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Dallas (Dallas County)

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Dallas has its origins in a trading post that lawyer and Indian trader John Neely Bryan from Arkansas established at a narrows in the Trinity River flood plain south of the union of the river’s three branches in 1839. The site was a natural hard-bottomed crossing on an Indian trail and the location of a military road (now TX 289) being planned in 1838 by the Republic of Texas. However, by the time Bryan built a log cabin in late 1841, the local Caddo had been forced out of the area. Instead of trading, he sold parts of his land grant, thus attracting settlers to the town he called Dallas (the source of the name is still disputed). J. P. Dumas surveyed Bryan’s town in 1844, and in 1846 it was designated as county seat when Dallas County was formed, with Bryan donating the square for a courthouse. Bryan was appointed postmaster in 1844 and established a ferry across the Trinity in 1846. In July 1860, after a fire destroyed much of the wooden town, brick and stone were used in the rebuilding. In 1861, Dallas County voted in favor of secession and joined the Confederacy in the Civil War. After the war, emancipated slaves migrated into the urban labor market, establishing over thirty freedmen’s town neighborhoods, such as Queen City, Little Egypt, Oak Cliff, Deep Ellum, and Frogtown, and settling as tenant farmers in the region.

Because the Trinity River was only seasonally navigable, Dallas only experienced significant growth after the railroads turned the city into a regional crossroads with national connections. Using financial and land incentives, Dallas secured the routes of the Houston and Texas Central Railway building northward in 1872 and the Texas and Pacific building westward in 1873. The post–Civil War agricultural economy of wheat and cotton and the trade in bison hides quickly expanded with mercantile, banking, insurance, and manufacturing enterprises. The railroads themselves attracted a diverse population, including their own large crews of administrators, technicians, and laborers. Population jumped from 3,000 in 1870 to over 10,000 in 1880 and to 38,000 in 1890.

A disastrous Trinity River flood in 1908 (floods were almost annual events) that devastated the downtown led to the commission of Dallas’s first city plan in 1909–1912 from planner George E. Kessler. Kessler found a Dallas of unplanned growth, with narrow, crooked streets and small, uncoordinated speculative parcels. His concepts sought to unify the city with transit and utility improvements combined with parks and landscaping on City Beautiful models. Elements of the plan that were implemented over the following decades included substantial realignment of the Trinity River, levee construction, street improvements, elimination of at-grade rail crossings, a rail bridge and underpass on the west edge of downtown, a train station, a civic center, a downtown auditorium, and schools and parks. George B. Dealey, publisher of the Dallas Morning News, led the Kessler Plan Association in the efforts to make Dallas a great city. While some of the practical recommendations were implemented over the next several decades, beautification features like parks and a civic center were largely ignored.

Dallas possessed considerable social, economic, and political diversity in the decades between the coming of the railroads and World War II. The commercial-civic-social elite often formed single-issue coalitions with strong populist, socialist, trade union, and women’s club organizations. Dallas did not experience the worst of the Great Depression due to its diversified economic base, substantial railroad operations, cheap labor pool, and proximity to the oil fields in East Texas and Ranger County to the west. Business interests controlled city politics starting in the 1930s. Securing the 1936 Texas Centennial Exposition was a major effort by city leaders led by banker (later mayor) Robert L. Thornton. The Exposition, like a world’s fair, brought national attention to the city and hopes of an economic influx to stimulate growth and ease the effects of the Depression. While the immediate effect was disappointing, Dallas was primed for dramatic growth after World War II.

The post–World War II expansion included civic facilities, a trade center, and highways. The 1970s and 1980s brought new high-rise buildings downtown, created the West End Historic District (DS5), and produced the plan for the Arts District, which was largely complete by 2012. The opening of the Dallas–Fort Worth (DFW) International Airport (AW6) in 1974 made Dallas an international crossroads. With an area the size of Manhattan, the DFW airport connected Dallas’s already diversified economy with international markets.

In the closing decades of the twentieth century, the pattern of downtown high-rise buildings and suburban sprawl around new, city-like nodes was similar to other large cities across the country. Well ahead of other Texas cities, Dallas built four radial lines of a light rail system, Dallas Area Rapid Transit (DART), created in 1983 with ninety miles of track. DART capitalized on the rail corridors previously established by the interurban Texas Electric Railway Company, which ran south to Waco and north to Denison and ceased operation in 1948.

Through the late twentieth century, Dallas’s national and self-images have been dominated, when not darkly clouded, by the Dallas television show, the Dallas Cowboys football team, and the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. The TV show finally lost its ratings and audience, and the football team had its good and bad years, but the assassination stunned and demoralized the city. Generations later, the site at Dealey Plaza (DS6) still attracts global tourists and conspiracy theories. Politically and economically, Dallas has recovered, but guilt lingers.

Instigated by Kessler’s beautification plans of 1909–1912 for the city, Dallas began the twentieth century with an acclaimed park system. In the early twenty-first century, the Dallas Park and Recreation Department developed a long-range strategic plan, including a program of custom-designed pavilions that made each park unique. Downtown received major urban parks and small pocket parks.

By the end of the twentieth century, Dallas, like every other Texan city, was a 9–5 workplace, vacant after hours. Unlike other Texan cities, however, Dallas had a large building stock of old warehouses and factories downtown, which were repurposed starting in Deep Ellum (southeast of downtown) in the late 1990s for “urban loft living.” In the early twenty-first century, the greatest change to downtown Dallas, along with the fleshing out of the Arts District, was the phenomenal increase in the downtown residential population: repurposed historic office buildings in the center, warehouses east and south, new condominiums and apartments east, south, and north, and new residential high-rises especially in the near north. By the early twenty-first century, the city, with its population of 1.2 million and county population of 2.4 million, competes on the national stage as a center of art, culture, and finance.

Writing Credits

Gerald Moorhead et al.

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