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Traveling Belt Line Road in Dallas

Crossing mechanism from the 1950s at railroad crossing.
A Belt Line relic at Seagoville. I took this photo in 2011 and it's probably gone, now.

Some roads scream to be traveled, like the Blue Ridge Mountain Parkway or California Highway 101. Other roads are more subtle in their allures, but when taken, their beauty unfurls with heady abandon.

And then there are roads like Belt Line in Dallas.

Several years ago, I drove the entire Belt Line Road that circles around Dallas County, and I did it again this past month. Why I'd do such anything is not an easy question to answer. Belt Line simply passes through almost all of Dallas' inner ring suburbs, though mostly not through their down towns. It's a highway that doesn't lend itself to speeding, what with all the stoplights, twists and bends. And only in then southern part can it be considered somewhat scenic.

But, while it's not a pretty road or even a charming one, Belt Line Road does have a certain kind of - well, draw. Of course, that attraction stems from its short but fairly interesting history. The "Belt Line" was originally proposed as a railroad that would link Dallas to the Cotton Belt (St. Louis Southwestern Railway), which had bypassed Dallas and built into Fort Worth instead. The company that attempted the project, the Dallas Terminal Railway, fell far short of its goal, with only four miles of the belt railway completed by the early 1900s. Then, Belt Line Road became one of the manifestations of the Kessler Plan, Dallas' earliest attempts at city planning. In this plan, published in 1909 and followed haphazardly for almost one hundred years, George Kessler recommended that the railroads lines that zig-zagged all through the center of the city be placed outside the city, and surrounding communities would be connected through a common belt line. However, the railroads balked at sharing tracks with their competition. Dallas County carved the new road, and while the rails did not follow, cars certainly did. Belt Line became Dallas' first loop highway, and still serves the metro area as a major traffic artery.

So let's see the sights along Belt Line Road! Okay, maybe not "sights" but rather "things to acknowledge."

0 miles - Coppell

I started in Coppell, where Denton Tap Road (a railroad "tap" into the proposed Belt Line) meets Belt Line Road. In this affluent bedroom community, Belt Line Road travels straight south, past new strip malls, office parks, and a Dairy Queen. Belt Line Road bisects Bethel School Road, one of Coppell's few references to its country past.

5 miles - DFW Airport

After Belt Line crosses over Texas 114 (also called John Carpenter Freeway), the road marks the eastern boundary of the Dallas Fort Worth Airport. Stands of trees and no trespassing signs make this a "friendly" place to stay away from.

8 miles - Irving

Belt Line slithers through many strip malls, apartment buildings, restaurants, and convenience stores before passing Irving Mall at the intersection with TX 183. Irving is a child of the railroad and its downtown showcases that, tough Belt Line Road does not go through the city's center.

9 miles - Sowers

While still technically Irving, the old farming community of Sowers once witnessed an ambush on Bonnie and Clyde by the Dallas Sheriff Department on nearby Esters Road.

16 miles - Grand Prairie

The first place you'll encounter once you enter Grand Prairie is the horse racing venue Lone Star Park. Further south on Belt Line, you can enjoy the weirdness of Ripley's Believe it or Not! and a wax museum. An outdoor safari park once existed behind these two attractions.

Belt Line Road crosses over old US 80 (Main Street) in Grand Prairie. Grand Prairie gets its name from the wide swaths of open grass land that used to surround it before "civilization" obliterated this unique landscape.

24 miles - Cedar Hill State Park

You'd be surprised at how pretty Dallas County upon seeing the hills that surround Cedar Hill State Park. Though the park centers around a man-made lake, swaths of native tall grass prairie hint at what the area used to look like.

28 miles - Cedar Hill

Cedar Hill is one of the oldest settlements in Dallas County, and grew with the arrival of the railroad in the 1880s. One of the largest fossils in the state was found in Cedar Hill.

In Cedar Hill, Belt Line takes a turn to the east as it merges with FM 1382.

32 miles - DeSoto

If it weren't for a sign displaying "DeSoto Independent School District" at a middle school, you'd never know that you were in DeSoto. That's not to say DeSoto isn't interesting... it's just that Belt Line Road bypasses the town's center. DeSoto may be named after an early resident, Dr. Thomas Hernando De Soto Stewart, but with an odd name like that, someone may just be pulling my leg.

39 miles - Lancaster

It's in Lancaster where Belt Line Road passes through a much more rural landscape. Proud, two-story, four square homes that occasionally hug the road hark back to the town's farming roots. Belt Line intersects with the tracks for the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad, which reach the gin in downtown Lancaster.

In the summer, the acres of black land prairie that surround Lancaster are dotted with cotton.

43 miles - Wilmer

The cotton industry defined Wilmer, which grew up around the Houston and Texas Central Railroad. Today, Wilmer is a small community near the Ellis County Line. Belt Line Road comes close to the city's small downtown.

East of Wilmer, Belt Line Road crosses over the Trinity River and its immense flood plain. If you look north onto the Trinity River, you can see a ruined lock that was built in the early 20th century in the hopes to open the river to barge traffic. Making the Trinity River navigable was also part of Kessler's Plan, which included building levees to thwart future flooding.

Signs along the reeds in the river bottoms warn of alligators. Large reptiles that can chew off your arm, along with the many junk yards that hug the road, makes this portion of Belt Line Road quite memorable.

51 miles - Kleberg

Kleberg is an older settlement that blossomed with the arrival of the railroads. That connection is evident at the junction of Belt Line and Kleberg Roads, where an old railroad crossing signal still stands near a now non-existent right-of-way.

54 miles - Seagoville & Balch Springs

Belt Line Road cuts through Seagoville and Balch Springs without nary a glance. Not much to see here. However, keep your eyes open for the road signs that delineate Belt Line Road - the road makes a sharp move to the north.

60 miles - Mesquite

Like all towns in Dallas County, Mesquite thrived on cotton and railroads. A number of outlaws took advantage of that fact, too. Belle Starr lived in nearby Scyene, and none other than Sam Bass held up a Texas & Pacific train, making off with $30,000. You'd think with that kind of money, he'd have been able to retire. Instead, Sam kept on thwarting the law until one day in Round Rock, Texas he succumbed to an ambush posse while on his way to rob a bank.

Belt Line Road cuts through downtown Mesquite. Nearby on Barnes Ridge Road is the Florence Ranch Homestead, an outdoor heritage museum. Another interesting place is the Opal Lawrence Historical Park on Kearny Street, which centers around a sprawling home from the 1870s.

71 miles - Garland

Once you drive under the Interstate 30 bridge, Belt Line Road will be known as Broadway. But that's not the only name changes you'll need to know in Garland! Broadway merges into North First Street, and the road becomes Belt Line again once it enters Richardson. The different names probably come from roads that existed before Belt Line was built. Garland, in its infancy, was a stage coach stop between Dallas and Jefferson and therefore had several trails passing Duck Creek, its original name site. There were two farming towns along Duck Creek that merged together to take advantage of the railroads that steamed through both towns. In the early 20th century,citizens bought their own generator and thus created Garland Power & Light Company, one of the first cooperatives utilities in the state. The company is still growing today.

78 miles - Richardson

In Richardson, Belt Line turns to a westerly direction.

Founded by the Houston & Texas Central Railroad, Richardson grew from a cotton shipping point to become the home of the Telecom Corridor, Texas' own Silicon Valley. Belt Line Road runs right through downtown Richardson. The many international restaurants -Mediterranean, Korean, and Chinese - attest to the demographic diversity of this town at the forefront of the Information Age. After crossing under US 75, Belt Line passes through affluent residential areas.

85 miles - Addison

Addison's yet another town that developed courtesy of the railroads. Today, it's a lively restaurant and entertainment area. The Cavanaugh Flight Museum, located at the Addison airport just north of Belt Line Road, is worth an extended visit.

88 miles - Carrollton

The further you drive west on Belt Line, the more industrial and aged the scenery becomes until finally, you reach downtown Carrollton. Neat as a pin, Carrollton grew up with the railroads and still hosts a major interconnecting switching yard just to the north of Belt Line Road. No less than four tracks used to cross Belt Line, but the roadway has been elevated to alleviate traffic. Above Beltline Road are the elevated tracks of the DART, Dallas County's light rail commuter train.

Here's where Belt Line Road lives up to its original purpose. The tracks of the Fort Worth & Dallas Belt Railroad (formerly Cotton Belt tracks) parallel the road as you make your way west from Carrollton into Coppell.

94 miles - Coppell

Follow Belt Line Road until it meets up with Denton Tap again. Voila! You made a circle around Dallas! Now you can impress your friends and family.

The Belt Line was a great idea that never quite got off the ground. That doesn't mean it wasn't successful - it simply became an industrial loop that relies on trucks, not locomotives. It's not necessarily a drive I'd recommend, but it's also not a bad way to spend the day.

Old photograph of downtown Mesquite with track and car.
Downtown Mesquite in the early 1920s along the future Belt Line Road (Mesquite Public Library).
Old photograph of Richarson Texas.
Richardson's Main Street became the Belt Line. This photo is from 1910.

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