands to the south must have been intensified by the radiant reports of those who stopped by Coffee’s—but on his visit he seems to have found no one to accompany him but a Cherokee friend and guide named Ned, Bryan’s horse Neshoba (which meant “Walking Wolf”), and a bear-dog named Tubby.

Some historians posit Bryan planned to set up a trading post with the Indians at a likely spot on the Trinity. Whatever his intentions, he seems to have encountered a likely destination. He stood on a small bluff on the east side of the river and looked across and (one likes to think) had a vision. He hurried back to Arkansas and told his friends in Fort Smith he had found what he had gone looking for.

It took John Neely Bryan nearly two years to cut his ties, gather up needs, and return to the Three Forks. In November, 1841, he entered Texas again at Preston, and rode down the trail south, this time leading a pack horse in addition to Tubby and Walking Wolf. He reached his little bluff that looked westward across a satisfactory ford on the river. The immediate surrounding land on his side was open, but there were plenty of trees nearby for logs and creeks with good water.

He dug into the bluff and, using a tent as part of the shelter, constructed himself a dugout home of sorts.

Dallas had been born.

He was not an aimless wanderer, John Neely Bryan, and it is a shame that the city he made can’t know more of him. He was one of the frontier strange ones; gifted in vision, but touched with a kind of driven, vengeful fate that finally enveloped him (he suspected the terrible experience of cholera had damaged his mind and body) and he died, many years later, honored by his booming town but confined to an Austin insane asylum: his grave unmarked and unknown to this day.

Bryan began concrete plans for creating a city as early as 1843. His townsite made a near grid plan, with eight streets running north-south and a dozen running east-west. The original streets, from the river were: Water, Broadway, Houston, Jefferson, Market, Austin, Lamar, and Poydras. The east-west streets, beginning at the southern edge of the plat, were: Columbia, Polk, Jackson, Commerce, Main, Elm, Burleson, Carondalet, Walnut, and Calhoun. (Although the preliminary surveys were run in 1844, there is good reason to believe the names were all finally given a short time later.)

Water and Broadway were eliminated when the Trinity was rechanneled in 1928—although strictly speaking, they still exist as far northern extensions. The Triple Underpass today stands about where the river ran in the 1840’s.

Jefferson was changed to Record in the 1920’s to honor James Record, a pioneer county clerk and to avoid confusion with the extension of Jefferson in Oak Cliff. Columbia Street disappeared in the 1870’s (it would be somewhere near the rear of the present Dallas News offices). Polk was renamed Young late in the nineteenth century to honor the Rev. W. C. C. Young (whose wife, Marilla, was also honored with a nearby street). Burleson became Pacific in 1873 at the request of the officials of the Texas & Pacific Railway when its rails were laid down that avenue. Carondalet became Ross Avenue when the lower end of Ross was opened through in the 1890’s. Walnut and Calhoun were eliminated when the railyards of near-North Dallas were being laid out in the 1870’s, ’80’s, and ’90’s.

Bryan donated the central block of his new town for a public square and it remained the site of the courthouse until the 1960’s. Bryan also offered free lots to young married couples who moved to Dallas. A number of them accepted.

Until such a time as a courthouse was needed Bryan continued to raise crops on the public square. When a courthouse was built in 1846 (a 10 by 10 log cabin) it was erected on the northeast corner instead of the center of the square, so as not to disturb Bryan’s crops. (This cabin was burned in 1848 by, as one chronicler put it, “Christmas spirits!”)

Few events, or episodes, have been of more influence on the shape and color of Dallas’ aspirations than something which began on April 26, 1854. That day the first arrivals (a dozen men) came to arrange for the Fourierist colony to be called La Reunion.

Victor Considerant, with Arthur Brisbane and others, had already scouted out the county (inexpertly as it was done) and written about it in Au Texas, creating a zealous phalange (a term used by the Fourierists) eager to come to the paradise at Dallas. The main body of colonists didn’t get to Texas until June 16, 1855. They moved onto 1200 acres of land which lay on the west side of the river—much of it where the portland cement works have been since 1900.

The colony’s story followed the usual lines of American utopias. The practical side of making a living in a frontier land was overwhelming to the political and philosophical virtues of the colony—which had drawn the majority of participants. A curious mixture of artists, aristocrats, dabblers, and professions for which there was little market doomed the scheme, and unusual weather, even for Texas (a bitter norther in May 1856 for instance) added to the miseries of a group ill-adapted to the time, the place, or the society already there.

But the importance of La Reunion to Dallas was not in the numbers, the philosophies, the success or even the failure of the experimental social undertaking itself. La Reunion added something to Dallas few frontier towns of any size were to have: intellectual and artistic awareness—curiosity and acceptance of the best things of the mind and heart. Although many of the phalangists went back to France, as did Considerant, enough stayed and moved into the town so that their dimension grew larger than their size.

They not only gave Dallas a taste of music, dancing, painting and poetry—they added some commercial possibilities which, coming as early as they did, made the region much readier to adopt modern trade practices when the future of Dallas depended on such adaptability. Because of La Reunion, Dallas had fine tailors, lithographers, dress-makers and milliners, weavers, watchmakers, jewelers, shoemakers, stonemasons, cooks and vintners (yes, cuisine is always commercially important). Two of the colonists, Julian Reverchon and Jacob Boll, naturalists, were the first internationally recognized scientists—or personages—in Dallas. It was this influx that made it possible for the city to be a cosmopolitan center when the time came for such considerations to enhance the growth of both a community and a culture in it. The pages of American (and Texas) history are sprinkled generously with the instances of important towns which, lacking this broadening lifestyle, were simply unable to become “big cities.”

One interesting consequence of the Civil War in Dallas was the establishment of several “Freedman’s Towns” around the county. Out of these grew black communities along Alpha and Noel roads in far-North Dallas, and Little Egypt, which persisted near Northwest Highway and Abrams Road until the 1960’s. Other black communities were along Ten Mile Creek and Bonnie View Road in South Dallas, where freed slaves first camped, then farmed near their former masters.

But the most famous Freedman’s Town was the one built immediately following the war on the eastern edge of Dallas, in the vicinity of what would become Elm and Central and Preston and Good. This grew into the famous “Deep Ellum,” the Negro district made famous by songs and fables, but also productive of many a great black singer and folk figure—such as Blind Lemon Jefferson and Leadbelly (Huddie Ledbetter) of the twentieth century. It became a haven, a black sanctuary in a white world, where conditions of existence were often miserable, but where a black could be left alone. And out of it rose a whole culture of black passion, loneliness, and eventually, independence. Negroes from all over East Texas flocked to Dallas in the decades following the emergence of Deep Ellum, many of them lawless in white eyes, many of them worthless (a favorite definition of a Deep Ellum resident) except for their fingers and their voices.

Vice flourished, as it always will when no other industry is allowed, and death was common in an area where law was capriciously enforced by callous and scornful officials—but Deep Ellum, until its demise with the building of Central Expressway, gave a breadth and power to Dallas arts that, no matter how scorned by the whites, outshone its unseeing neighbors.

Dallas in 1870: the population, by U.S. census, was 2960, but many transients were coming and going, some of them displaced Confederates from the other Southern states, some of them adventurers come to Dallas because it was as good a “jumping-off-place” for western Texas as any.

At the opening of the decade Dallas was definitely a small town. However, it had three hotels; the veteran Crutchfield House ($21 per week, gold, for board and room, eight to a room sleeping in four double beds, with one wash bowl and one towel), the William Tell House, and the Union Hotel (later the St. Charles).

Fiddlers were in demand because the tenderloin district ran day and night. Gambling, dancing and whoring were prevalent in the southwest corner of downtown—a street or two off Main for the prostitutes, while gambling halls and saloons were solid on the north side of Main from Houston to Austin. There were sixteen gambling houses, eight licensed saloons, six pool halls, and a shooting gallery to entertain the public. In contrast there were four churches: one Methodist, a Cumberland Presbyterian, one Christian, and one Episcopalian.

The city was primitive. In 1870 one statistician said mud on Elm Street was two to five feet deep after any kind of a rain. For fires (two huge ones in 1869 had caused the concern) there were newly built cedar cisterns at Houston and Main, and Market and Elm. Newcomers were coming all the time. A Swiss group settled east of town, on Swiss and Germania—the latter street name changed to Liberty during World War I.

The news that the railroad (the Houston & Texas Central) had reached Dallas and would, henceforth, reach it daily, was a major item in Texas papers of July in 1872. One senses a kind of importance attached to the event that went beyond the timetable. Almost as though everyone concerned took it for granted Dallas was headed for greatness—even if that greatness would be, for several years, self-appointed. The official celebration of the arrival of rails was July 16, and the biggest crowd in Dallas history met all day to eat buffalo barbecue and hear historic speeches.

That evening, true to its schedule, the train pulled out southbound on its return trip to Houston and the cities in between. But Dallas went to bed happy, knowing the iron horse would be back next day, and the next, ad infinitum. Nothing would ever be quite the same.

The arrival of the Texas & Pacific in 1873 was, if anything, more important than the arrival of the H&TC. For one thing, the tide of emigration and trade was sweeping westward, not northward. For another, the crossing of two railroads at a 90° angle was what made Dallas—not just a railroad. For that matter, there were dozens of cities along the lines of both the H&TC and T&P which grew very little, or gained nothing but convenience from having just one railroad coming through.

As important as the rails themselves were the so-called “terminal merchants” who came north to Dallas with the H&TC; such businesses as Huey and Philp, the Padgitt brothers, and particularly Philip and Alex Sanger. The 50 by 80 foot Sanger Brothers store grew, by 1900, to be the largest retail store in the Southwest and became the “school” for most of the men and women who established the other major Dallas retail establishments. It set a tone of high taste for a town still close to its frontier days (Sanger Brothers published its own fashion magazine in the ’90’s) and was the lodestone that drew the garment and fashion industry to Dallas to make it a national manufacturing and design center. A century later the little store had become the huge Sanger-Harris stores with large outlets all over Dallas.

The first telephone exchange opened June 1, 1881 on Elm near Market. D. M. Clower, a pioneer local electrical engineer, installed the board, which had connections for 1200 subscribers but opened with forty. Judge John Bookhout was the first subscriber, and Miss Jennie E. Thompson was the first “telephonist.” There were 260 hand-operated phones in town by 1882, and a long distance line had been run to Lancaster.

Electricity was introduced in 1882 when a privately owned plant was set up at Carondalet and Austin. Mayer Garden, an amusement park on the north side of Elm at Stone, had the most illumination with five or six lights. Sanger Brothers store had three. These were arc lights, not incandescents.

The Twentieth Century. Never had the world awaited the turn of a century with so much hope and interest. Many things had been named “Twentieth Century” well before the time had arrived (Twentieth Century Limited railroad train is an example). And even though, technically, 1900 was not the first year of the new century but the last of the old, Dallas and the world met it as part of—tomorrow!

What would happen, though no one could predict it then, was that Dallas, with a population of 42,638, was heading into its final decades as a town . . . a place, not a metropolis. A place is where the individual is still recognized, known to all, or a great many, of the fellow citizens. A place has certain characteristics, just like a person; recognizable traits, unique attitudes, and actions.

A metropolis becomes something larger than its parts; something wider than any one person’s experience or acquaintance can encompass. In a metropolis, things happen daily that a life-long inhabitant never find out about. Even neighbors are relatively unknown. You “run around with your group”—you don’t take a general view of public life. In fact, you never go into some parts of town—most parts of town—in a metropolis.

But for a while, and a glorious two or so decades it was, Dallas was a place . . . a big city, certainly, and a city in growing national as well as state importance. But still, a place: where streets were instantly recognizable, because you passed over them every day or so. A place where everyone in town knew the location of the Oriental Hotel, or the baseball field, or the National Bank of Commerce. And most people knew, also, who the hotel’s manager was, or which streetcars went by the ball park, or where the president of the bank lived.

Of course, progress was rushing in, not creeping. If it was progress. Everyday something changed, never to be as it was. Sometimes that “something” was society itself. World War I—the Great War as it was called—was one of those eras that swung culture around by its collar. So was the automobile—although slower—and Prohibition, electricity, the telephone, streetcars, pavement, fashions—the list is endless because it is daily. Change after change after change so constant, and so rapid, that no decade could look back and remember how things were.

But for this little time there was a form of contentment that had not been asserted before, and certainly would not be asserted again—so far as history has come, at least. It was the contentment of security; of understanding without frustration what you wanted to do, what you could do, what you should do.

It was a different time. Not better, not preferable; a time not without its weepings and wailings that have now been voided. But different . . . so very different. So vastly, publicly, privately, individually, collectively different. Showy, naive, breathless, pretentious, charming: depressing, unreal, frustrating, hypocritical . . .

But never will it exist again except in memory—and in the images of itself it left behind.

If we should pick a beginning for the modern era in its strictest sense, the word would surely start with A: A for Automobile.

The first automobile to arrive in Dallas belonged to Edward Howland Robinson Green who, driven by a factory engineer sent with the car, rode in from Terrell October 15, 1899, making the thirty-five mile trip in five hours, which included time out to repair damages done when a wagon forced the car off the road at Forney, in what may have been the state’s first auto accident. Green (who was called “Colonel” after the Governor gave him the honorary title in 1911) was president of the Texas Midland Railway, and had had the auto shipped over his line, of course, thereby giving Terrell the honor over Dallas of having the first automobile in Texas run over its streets first. (The Times Herald reported, the day after its arrival, that Green’s car was the first automobile in Texas: there were other claimants.)

Like the stagecoach, the interurban was a romantic, memorable way to travel. At the height of its popularity in Dallas, special luxury trains of parlor cars and, at one time, a diner, were used. The most important men of the region could be seen in the smoker, puffing on Havana cigars (rolled in Dallas), and talking loftily from their swivel leather seats with fellow grandees, while traveling at speeds of sixty miles-per-hour.

Many a country boy, on the other hand, stood at the back pasture where the line ran through his father’s farm, and deep in the night waited for the headlight of the Waco local to come swaying down the track, for the car to stop with a hiss of air brakes, and carry him off forever to Dallas—or the wider world beyond.

Special amusement parks were established along the lines for riders, the two most memorable being Kingsland Park between Dallas and Richardson (just north of where the present-day Presbyterian Hospital stands), and Lake Erie at Handley, near Fort Worth. A good many romances, leading to betrothal and marriage, were begun or fostered on the excursion cars to these spots. Despite the parlor cars and high-speed specials, the interurbans were essentially the mode of transportation of the common people, the people who would have had to stay home otherwise. Like the streetcar, their doom was pronounced by the ever-increasing availability of the private automobile.

For some time Henry Exall had had a horse farm out on Preston Road and had created a lake on Turtle Creek which became a popular picnic and rowboating site. There was even a rail spur leading to it at the turn of the century.

In 1907 J. S. Armstrong, the same man who had broken his partnership with Tom Marsalis over the way Marsalis was handling the sale of lots for Oak Cliff, bought Henry Exall’s farm and quite a bit of additional acreage and turned it over to his sons-in-law, Edgar Flippen and Hugh Prather. They began development of a raw, barren set of fields they named Highland Park—although along both sides of Exall’s lake the topography was inspiring enough to create palatial manors and estates which survive today.

This was, and remains, the most restricted, most desirable (to some) place to live in Dallas County. Because it was so far from Dallas, Highland Park became an independent city—and so would remain despite passionate efforts through the years to bring it into Dallas. But it has resisted, offering the same advantages it offered at its creation: investment security (land and houses in Highland park almost never decrease in value); tight control of city hall, the schools, and municipal services; an almost small town atmosphere; lower taxes than surrounding Dallas but with all Dallas’ services, and (to many but not all residents) lack of non-white citizens and school pupils. (The latter could change at any time.)

When Southern Methodist University was established to the north and east of Highland Park, adjoining it, another “island city” was created: University Park. Streetcar service from Dallas was run there from the first. Although both are a thorn in the side of Dallas because of the conflicting school systems, street numbering, traffic passage, and tax structures, no one seriously believes the Park Cities ever will come into the grasp of Mother Dallas. For one thing, many of the men who run Dallas at the practical level live in the Park Cities and do not want to be a part of the city where they have their offices and businesses.

But probably the main reason the Park Cities will not voluntarily join Dallas is quite visible: the Highland Park concept has worked well for those who want it. It is a remarkably serene and handsome area which has protected itself from the inside as well as from the outside.

A country boy, who later admitted with pride that all the schooling he had had past grade six was “the university of cotton, men, and mules” had come to Dallas in the year 1910 and, strictly as a business venture, had gotten into book selling. When the state began supplying free textbooks, this country boy—whose name was Robert Lee Thornton—got out and, being convinced that finance was one place where shrewdness could get you farther than a college degree, joined a small banking firm. By 1916 it was Stiles, Thornton and Lund, with offices on Main, between Jefferson and Market. That was the beginning of the Mercantile National Bank which, by the 1930’s, was one of the “Big Three” of downtown banking.

Thornton grew more and more influential (a banker has an advantage that way, one must admit) in civic affairs “for the good of Dallas” and in 1935 was one of the key men in securing the Texas Centennial Exposition (with millions of money) for Dallas. After this, in 1937, not wanting to see the team disbanded, he was key man in chartering the Citizens Council, the shadow government of Dallas which for the next 30 years would dominate, or strongly channel, virtually any municipal and civic decision, whether it was the long range attraction of new industries or racial integration of local businesses.

Thornton (called Uncle Bob in his later days) was also mayor of Dallas for many years, or until he grew tired of the post. The last of the highly individualistic, self-deciding leaders, he usually could (and did) meet any kind of city crisis with half a dozen phone calls.

He had a kind of charm. Once, describing the sort of people who ran things, he stumbled over the word “dynamic” and called them “the dydamic men of Dallas”—probably deliberately playing on his “rural” vocabulary. This became not just a catch phrase but a gut description of Dallas control in the 1940’s and ’50’s.

Although the Citizens Council way of running a city excluded the public (only “yes-and-no” executives: bankers, the newspaper publishers, utilities presidents, owners of big payroll industries—but no professional men, or university leaders, educators, ministers, or artists) and made rubber stamp groups of City Council and administrative officials, Bob Thornton’s honesty kept it from becoming a corrupt machine. Seldom did the leadership act selfishly, except in a collective manner, and there was no scandal apparent in the operation of the city government. The balance of power among the self-appointed control group kept any single member or smaller collusion from splintering the cabal.

It was not democratic, but it was not tyrannical. In another age it might have been accepted with resignation or even gratitude. But it was a concept of control, an opportunity, out of more feudal times, and as Dallas and the nation advanced into the era of social welfare and concern, the Citizens Council found itself more and more baffled, and less and less directly in control of things. The death of Bob Thornton in 1964, the assassination of President John F. Kennedy (and its attendant flare of publicity—much of it bad—about the Dallas oligarchy), the single-member redistricting decisions (Dallas county and city had voted as one unit, which enabled a dominant control group like the Citizens Council to write its own legislative slate as well as name the City Council and the school board), began to bring it down. Uncle Bob was the last of the roughshod frontier leaders. There was no one to take over the reins with his cunning and his force.

Although the Great Depression was already on the nation, Dallas felt optimistic in 1930 with a population of 260,397. It had four newspapers (the Journal and Dispatch competed with the Times Herald in the afternoon while the News had the mornings alone) and a new federal building which opened at St. Paul and Bryan. That fall the Cotton Bowl, with a capacity of 46,000 replaced the old steel race track grandstand at Fair Park.

Dallas was becoming the center of a web of paved highways, the Bankhead Highway, the major east-west artery, having come through in 1928, and by 1932 the last major outlet, the Northwest Highway to Wichita Falls was opened—the name soon used for a long ribbon of road which had nothing to do with Wichita Falls or the north-westerly direction.

Sometime within that year—maybe a few months before—Dallas had looked in the mirror and seen an adult. It was a grown up city.

The years that brought it to maturity were ended.

It was now a big city in the way all big cities are alike—keeping some unique identity, certainly, but never again to be “our town” or a home place where one life can cover all its facets.

Still to come were events and celebrations, disasters and shocks, notoriety, successes, stature. Bonnie and Clyde would, another irony, become among Dallas’ most famous offspring—outlaws. At their death in 1934, 20,000 would attend the funeral and airplanes would drop flowers.

Football: Bobby Wilson and his SMU Mustang teammates drawing national attention for the first time in 1935; followed by Doak Walker and the teams of the 1940’s . . . and the professional successes of the Dallas Cowboys of the 1960’s and ’70’s.

Still to come: the great Texas Centennial Exposition of 1936 and the Pan American of 1937, drawing the eyes of the world to Dallas—and Dallas a city which, shrewdly, would not release them.

And: the East Texas oil boom which would discover a generation of fabulous creatures called “Rich Dallas Oilmen” and bring names like Neiman-Marcus into national use as a phrase for ultimate luxury and self-indulgence. After the Centennial and East Texas oil the cowboy as symbol of Texas would be gone: replaced by the rags-to-riches wildcatter like Dad Joiner, and the unbelievably wealthy petroleum princes such as H. L. Hunt, Algur Meadows, and the Murchinson family—going all over the globe after wealth and taking Dallas with them. For better . . . or worse.

Still to come: landmarks now held common; Central Expressway, the Turnpike, the Tollway, and Stemmons . . . the downtown towers of the Mercantile, Republic, and First National Banks . . . Big Tex at the State Fair, NorthPark, One Main Place, the plastic degradation of Lemmon Avenue.

Names: like H. Ross Perot, Linda Darnell, Stanley Marcus, E. DeGolyer, Bob Hayes, Earl Cabell, Lon Tinkle, Don Meredith, Erik Jonsson . . . and Lee Harvey Oswald.

And: sometime in the 1970’s when the population of Dallas passed the one million mark.

But all that is another story—another city.

It is not just a different chapter: it is a different book.

There is no end.

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