Historic marker noting where, and why, Dallas became a big city has been stolen

Few noticed its disappearance, because, perhaps, few knew of its existence.

Exactly one decade ago, the Texas Historical Commission marked the spot where, in the early 1870s, “the city of Dallas secured its role as the economic, communication and transportation center of North Texas,” per the official plaque planted, until days ago, on the outskirts of the city’s center. The location hides in plain sight downtown — on the south side of Pacific Avenue, beneath the Interstate 345 overpass that links North Central Expressway with Interstates 30 and 45.

There, shortly after the end of the Civil War, the Houston & Texas Central and Texas & Pacific railroad lines intersected — the former coming from the south; the latter, from the east. And there, a forever ago, stood the train depot that now exists only in a 110-year-old photograph stored at the downtown library.

The train crossing, among the first in the state, took some finagling and much wheeling and dealing. Officials in the nascent city, given its official charter 162 years ago today, wanted the Houston & Texas Central, the first rail line to reach Dallas, to run near the courthouse. And they wanted the Texas & Pacific to pass close to the city’s sole water supply at Browder’s Springs — also near the courthouse.

But T&P officials opposed to alignment, nearly derailing Dallas’ hopes. Then the city’s great-great-grandfathers, practicing what their elected offspring would later deem “economic development,” bestowed unto both rail lines gifts they could not refuse. Right-of-way was given away, which is how Burleson Avenue became modern-day Pacific; so, too, was $100,000 in bond money and more land for the depot where the X marked the spot.

The arrival of the trail would forever alter this city. In 1870, Dallas was “a hamlet of hardly more than 1,000 people,” then-County Judge Tom McCullough said in May 1937 when commenting on the first train’s arrival here. Twenty years later, that number had grown to more than 38,000.

This is where the marker is supposed to be. But on Friday morning, it was long gone.

“The arrival of the Houston and Texas Central and Texas and Pacific Railroads brought large numbers of people to Dallas,” civil engineer Jerry Rogers wrote two years ago, “making North Texas the center of commerce for the Southwest, unprecedented without a major seaport or river.”

The story of the “Junction of the Texas & Pacific and Houston & Texas Central Railroads” was, until a few days ago, told on the marker lurking in the shadows of the underpass linking Deep Ellum and downtown. But sometime at January’s end — no one knows the specific date — the bronzed narrative was snapped off its pole and, more than likely, stolen.

The Dallas Police Department says it’s investigating the marker’s disappearance, which it learned about on Jan. 20 after former Texas Secretary of State David Dean sent an email to the department’s Central Patrol Division’s investigative unit. But a spokesperson said Friday morning the inquiry hasn’t gotten very far: Neighborhood patrol officers were dispatched to talk to the construction crews remaking the surrounding surface streets, as well as I-345. Detectives, too, were asked to investigate. But so far, police said Friday, no luck.

“I’m so very sad that it has happened,” said Kellie Murphy, the chief operating officer of the Museum of the American Railroad, which had been at Fair Park until the city forced its move to Frisco.

The Texas Historical Commission said this week it received word in August that the plaque had been “damaged,” but was sent no further details — no photos, no description of the damage done. The agency had no idea it had been yanked off the pole planted beneath I-345 during an official ceremony in the fall of 2009 led by then-Dallas County Judge Jim Foster.

On its website, on a page about “marker mayhem,” the state agency points out that theft of its markers — which cost $1,100 and are made in San Antonio — are usually considered felonies, since it clearly states, at the bottom of the text, that the plaque is state property. But Leah Brown, the agency’s spokesperson, said vandals and thieves are seldom caught, much less prosecuted.

Statewide, there are some 16,000 markers spread across 254 counties, many of which pre-date the establishment of the THC in 1953. The Dallas County Historical Commission says it has more than 300 of those, and in its documentation notes that a handful have been stolen over the years, among them, in 1996, one at Cedar Springs and Oak Lawn honoring Gov. Wilbert Lee “Pappy” O’Daniel. One marker commemorating Victor and Willie’s Bilbo Jitney Line at Sylvan Avenue at Seale Street in West Dallas was actually stolen and replaced twice.

It would be up to the Dallas County Historical Commission or a private donor to replace the marker. But commission members reached Friday said they weren’t even aware that the marker had gone missing.

This isn’t the first plaque memorializing Dallas’ first rail line to disappear, either. On May 17, 1936, officials from the Dallas Historical Society and all the major rail lines met at the intersection of Canton Street and Central Avenue to install a plaque paying tribute to “the railwaymen who helped build this city,” read a Dallas Morning News headline.

No one — not the historical society, knows where it went. Or how it got there.

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