Dallas to Dealey
By Jerry Organ

The city of Dallas has a curious way with landmarks. In Paris, the Eiffel Tower is its most prominent symbol; in New York, the Statue of Liberty stands proudly at the harbor entrance; in Toronto, the skyline is dominated by the CN Tower. But in Dallas, its most famous historic setting has three ordinary-but-busy city streets converging through it.

But it's not to offend the memory of Camelot — long before JFK laid eyes on Dealey Plaza, traffic had superceded its most historic site. The assassination occurred just yards from where the one-room trading post cabin of the city’s founder once stood. By 1963, the only reminder of John Neely Bryan was the white concrete open-air structure overlooking Elm Street named the Bryan Colonnade.

Bryan's Bluff

Dallas was founded in 1841, the same year the first President ever to die in office, William Henry Harrison, succumbed to pneumonia in the White House, 31 days after catching a cold while delivering his Inaugural Address.

In November of that year, John Neely Bryan, a Tennessee-born lawyer, claimed 640 acres on a bluff overlooking the "three forks" area of the Trinity River in the 5-year-old Republic of Texas. The claim was at the narrowing of a river bend, which Bryan thought would attract settlers seeking to cross, with whom he could trade. The trading post and ferryboat crossing Bryan operated would come to symbolize Dallas' reason-for-being as a commercial, transportation and trade mecca. No one imagined a world-shattering event would also make its way there.

Dallas County, created in 1846 by the Texas Legislative, was named in honor of George Mifflin Dallas, Vice-President under James K. Polk, elected in 1844. Polk was the county's first name-choice, but it was taken. Dallas town was thought named after a friend of Bryan's, Commodore Alexander Dallas, a riverboat captain.

In 1849, Byron caught the "gold fever" and headed to California for a year. Before leaving, he sold the land that would later be the site of the Texas School Book Depository. Unable to strike gold, Bryan returned to Dallas disillusioned, took to drinking and shot a man in 1855; believing the man had died, Bryan fled the town for six years.

In 1877, at age 67, Bryan was admitted to the state insane asylum in Austin, where he soon passed away. Perhaps one of the city's first mysteries, Bryan's final resting place is not known. His city's most infamous citizen, Lee Harvey Oswald, arguably insane, today lies in an obscure grave in Fort Worth.

An actual outpost built by the US Army, Fort Worth was founded 30 miles west of Dallas on June 6, 1849. So rapid was settlement that the fort itself was abandoned in 1853. It was nicknamed "Cowtown" because the Chisholm Trail ran through it in trail-driving days, an event recalled in Larry McMurtry's TV classic Lonesome Dove, although that cluster of houses was actually in present-day Grapevine, now a suburb between the two cities.

By 1888, Dallas had its first skyscraper and its 40,000 residents made the city the most populous in the state. A year earlier, a new residential development opened directly south of the city. Oak Cliff was named for the massive trees and cliffs on the edge of the Trinity River. One of the development's partners, Thomas L. Marsalis, had a street in Oak Cliff named after him; it was the "Marsalis Bus" that Lee Harvey Oswald boarded ten minutes after the assassination. This method to reach his rooming house in Oak Cliff was aborted when the bus became stalled in traffic let loose when the motorcade had passed.

The suburb has long suffered an "across the river" inferiority complex, constantly being snubbed by fashionable North Dallas. The class-consciousness and low rents probably appealed to the socialist attitude of Oswald — Oak Cliff provided three residences for Oswald: 602-604 Elsbeth, 214 Neely and lastly 1026 Beckley.

The flood-prone Trinity River often turned the downtown's dirt streets muddy, so in 1881 some were covered with wood-block paving, which portions of Elm Street retained until the 1930s. In 1908, the most disastrous flood in the city's history led to construction of the Houston Street Viaduct, the world's longest concrete structure when it opened in 1927. It was over this structure that Oswald, abandoning the bus, travelled by taxi to reach his rooming house.

Gateway to the City

The Houston & Texas Central Railroad reached a mile east of the Plaza by 1872. Mule-drawn streetcars connected the downtown to the rail depot. The following year, the Texas & Pacific Railway arrived, giving Dallas the first major rail junction in north Texas.

The enterprising town had swayed the T&P away from the town of Corsicana with a $100,000 bonus and right-of-way over a main street. Even though railtracks were removed from it in 1923, Dallas still has a street named Pacific, just a block north of Dealey Plaza.

In December 1910, the Dallas Morning News began to advocate for a union station, to replace the six railroad stations and downtown maze of tracks. Urged on by publisher George Dealey, the eight railroads serving Dallas agreed in 1912 to form the Dallas Union Terminal Company, leading to the construction of the Dallas Union Terminal Building from 1914 to 1916. As well, the nearby flood-prone Trinity River was dredged, its course altered by a mile, and 19 miles of approach track were laid, which would define much of the present-day Plaza.

The $6.5 million project included a powerhouse with three steam boilers, and two railyards, each with a line-switching tower with electro-pneumatic machines. The North Tower, still standing and protected by fencing, was occupied by "tower man" Lee Bowers, Jr. on the day of the assassination. Following a major restoration, the Union Terminal Building today houses both the Amtrak station and the Dallas Visitor Information Center.

Historical montage, the area of Dealey Plaza

The Plaza

The city acquired the Plaza for construction of the Triple Underpass, which opened in 1936 and sits east of the former bed of the Trinity. Three main streets — Elm, Main and Commerce — now sloped and converged to pass beneath the wide concrete railbridge, maintained by the Union Terminal Company. A portion of Elm Street directly in front of the Depository that used to continue westward to Water Street was left as an entrance to the parking lot in the North Yard.

This image, taken from the Library of Congress' American Memory collection, shows the area that is now Dealey Plaza, as viewed from Oak Cliff in 1892. Dick Elliott found this image.

The open park setting was named in honor of George Bannerman Dealey (1859-1946), the Dallas Morning News publisher who had done so much to revitalize the area. A WPA project resulted in new landscaping, including the planting of Texas Oaks and construction of Art Deco concrete peristyles atop each slope that funnelled westward toward the Underpass. The northern slope, topped by a wooden fence that hid a parking lot and the Union Terminal's North Yard, became known after the assassination as the Grassy Knoll.

Across Houston from the Depository at 411 Elm is 501 Elm, known as the Dal-Tex Building. In 1963, Abraham Zapruder's "Jennifer Juniors, Inc. of Dallas," ran out of the fourth and fifth-floors of this building. It was built in 1902 for the John Deere Plow Co. who would eventually buy the Rock Island Plow Company, the original builders of the Depository; but for a while in Dallas, the two were direct competitors.

Diagonally across from the Depository sits the Dallas County Records Building, built in 1922. Next door along Houston is the 1913 Dallas Criminal Courts Building. It was to this building that police took many of the assassination witnesses to give dispositions on November 22, 1963. Being conveniently located across Main Street from the "Old Red" Courthouse, it once housed the old county jail. Among its "guests" were Dallasites Bonnie and Clyde. It was to the Criminal Courts Building that Lee Harvey Oswald was being transferred when he was slain by Jack Ruby, who himself became a "guest" at the county jail.

Bounding the southern edge of Dealey Plaza, and next to the rail lines that once brought mail trains over the Triple Underpass, is the Terminal Annex Post Office building, now a Federal Building. At noon on November 1, 1963, Lee Harvey Oswald walked the two blocks from the Depository to the Annex, renting box 6225.

The southeast of the Plaza contains the "Old Red" Courthouse, built on a plot Byran donated. Completed in 1892, "Old Red," along with the Texas School Book Depository and 501 Elm, are all that remain of Old Dallas in Dealey Plaza.

On the same block as "Old Red" is the John Fitzgerald Kennedy Memorial, built in 1970 by the city of Dallas; the white-stone cenotaph is meant to symbolize an open tomb. The nation's official memorial to President Kennedy is the John F. Kennedy Library in Boston.

On November 22, 1993, Dealey Plaza — including all surrounding buildings, the Triple Underpass and parts of the North Yard — was dedicated as a National Historic Landmark District. At the ceremony, a National Park Service bronze plaque mounted on Texas pink granite was unveiled.

If one were to overlook the small plaque, was unaware of the significance of the orange brick building atop Elm, and if the critic/lecturers on the Grassy Knoll took a day off, there would be little to indicate the historic significance of what occurred there in 1963. Traffic continues to funnel beneath the Triple Underpass. By luck and chance, Dealey Plaza appears much as it did when the shooting took place.

The City of Hate

Immediately after the Kennedy assassination, many confused the Southern White Citizen's Council with Dallas' progressive Citizen's Council. Many Dallasites were refused service in other cities when they mentioned where they were from. The stigma towards the City of Dallas would not lessen until the 1968 assassinations of Martin Luther King in Memphis and RFK in Los Angeles.

Despite the narrow perception of Dallas generally found in most conspiracy books, the worst injury of all came from the Kennedy family's "official" historian, William Manchester. His best-selling 1967 book, The Death of a President, callously brushed off the city with slaps like "Dallas was the one American metropolis in which incitement to violence had become respectable."

This apparently referred to incidents like the attacks on the Lyndon Johnsons in 1961 and, in late October 1963, UN Ambassador Adlai E. Stevenson. In anticipation of Kennedy's visit appeared in Dallas the notorious "WANTED FOR TREASON" handbill and sarcastic "WELCOME MR. KENNEDY" newspaper ad. An Eastern liberal, Manchester tried hard to paint these incidents as genuine symptoms of Dallas intolerance, rather than isolated (albeit distasteful) expressions from polarized individuals and cliques who exemplified the city's tolerance.

As long as people obeyed the law, Dallas — built by transplanted people — readily absorbed individuals like Jack Ruby, far-rightist General Edwin Walker and Lee Harvey Oswald. Oswald's widow, Marina Porter, still lives in the area. Yet, if one believed Manchester, the Dallas schools were a hotbed for "incitement to violence," demonstrated by the cheering in one school over the news of Kennedy's assassination. What Manchester neglected to mention was that the "cheers" by grade-schoolers was really at the prospect of being released early.

The Metroplex

Dallas is still accepting of individuals, with most of its on-going growth the product of non-natives, though today the "immigrants" are likely to be laid-off workers from a Northern state looking for a new start.

For a while, eccentric Illinois-born-and-raised Haroldson Lafayette Hunt was the "richest man in the world." Hunt's son Ray built the 52-story Reunion Tower, whose glass sphere overlooks Dealey Plaza. Salesman Ross Perot left IBM in 1962 and built a software empire that financed a Presidential run that again made the city seem politically far-right.

Despite evangelists who use its broadcast facilities, the city is more Sun Belt than Bible Belt. The city's open-mindedness, growth and cultural offerings has earned it the scorn of the rest of Texas, who perceive it to be smug and pretentious.

It began in the 1870s with the "railhead" merchants and bankers whose vision and entrepreneurship would turn the country market town into a metropolis. The city's financial core was largely built by merchants, many of whom came from Europe to contribute a strong capitalist desire, immigrant determination and old-world culture. The Dallasite whose name became forever associated with the graphic 8mm movie of the assassination, Abraham Zapruder, was born in Czarist Russia, and choose Dallas to build up a successful clothing firm. Oswald's "best friend" in Dallas was a White Russian petroleum engineer named George de Mohrenschildt.

Today, the area between Dallas and Fort Worth has become so urbanized and developed — including the country's largest airport in Grapevine, Ranger Stadium and the third-largest film production center in the nation — that the two cities have taken to calling themselves the "Metroplex."

Tourism is a major industry for the state's most-visited area. It started in 1886 when the Texas State Fair was conceived; today, it is the largest of its kind in the US. Taft was the first President to visit the fair, in 1909. Vice-President Nixon opened the 1959 State Fair and rode atop a convertible in the opening day parade through Dallas. In 1961, the movie State Fair starring Pat Boone, Ann Margaret and Bobby Darin filmed during the fair's run.

Dallas secured the 1936 Texas Centennial Exhibition, a six-month exposition at the State Fair grounds that attracted ten million visitors, including President Franklin Roosevelt who attended on June 12, a week after it opened.

The night before his visit to the Exposition, Roosevelt's train made a stop at Austin. During a ceremony, FDR pressed a button at the station to set off a charge of dynamite three miles away that broke ground for new construction at the University of Texas to commemorate the Centennial. The 307-foot Texas Tower was completed in 1937, but became infamous on August 1, 1966 when "Texas Sniper" Charles Whitman climbed to the top and began a 90-minute shooting spree. Whitman killed 16 and wounded 31.

Though more deadly and non-political, the "Texas Sniper" was Oswald's first copy-cat. Whether it's at the American workplace, restaurant or school, there have been many since.

© copyright 2000 Jerry Organ. All rights reserved.

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