Dallas

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Dallas first grabbed the national imagination in 1936 when it hosted the Texas Centennial Exposition. Since then, the fascination with “Big D” has seldom flagged. If the assassination of President Kennedy in 1963 cast a pall over the city, the success of the Dallas Cowboys and the popularity of the television series “Dallas” revived the image of a glitzy, hustling metropolis at the center of the Sunbelt.

In this concise overview, Hazel examines the city's roots as a frontier market town, its development as a regional transportation center, and its growing pains as it entered the twentieth century. Ku Klux Klan dominance in the 1920s is chronicled, as well as the half-century of control by an elite group of businessmen. The narrative concludes with a look at today's city, struggling with issues of diversity.

The author pays special attention to the role of ethnic groups in shaping Dallas: the French colonists of the 1850s; the German, Swiss, and Italian immigrants of the 1870s and 1880s; the Mexican Americans of the early twentieth century; and the Southeast Asians of recent decades. He also examines the role of African Americans, who came with the first Anglos and struggled for more than a century to gain equality.

Dallas: A History of Big D is based on pioneer letters and reminiscences, as well as the research of recent years. Written in a popular style, it will appeal to scholars and general readers curious about how Dallas grew to become the nation's eighth largest city.

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1. Establishing a Town

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ESTABLISHING A TOWN

THE HISTORY OF DALLAS as a permanent settlement begins in 1841, when the first Anglo pioneers arrived. Native Americans certainly traversed this area on hunting expeditions for thousands of years before then, but there is little evidence of prolonged encampment. Traces of conical structures typical of Caddo farm sites have been found in the Mountain Creek drainage area southwest of Dallas, and prehistoric tools and spear points have been unearthed on the edge of downtown Dallas. But such artifacts are still very rare, and knowledge about these early inhabitants of the region is scanty. In general, the Trinity River, which cuts the modern city in half, seems to have been a sort of dividing line between the more agrarian tribes of eastern Texas and the nomadic, buffalo hunting tribes of the west.1

The primary asset of most of what is now Dallas County was its rich, blackland soil. “It is universally admitted to be the finest soil in the country,” wrote Edward Smith, an Englishman who visited the region shortly after Texas joined the Union, “equalling in fertility the rich alluvial bottoms of the great Mississippi valley.”2 Apparently his description was not too exaggerated, for an early settler wrote as follows: “This portion of the country is just as rich as any man wants it to be. The soil is black and sticky as far and deep as necessary. Corn, wheat and cotton grow well. . . .”3

 

2. A Boom Town

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A BOOM TOWN

CONSTRUCTION OF THE Houston & Texas Central railroad resumed after the Civil War, and within a few years Dallas began experiencing some of the differences rail transport could make. Instead of goods being shipped from New Orleans up the Red River to Jefferson and then overland, they now tended to come through Houston and up the railroad to whatever the northernmost terminal happened to be, then loaded on wagons for delivery to North Texas.

The exact route which the railroad planned to take was not precisely fixed. But Dallas citizens were determined that it would be through their town. As early as 1866, there was a community meeting, presided over by John Neely Bryan himself, to discuss strategies for attracting a railroad. In 1871, when it appeared that the H&TC might lay its tracks eight miles east of Dallas, town leaders met with railroad officials to see what it would take to persuade them to route closer to town. The railroad owners asked for free right-of-way for their tracks and enough property for a depot, and they expected a cash grant. Dallas voters were asked to approve these inducements, and by an overwhelming vote of 177 to 11, they did so. The H&TC got 115 acres of land, including the right-of-way that is today Central Expressway, and $5,000 in cash.43

 

3. Growing Pains

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GROWING PAINS

DALLASITES GREETED the new decade optimistically. Construction began for a new courthouse (the county’s sixth), and for a new luxury hotel, the Oriental. In May 1893 citizens crowded the banks of the Trinity River to greet the steamboat H. A. Harvey, Jr., which had traveled from Galveston in a mere two months.67 But the United States was soon swept by a financial “panic,” a recession triggered by the failure of the Philadelphia & Reading Railroad and a subsequent run on the banks. Five Dallas banks failed, and the price of cotton dropped to less than five cents a pound. Dallas’s population actually declined.68

Dallas was one of the two most industrialized cities in Texas, and the recession hit it hard. A majority of laborers worked in three areas: the manufacture of leather goods (mostly harness and other farm equipment), printing and publishing, and machine-tool production. Poor working conditions in some of these industries had encouraged the organization of labor unions and occasional strikes.69 The recession threw hundreds of men out of work and dealt a setback to the infant unionizing effort.

 

4. From Trauma to Triumph

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FROM TRAUMA TO TRIUMPH

PROHIBITION PUT OUT OF business some 220 saloons and beer parlors in Dallas, as well as twelve wholesale liquor houses and a brewery. As elsewhere throughout the nation, private stills and bootleggers quickly began operations, often quite profitably; a 1925 survey revealed that Dallas bootleggers enjoyed a daily income of $36,000.94 Throughout the 1920s the Dallas sheriff and his deputies were kept busy arresting violators and confiscating their wares.

Even more disturbing was the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan. The Dallas chapter, organized in 1920, swelled within four years to become the largest in the nation, with an estimated 13,000 members. Although the Klan appealed to the uneducated, arousing hatred not only of African Americans but also of Catholics, Jews, and foreigners in general, many members in Dallas were leaders in banking, utilities, and other professions. At one time, the Dallas police commissioner and the chief of police were both members, as were the Democratic Party county chairman and the county tax collector. A local cut-rate dentist named Hiram Wesley Evans soon rose to take charge of the national Klan. In 1923 there was a special KKK day at the State Fair, where 25,000 spectators watched 5,631 men sworn into the Klan.95

 

5. Dynamism and Disaster

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DYNAMISM AND DISASTER

THE SUCCESS OF THE 1936 Centennial was due primarily to the fact that R. L. Thornton had put together a 100-man committee composed of local board chairmen and company presidents to sponsor the event. He said he wanted “yes” men, men who could commit their company’s funds without approval by anybody else. Once the Centennial was over, Thornton decided there was merit in keeping the group alive. At first he wanted to call it the “yes or no” council, but the more dignified name “Dallas Citizens Council” was finally chosen.

Membership on the council was by invitation only. To be eligible, one had to be the chief executive officer or president or the top executive of a firm doing business in Dallas. This included especially the city’s leading bankers, insurance men, manufacturers, merchants, and the publishers of the daily newspapers. It largely excluded professional people such as lawyers, doctors, and teachers, as well as labor leaders. The inclusion of the newspaper publishers into the inner circle—and their willingness to join it—meant that the city’s media would generally support projects or goals backed by the council.118

 

6. Diversity and Democracy

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DIVERSITY AND DEMOCRACY

ERIK JONSSON SERVED as mayor of Dallas from 1964 until 1970, considerably longer than the fifteen months he had originally envisioned. He was to be the last CCA mayor and in some ways the most successful, at least in creating an image of a modern, efficient, well-run city government that worked to unite the citizens. A particularly successful project Jonsson initiated, in late 1964, was called Goals for Dallas. He asked citizens to help come up with common goals for such areas as local government, transportation, health and welfare, education, cultural activities, and recreation. A permanent office was set up, and meetings were held throughout the city. As priorities began to emerge, a series of books was published describing them and setting deadlines. Voters passed a bond proposal in 1967 to construct a new city hall and adjoining park plaza, and another bond proposal two years later to air-condition public schools and implement a kindergarten program. Goals for Dallas continued as an ongoing project and probably played a role in getting Dallas named in 1970 an “all-American city” by Look magazine, the only city in its size category to be so honored.134

 

Conclusion

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CONCLUSION

IN THE LAST HALF CENTURY, a popular myth has arisen that Dallas is an “accidental” city, one with no obvious reason for being. Not located on a navigable waterway, it became a transportation center only through the determination of its civic leaders. Likewise, its regional dominance in banking, insurance, publishing, and other industries was the achievement of single-minded businessmen and women. “People made Dallas,” goes the myth, “visionary, hard-working individuals.”

While such a myth is attractive (“We accomplished it all by ourselves, with no help from nature!”), it should be clear from the foregoing that Dallas’s location, its natural resources, and even its climate have all played key roles in its development. John Neely Bryan chose the site because it was adjacent to one of the best fords across the Trinity River for miles around. Early settlers were attracted by the fertile terrain. The sunny, relatively dry climate became increasingly attractive to residents of the eastern and northern United States as the twentieth century progressed.

 

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