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Quintessential Red River Stories


Denison, founded in 1872 as the terminus of the Missouri, Kansas and Texas Railway, is the quintessential industrial, progressive city of the Red River Valley.


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Plenty of places are unique in the Red River Valley - and their contributions have created what one could call the "quintessential experience" of this region.

Denison, Quintessential Railroad City
Denison lies north of Sherman in Grayson County, Texas and is, without doubt, one of the most interesting cities along the Red River Valley. Founded by the Missouri, Kansas & Texas Railway in 1872, its relatively short existence belies the incredible amount of change this city has seen. The MKT was the first railroad that connected Texas to northern markets, which made Denison a very important city in the period after the Civil War. At one point, Denison saw seven (maybe more -this is my rough estimate) railroads converge onto its center. Today, most of what remains of this vast infrastructure lies in ruin or has simply vanished.

One of Denison's main employers, and major site of its industrial activity, were the MKT shops located beneath by the Austin Street viaduct  just south of Denison's downtown (today, the viaduct is known as Eisenhower Parkway). Once the work place of Dwight D. Eisenhower's father and also the site of a major labor union dispute, the shops moved to Ray Yard in west Denison after a fire burned the roundhouse in the 1920s. The downtown rail yard continued to be used for switching until the 1990s, when the MKT was subsumed into the Union Pacific Railroad. The tracks were removed as all the shunting was done at Ray Yard.  The same goes for the Houston & Texas Central Railway. It, too, was incorporated into the Missouri Pacific, then Southern Pacific, then into the Union Pacific Railroad, and its shops in Denison were destroyed. The H&TC tracks were later acquired by the St. Louis & San Francisco Railway, and today, the old right-of-way once used by the H&TC is traversed by the Burlington Northern Santa Fe.

I decided to see if I could find any remains of these once-busy places, and I wasn't disappointed. Although it still pains me to see what little is still extant of Denison's railroad past, it is fascinating to uncover its ruins.

Coded Architecture
I bet, whenever and wherever you drive along your road trips, you will immediately be able to identify certain businesses, regardless where your travels have taken you. A McDonalds is a McDonalds is a McDonalds; the Sonic in McAlester looks like the Sonic in Ardmore that looks just like the Sonic in Paris. Wal-Mart doesn't change its spots, either; the big parking lot, huge double doors, flat roof, and two-hue paint scheme of either blue and gray or beige and brown is an immediate give-a-way. And woe be the RaceTrac or 7-11 or Wag-a-Bag that wants to be individualistic; that stuff just won't fly.

This is lamentable, modern commercial brutalism, right? Nope.

Alas, nothing is new under the sun. In my travels around the Red River region, I've found that it is quite easy to identify businesses from "way-back-when" based on their architecture. Architecture and design were coded and made to be efficient in their builds, even the places that we now view as one-of-a-kind quaintness. Signs are not even needed; form, function, and (often) location are simple clues needed to discover what used to be where. To spot the functions of these buildings, one simply needs a few hints. Like here!

Old Boston's Boston's New Boston
There are three Bostons in Bowie County, Texas, and the history is as convoluted as the names.

Convoluted Bowie County In the far northeastern corner of Texas lies Bowie County, established by the Republic of Texas in 1840. Its pre-American centuries were filled with Caddoan villages and brisk inter-tribal and French trade. Numerous archaeological sites point to Bowie County as home to a major settlement that may have been the first Caddoan settlement to be depicted by Spanish explorers in 1691.

Named after James Bowie, a frequent traveler in the region who died during the siege of the Alamo in 1836, Bowie County itself was once part of Red River County, which was established in 1836 upon Texas becoming a republic. The area that became Red River County was carved out of Miller County, Arkansas Territory, after the Adams-Onis Treaty of 1819 firmly established the region as belonging to New Spain. Thus, American settlers in what would become Bowie County swore loyalty to Mexico in order to receive title to their lands.

However, Mexico tried to assert their authority over this eastern frontier by encouraging land grant settlements with Indian tribes, such as the Shawnees, who had been expelled from Indiana Territory after the wars in 1811. This action may have contributed to Americans in eastern Mexican Texas forming allegiances with the growing independence movement, as they were generally hostile to Indian land claims. It's important to know that Texas revolutionary fervor began simultaneously among Americans in southeastern Texas as well as by
men in Arkansas who owned land on the western side of the Red River. Several men who owned land in both Arkansas and what would become Bowie County, Texas, signed the Texas declaration of independence.

The first county seat of Bowie was DeKalb, but its tenure was very brief. Instead, a little hamlet named Boston, which was more central in the county, got the nod. Texarkana, founded in 1873 by the Texas and Pacific Railroad, briefly became the county seat in 1885, but Bostonians did not want take this lying down. They petitioned for a new county seat a few miles north of the original Boston to meet up with the Texas & Pacific tracks. Thus, Boston became Old Boston, and the new site of Boston was founded. Voters approved the change in 1891.

But the tracks of the Texas and Pacific Railroad reached further north than the town’s center, which held the courthouse and the jail. Was this a survey error? On purpose? It's hard to say. The citizens of Boston moved their businesses a little bit further north to take advantage of the railroad, as well as the new alignment with the state highway that connected to Texarkana and Clarksville. The town that grew up around the train station became New Boston, to differentiate itself from Old Boston and Boston.

In 1987, the courthouse in Boston was burned by arsonists. This was a suspicious fire, since the county was in the red and officials had recently raised the insurance coverage... hmm. Also, a new, modern courthouse had been built off the interstate, and no one wanted to deal with the old building anymore, so the Boston courthouse was never built. The only reminder of this calamity are the courthouse foundations and the county’s two-story, pink-bricked jail, which still sits on what used to be the city’s courthouse square. Since the county's courthouse now sits on I-30, should it be called Newest Boston? Ha ha don't answer that.

A Not-Always Fair Park of Dallas
When Texans wanted to celebrate their centennial anniversary in 1936, government officials considered many sites around the state. San Antonio and Austin seemed like perfect places to host this momentous occasion, considering their history. Even Houston was in the running. City fathers were convinced that their towns would get the nod.  And then... the honor went to little ol' Dallas.

By 1936, Dallas wasn't all that little, of course. But it definitely was an "upstart" kind of place. Having been founded in 1844 as a supply store on a bluff of the Elm Fork of the Trinity River, it didn't have many historical ties to the actual founding of Texas (though Sam Houston was good friends with Dallas founder John Neely Bryan). The Dallas Citizens Council, made up of prominent businessmen, bolstered Dallas enough to make it the epicenter of the 1936 Centennial Exposition. This probably had something to do with the Texas State Fair grounds.

Like all cities, Dallas boasted a number of county fairgrounds, where festivals, agricultural expositions, and other entertainments were staged. Since the 1880s, most of these events took place at the privately held Texas State Fair, which the City of Dallas took over in 1904. The city then erected several permanent buildings, like the Cotton Bowl Stadium and the Dallas Music Hall. And even though the country was in the midst of the Great Depression for the fair of 1936, Dallas was not afraid to spend money to make the Centennial Exposition a fair to remember. Beautiful Art Deco architecture, mural art, gold leafed statues, and spouting fountains appeared along new boulevards that would showcase Texas history, agricultural production, manufacturing innovations, and more. (The "more" included nude dancing along the midway.) Most of the buildings that lie inside Fair Park today are landmarks built purposefully for the 1936 Centennial Exposition. The only building from the 1936 fair that was demolished was built by the Dallas Negro Chamber of Commerce. Inside, displays of art, history, and industry of the black community in Dallas celebrated the contributions of African Americans to the city.  The building has been re-erected inside Fair Park and today hosts the Dallas African American Museum.

For much of its life, the State Fair of Texas was segregated, and openly hostile to black fair goers. In the early 1920s, for example, Ku Klux Klan Appreciation Days were held during the fair. Meanwhile, African Americans were only allowed to enter the fairgrounds on specific days, and blacks were barred from enjoying certain entertainments, like carnival rides. The fair boasted a "Negro Achievement Day" which citizens deemed patronizing; in the 1950s and into the 1960s, protests and demonstrations by civil rights leaders like Juanita Craft and the Dallas Black YMCA gradually helped to integrate the fair.

Because the city celebrates the State Fair pretty much every year (except for a few years during World War II), attractions keep evolving, which has helped the State Fair of Texas to stay relevant well into the 21st century. In 1952, "Big Tex" debuted; he "died" in 2013 when he caught fire, but was "resurrected" in time for the next year's fair. The Star of Texas, the largest ferris wheel in the western hemisphere, opened in 1985. Fletcher's introduced corny dogs to the world in 1942; the Dallas Cowboys were "born" in the Cotton Bowl in 1960. The Texas Skyway, which allows fair goers to leisurely soar above the Midway, debuted in 2007. In 2010, the DART Green Line began taking fair goers to the grounds along the old street car routes. The park, though flawed, is worth an extensive visit.

Naughty Tarrant County
Fort Worth was once considered so sleepy that a Dallas newspaper opined that "a panther could sleep in the middle of the town and no one would notice." That changed, however, with the advent of cattle driving and later, under prohibition. While Fort Worth and Tarrant County were not the only places in the Red River Valley where vice took hold (see St. Paul's Bottom!), the remains of these vice districts can still be viewed, making a tour of "naughty Tarrant County" possible.

Hell's Half Acre
The Tarrant County Courthouse is located squarely in the middle of Main Street in Fort Worth.  From its perch on a bluff by the Trinity River, it bestows its attention onto the Stockyards in the north. To the south, the courthouse has a wonderful view of the strange disc that Until the 1960s, however, the courthouse left an imposing impression on those plying their trades in Hell's Half Acre. Fort Worth's red light district, which once featured saloons, gambling halls, and bordellos, would in later years house pawn shops, strip joints, betting parlors, and pubs. Its dilapidated glory was obliterated during Fort Worth's urban renewal project. The only thing left from Hell's Half Acre is the Catholic Church, which no doubt had heard many a confession during Fort Worth's sinful days.

Today, many tourists mistakenly believe that the Fort Worth Stockyards was the location of Hell's Half Acre, mainly because the famous White Elephant Saloon relocated there. The sign at the front of the saloon tells of a gunfight that happened out front, but note that the original shoot-out occurred at Hell's Half Acre.

Top o' the Hill Terrace
Before the interstates, Division Street in Arlington was the original road that linked Dallas and Fort Worth (DFW). In Dallas, this street becomes known as Davis Road; in Fort Worth, it becomes Lancaster Boulevard. In numerical terms, Division Street is TX 180 (a remnant of old US 80). This sounds boring, but it's not. Pockets of the road are still graced by mid-century motor courts and nightclubs, and there were once drive-in movie theaters, pig stands, and race tracks (horses and cars) along this thirty mile stretch. Old DFW still remains visible, too, on the campus of Arlington Baptist College. The college is housed in what used to be one of the biggest gambling halls, bordellos, and speakeasies in the Southwest called Top o' the Hill Terrace.

Built in the 1920s out of native sandstone, it was first used as a Tea Garden. Under new owners, the complex served illegal booze and hosted a casino during Prohibition. Patrons, who supposedly included Bonnie and Clyde, used a tunnel to escape during raids. A baptist minister who built the area's first mega-church vowed to shut down the sinful operation, and in the 1950s, he got his wish: Arlington Baptist College was opened on the site of this former den of decadence.

Jacksboro Highway
TX Highway 199 is known as the Jackboro Highway. Running north west out of downtown Fort Worth (where it begins as Henderson Avenue), this road used to be *the* place to imbibe, sell, and bootleg booze to the dry areas in West Texas. With its proximity to the Stockyards, the businesses along Jacksboro Highway did a booming business every weekend. For you Larry McMurtry fans: Jacksboro Highway is the road that Duane and Sonny of The Last Picture Show took when they decided to get down and dirty in Fort Worth.

Today, Jacksboro Highway is home to chain restaurants and stores (and a very lively weekend Mexican flea market). Its shady past, however, can be seen in some pockets dotting the four lane road, where old dance clubs have been converted to muffler shops, and motor courts into trailer parks. The neighborhoods around Jacksboro Highway are unique for their geography as well as their architecture. Eclectic styles of Victorian, Queen Anne and Prairie cottages sit side by side some broad and tree-lined streets.

St. Paul's Bottom, Shreveport's Sin City
At the turn of the 20th century, cities began zoning "vice districts" to keep prostitution, gambling, saloons, and other "nefarious" activities from being spread throughout the city, and to have a central location to collect taxes and fees from the proprietors. Often, these new zones were carved into freedmen neighborhoods, because African Americans didn't have a say at the council meetings.

One of the most famous vice districts along the Red River was Shreveport's St. Paul's Bottom. Named after St. Paul Methodist Church, which was established by freed African Americans in 1865, this neighborhood bordered Twelve Mile Bayou in the northwest section of downtown Shreveport. Due to floods, it was known as the "bottoms" and, coupled with the prominent church and the community that built itself around the church, the neighborhood received its informal name.

When the city located its vice district to the neighborhood, a vibrant business district emerged, akin to New Orleans's Storyville neighborhood. Blues and jazz musicians cut their teeth here, and Annie McClune, an Irish immigrant-turned-madam, became a well-known fixture. Juke joints, saloons, stores, restaurants, boarding houses, hotels, gambling halls, dance halls, and brothels all fought for space in the small area bordered by Christian Street (west), Fannin Street (south), Common Street (east) and Caddo Street (north).

During the Great War (World War I), cities shut down vice districts to discourage young soliders from partaking in their pleasures, but they re-emerged in force in the time between the wars (1920s - 1940s). This also happened to St. Paul's Bottom, which suffered both from the temporary shut-down and white supremacist violence in the 1920s and 1930s.

The majority of residents in St. Paul's Bottom were not prostitutes or procurers but rather, hardworking people who lived in an area where the city ignored providing services. And, just a few streets away from the neighborhood were the homes of prominent merchants from the Victorian era. The rich whites moved away from the zone, leaving the mansions to be rented to brothels and as boarding houses. The district continued to prosper as an entertainment zone when the famed Louisiana Hayride, a radio show devoted to country music, began broadcasting from the Shreveport Municipal Auditorium in 1948.

During the last quarter of the 20th century, though, St. Paul's Bottom and adjacent neighborhoods, surrounding the Oakland Cemetery, lost their luster.  Gradually, the St. Paul's Bottom succumbed to urban decay, especially when Shreveport's new "vice district" emerged in the form of casino boats in the 1990s.

Now, almost all of St. Paul's Bottom is gone. And it looks nuclear, as if the city of Shreveport was hell-bent on destroying anything and everything related to this fabled place. Even the church moved; its congregation is now housed at Pierre and Looney streets.

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