Arlington: From a Muddy Fort to a Suburban Giant
by O. K. Carter
Comparing the Arlington of today—sprawling across almost 100 square miles and with more than 400,000 residents—to its beginning as a besieged, ultimately-failed Republic of Texas fort on a muddy oxbow lake near the Trinity River makes this much evident:
There’s a great deal of local history needing a “How did this happen?” explanation.
The city’s story, even by epic Texas standards, qualifies as a remarkable tale of persistence, skill, luck, leadership, changing identity, and an entrepreneurial flexibility that in the ever-revealing glow of historical hindsight qualifies as nothing less than astonishing. It is a geography where prairie and woodlands collide—a place where weather ranges from tropical to blizzard, and from monsoonal to drought, but which is mostly temperate.
Once described as the place where East meets West, Arlington’s history includes battles between Texas Rangers and Comanches, vast herds of grazing bison, westward expansion, an urban gas drilling bonanza, train crashes, six-shooter gun battles in the middle of downtown, saloons and cotton gins, slavery, high-stakes gambling, hard-scrabble farming, temperance and prohibition, industry, super-charged tourism including professional sports, and the never-ending embrace of capitalistic competition.
Through most of that history it has also persevered as a college town. The transitions have not always been pretty; the city has always been a gritty, make-it-happen kind of place with substantive blue-collar overtones.
Arlington’s identity, its brand, has been ever-shifting. In the 1940s and early 1950s, many of its residents would have described it as almost classic Sinclair Lewis-style Main Street kind of place—an idyllic small town with drug stores, movie houses, Rotarians, a pool hall and haberdashers downtown. In earlier times, it was famous for mineral waters, gambling and gangsters in perpetual conflict with Bible-thumping Baptists and Texas Rangers. It was also a refuge for unwed mothers via the Berachah Home, an incubator for industry and commerce and– for a time—the nation’s fastest growing municipality, as well as a college town. Over decades it evolved into the poster city for a trend that reshaped America—the surge to suburbia from farms, ranches and central cities.
Today, people around the world know about Arlington for other reasons. The hundreds of millions who watched the 2011 Super Bowl were told in no uncertain terms that the game was coming to them from the “Dallas” Cowboys stadium in Arlington, Texas.
They received the same message again when the Arlington-based Texas Rangers took on the San Francisco Giants in the 2010 World Series and then made a repeat appearance against the St. Louis Cardinals in the 2011 series.
Today’s brand or image for Arlington tends to be about roller coasters, Major League Baseball and NFL football, but it is also one of the nation’s 50 most populous cities. It is a city that has come a long way from its early origins as a rag-tag fort and a 5-minute train stop.
Cretaceous to Native Americans
But it’s time to back up to earlier times. Arlington is split east and west by two geologic formations, the western part of town being the hilly Eastern Cross Timbers, which 65 million years ago would have been oceanic beach.
The eastern section, called Eagle Ford, is considered prairie today, but long ago it was a shallow salty sea. Millions of years of oceanic deposits also left another legacy deep underground, the natural-gas rich Barnett shale.
Human populations in the area showed up later. Archaeological digs in the region produced evidence of pre-Indian humans living along Trinity River tributaries like Village Creek at least 7,000 years ago, with more recent research detecting the presence of humans living in North Central Texas as much as 15,000 years ago.
In North Texas for hundreds of years before Anglo/Europeans arrived, the prevailing dominant culture in North Texas was the Caddo Indians. Spanish and French explorers laid claim to Texas, as did Mexico, by which time there were numerous other Native American tribes in Texas, including Comanches and Kiowas. The Village and Rush creeks areas in present-day west Arlington were estimated by early Euro-settlers to host as many as 25,000 Native Americans.
The first attempted Anglo settlement involving newly arriving Texans came with an 1841 expedition led by Major Jonathan Bird to establish a fort on a small oxbow pond adjoining the Trinity River. Bird’s Fort failed for a variety of reasons including conflicts with Native Americans.
In 1843, Republic of Texas President Sam Houston authorized the negotiation of the Treaty of Bird’s Fort with Native American tribes in area. The treaty established a series of trading and military posts to separate the factions. The trading post in Arlington, near what is now Johnson Creek, would become a Texas Rangers post and stagecoach stop called Johnson Station (along Mayfield Road between present day Cooper and Matlock streets).
An early commander of that Rangers unit, Col. Middleton Tate Johnson, purchased land for a plantation there, which grew into a stagecoach stop and the small community of Johnson Station, the beginning of what would eventually become Arlington. Presbyterian Minister Andrew Hayter also established a settlement, Hayterville, near present-day Collins and Abram streets. Historically, Johnson is considered the “father” of Tarrant County, but the Johnson Station community—and Hayterville—would eventually fade away for one simple reason: The Texas and Pacific Railroad line would be located a few miles north.
The T & P would survey a half-mile by half-mile community in hundred-yard blocks for a train-stop midway between Dallas and Fort Worth in 1876, the first train rolling into a town with two stores and four houses in July of that year. By then the new town was named Arlington, a name selected by Hayter and the new town’s postmaster, Jim Ditto, ostensibly in honor of Confederate Commanding General Robert E. Lee’s home, Arlington House.
By 1884, the year of official incorporation as a municipality, the little village had grown to 500 people. The train stop provided a place for farmers to ship their wares, agriculture being dominated by cotton—by 1890 the town had five cotton gins. And about that many saloons. And about that many churches, the first being First United Methodist Church, which began meeting in 1877. By 1883, the town had its first newspaper, The World, edited by Willis Timmerman, who eventually would be elected mayor.
Two events in the 1890s began to change Arlington’s agrarian identity: A downtown water well and the creation of a college that would slowly evolve into the University of Texas at Arlington.
By 1892, so many people were coming to Arlington for trade and commerce—particularly on weekends—that a water shortage resulted, the town’s shallow wells being inadequate. Local businessman Rice Wood Collins proposed a deep community well right in the middle of Main and Center streets, only 50 yards from the train station. The well was dug, but instead of producing sweet, sustaining water, what issued was a heavily mineralized, Sulphur-smelling water under so much pressure that it ran down the street. Though initially a disappointment, residents made the most of it, promoting Arlington as a mineral spa city and even producing an Epson-salts-like product called Arlington Crystals, a product manufactured for close to a half-century.
Another idea with enormous long-term impact, proposed by business leader Edward Rankin, was to create a college, funded initially by donations. The idea caught fire, Arlington College opening in 1895 on what is now the UT-Arlington campus. Arlington College was more a mixed private/public school than college, constantly encountering financial and legal challenges while changing names and operators numerous times until finally, Grubbs Vocational and Agricultural College was established in 1917 as a two-year affiliate of Texas A&M. More name changes would follow, but in 1959 Arlington State College would be elevated to a four-year college. Eventually the college would be become part of the University of Texas system. Arlington would achieve much in the way of commerce and evolving branding after 1900, but at its heart it was and is a college town.
Arlington 1900 to 1950
The city’s population barely exceeded 1,000 by 1900, growing slowly to 7,600 by 1950. Clearly the city was affected significantly by four world-wide events—World War I, the Spanish flu epidemic, World War II and the Great Depression, but here are the most impactful local developments:
THE INTERURBAN: What had been an overnight horse-and-buggy trip to either Fort Worth or Dallas changed to less than an hour in 1902 when the Interurban, an electric trolley system, went through the middle of town on Abram Street. The Interurban ran until 1934, finally ceasing operation in the face of newer, better roads and the growing popularity of the automobile.
BERACHAH INDUSTRIAL HOME FOR THE REDEMPTION AND PROTECTION OF ERRING GIRLS: Nazarene minister James Upchurch in 1903 established the home on 23 acres at Mitchell and Cooper streets (now part of the UTA campus). It was a home for homeless, unmarried, usually pregnant girls. The young women had their children at the home while also undergoing vocational training. The home closed in 1935, though briefly an orphanage operated at the location. The university purchased the property in 1963.
ARLINGTON INDEPENDENT SCHOOL DISTRICT: Voters created the district in 1902. The AISD would gradually absorb many small public school systems, eventually growing to more than 60,000 students and becoming the city’s largest employer.
GRUBBS VOCATIONAL AND AGRICULTURAL COLLEGE: From 1895 until 1917, what is now the University of Texas at Arlington struggled with a variety of names, legal and financial issues. The legislature’s transformation of the college to a two-year Texas A&M affiliate in1917 solidified the city as a college town, though there would be more name changes—and a switch to the UT System—still to come.
BANKHEAD HIGHWAY (U.S. 80): In November of 1922, U.S. 80—the Bankhead Highway—was completed in Arlington. The highway, the nation’s first paved continental highway, linked Washington, D.C., and San Diego, Calif. More importantly for Arlington, it was the primary route between Dallas and Fort Worth until the completion of the construction of the DFW Turnpike (now I-30) in 1957.
ARLINGTON DOWNS: Wealthy oil man and rancher W.T. Waggoner purchased several thousand acres in Arlington alongside the Bankhead Highway, in 1929 opening a horse racing track. He lobbied the legislature to legalize parimutuel betting, which it did in 1933. The track was highly successful and profitable but came to an end in 1937 when the Legislature changed its collective mind and outlawed such betting. The track remained a local mainstay until the 1960s, hosting rodeos, fairs and auto racing. In the 1950s, Waggoner’s ranch would be sold as the centerpiece for the Great Southwest Industrial District, an offshoot of which would be Six Flags Over Texas Amusement Park.
TOP O HILL TERRACE: Gambler Fred Browning believed, correctly, that the wagers who visited Arlington Downs by day would like to continue their gambling ways by night. He bought a tearoom restaurant on U.S. 80 in 1929, converting it to the upscale, highly illegal Top O’ Hill Terrace gambling establishment. Browning, and his eventual partner, Bennie “Cowboy” Binion, would successfully operate the Top O’ Hill for two decades offering food, booze, gambling and even an on-campus brothel. The site today is the home of Arlington Baptist University.
Arlington from 1950 Forward
In 1950 it would have been difficult to predict that little Arlington would soon become one of the fastest growing cities in the country. The factors that influenced this trend were many, but three would be most significant.
The first consideration would its location midway between Fort Worth and Dallas—the same reason the T & P Railroad selected the site for a railroad stop in the first place.
The second factor would be that Arlington would become a poster city for a national relocation trend. For the first half of the 1900s, people left rural areas for big cities. Post WWII after 1950, the trend took another step: People began leaving big cities for the suburbs. No “burb” offered quicker proximity or easier commuting to big city jobs and amenities than Arlington, particularly with the opening of the “turnpike” (now I-30) in 1957, and later by the creation of I-20, both highways running through Arlington.
The third factor? Call it leadership. Voters in 1951 elected 24-year-old Tom Vandergriff. He would serve as mayor until 1977, after which he would be elected a U.S. House representative, followed by several terms as Tarrant County commissioners court judge. He was initially dubbed the “boy mayor” but quickly proved himself to be a national powerhouse among municipal leaders. Vandergriff believed in growth and relentlessly pursued economic development opportunities. His “watch” as mayor included bringing a General Motors plant to Arlington, creation of the 7,200-acre Great Southwest Industrial District and Six Flags Over Texas Amusement Park, and enticing the Washington Senators baseball club to relocate to Arlington as the Texas Rangers in 1972. Probably most significant of all he successfully advocated conversion of Arlington State College to a four-year institution and the college’s shift to the University of Texas System from Texas A & M.
Most mayors after Arlington endorsed Vandergriff’s essential “growth is good” philosophy, most notably Richard Greene—his efforts guaranteed both General Motors and the Texas Rangers continued presence in Arlington—and Bob Cluck, who against significant odds persuaded the most valuable professional sports franchise in the world, the NFL’s Dallas Cowboys, to make Arlington their home at the new A T & T Stadium in 2009.
Another post 2000 mayor, Jeff Williams, would preside over creation of a new indoor Texas Rangers facility, Globe Life Field, a sprawling Entertainment District dubbed Texas Live!, creation of one of the world’s largest esports amenities, and make the city the future home of the National Medal of Honor Museum. He would also be an essential advocate for continued downtown redevelopment and an expanded on-call mass transit system dubbed VIA, ending the city’s long-standing reputation and the most populous city in the national without mass transit.
As of the 2020 census, Arlington’s population—spread across not quite 100 square miles—would exceed 400,000. With less undeveloped land available and buildout approaching, the challenges ahead will be daunting for both quality of life and economic development strategies. If history is any guide, however, whatever challenges occur will be met—and conquered.