Interurban Electric Railroads

In 1901 the first electric interurban or trolley, began operating on a 10.5-mile track between Denison and Sherman in North Texas. The thirty-minute trip on the seventy-pound steel rails cost twenty-five cents. The line proved so successful that a second route between Dallas and

Denison-Sherman Interurban Railline

Denison-Sherman Interurban Railline

Fort Worth opened the following year. A fourteen-mile track started between Belton and Temple and by 1909 the original line extended all the way south from Denison to Dallas. In five years the line moved further south to Waco and other lines began between Beaumont and Port Arthur, El Paso and Ysleta, and Houston, Baytown, and Goose Creek.

Houston Station--Galveston-Houston Interurban c. 1915

Houston Station–Galveston-Houston Interurban c. 1915

The interurban between Houston and Galveston started carrying passengers in 1911 after Galveston rebuilt following the devastating 1900 storm. The city constructed a seventeen-foot seawall, raised the level of the island, and opened a new $2 million causeway to the mainland to accommodate the electric interurban, railroad tracks, and a highway. The Houston-Galveston Interurban boasted an observation car and the fastest schedule of any steam or electric railroad. It made the fifty-mile downtown-to-downtown trek in seventy-five minutes with the help of a thirty-four-mile “tangent”—a section of straight track that allowed the carriage to travel at fifty-five miles per hour. Passengers rode to Galveston for an evening on the beach or in the gambling houses and then took the 11:00 p.m. interurban back to Houston.

Other areas offered special excursions between cities. Baseball teams grew up along the interurban, and passengers flocked to see games of the Class C and D Trolley League.

The frequent service, convenient stops within cities, and lower fares of the interurbans overcame all competition with steam railroads. At the peak of the service in 1920, nearly four million passengers enjoyed the trolleys that boasted carpeted cars with lounge chairs, spittoons, and rest rooms. By 1931, ten systems across the state covered over five hundred miles.

Parlor Car Denison-Dallas-Waco-Corsicana

Parlor Car
Denison-Dallas-Waco-Corsicana

The advent of the automobile and the convenient travel it offered spelled doom for the interurbans. The lines began closing. Their tracks were paved over to make way for their competition—the automobile. On December 31, 1948, the old Denison to Dallas line made its final run.

Plano boasts a Interurban Railway Museum.

Electric rail car at the Plano Railway Museum

Electric rail car at the Plano Railway Museum

La Réunion, Dallas Commune

On June 16, 1855, residents of the area around the village of Dallas (population 400) declared a holiday in anticipation of greeting about 200 very foreign-looking immigrants from France, Belgium, and Switzerland. The newcomers, who spoke French and wore odd-looking clothing and sabots (wooden shoes) arrived after a twenty-six-day trip from Houston—some walking, others on horseback. They were accompanied by ox-drawn wagons on which they carried household goods necessary to begin a utopian community. Unlike most frontier settlers, La Réunion colonists were brewers, watchmakers, weavers, and shopkeepers—unsuited to the rigors of farm life. Over several months, more settlers arrived bringing supplies such as an organ, piano, flutes, and violins. One wave of newcomers brought thirteen trunks and had to pay ox-cart drivers three cents a pound to haul the load. An elderly man had broken his leg on shipboard and had to pay the freight rate to ride in a cart.

Victor Prosper Considerant

Victor Prosper Considerant

The groups’ founder Victor Prosper Considerant planned a loosely structured experimental utopian community on the banks of the Trinity River in which members shared in the profits based on the amount of capital each one invested in the cooperative and the quantity and quality of work contributed by each participant. Unlike communism, Considerant advocated voting by both men and women—individuals who owned private property. He had been a leader in the democratic socialist movement in France and had been forced to flee to Belgium in 1851 after taking part in a failed insurrection against Louis Napoleon Bonaparte.

Considerant’s travels led him to select North Texas as a suitable locale for establishing a cooperative utopian society. Upon his return to Paris he established the European Society for the Colonization of Texas and published Au Texas (In Texas) in which he praised the ideal climate and claimed the fertile soil well suited for growing tropical fruit.

Considerant sent advance agents who purchased about 2,500 acres on the chalky, limestone bluff near the forks of the Trinity River, three miles west of Dallas. The land was not suitable for farming, even if the colonists had known how to farm. They did plant a large garden, bought 500 head of cattle, sheep, pigs and some fowls. They purchased equipment for mowing, reaping and thrashing wheat and by the following year they had laid out a town site, built offices, buildings suitable for making soap and candles and operating a laundry. They prepared their meals in a cooperative kitchen and built two dormitories for individual families.

Their Saturday night parties, which included music, singing, and dancing, shocked some of their Dallas neighbors whose Protestant faith led them to believe that violins were instruments of the devil and singing should be limited to sacred songs. La Réunion residents vigorously defended their entertainment by insisting that keeping the Sabbath meant worship and pleasure. It wasn’t long before a few of the younger, more independent Dallas residents began attending the parties and romances soon followed.

Although groups continued to arrive, the population never grew beyond 350. After putting 430 acres into cultivation, a blizzard in May1856 damaged the crops and froze the Trinity River. The heat of summer brought drought and grasshoppers invaded to feast on the remaining crops. Settlers began leaving as tensions developed over Considerant’s poor financial management, unclear land deeds, impractical distribution of work, and disagreements over how meals should be served to provide equal sharing. Some headed back to Europe while others moved into Dallas and surrounding communities.

In 1860 Dallas incorporated La Réunion land and the colonists offered their considerable skills to the growing city. M. Monduel opened the first brewery in 1857; Emil Remond experimented with the white rock on the banks of the Trinity and eventually established a cement plant; Julien Reverchon, who became an internationally known botany professor at Baylor University College of Medicine and Pharmacy in Dallas, had been taught by Jacob Boll, who discovered and classified many Texas plants and flowers. Jacob Nussbaumer opened the city’s first butcher shop. Benjamin Long served two terms as Dallas mayor; John B Louckx, created the public school system; and Maxime Guillot’s carriage factory operated for fifty years, leading to Dallas becoming a world center for the carriage and harness-making industry.

Today, the 561-foot Reunion Tower completed in 1978 in downtown Dallas is about three miles east of the old colony and serves as a handsome reminder of the contributions made by the little band of visionaries.

Reunion Tower

Reunion Tower

Immigrant Creates a Food Tradition

In 1892 when Adelaida and Macario Cuellar left their impoverished home, crossed the Rio Grande, and were married in Laredo, they had dreams of working hard and finding success. They did not imagine that their family would eventually head a multi-million dollar food business.

Adelaida Cuellar and the first of her dozen children.

Adelaida Cuellar and the first of her dozen children.

The Cuellars spoke very little English and worked on farms in South Texas as they moved north, eventually settling as sharecroppers on a farm outside Kaufman, a town southeast of Dallas. By 1926 Macario worked as a ranch foreman at Star Brand Ranch and the family had grown to twelve children. Mama Cuellar, as Adelaida was known, decided to add to the family income. She set up a stand at the Kaufmann County Fair to sell her homemade chili and tamales while her five sons, known as Mama’s Boys, played guitars. She not only won a prize for her cooking, she sold out. The tamale stand made $300, the family claims that was more than Macario Cuellar made in a year. Thus began the family’s annual trek to the county fair.

Two of her sons soon opened a Mexican restaurant in Kaufman with Mama Cuellar doing the cooking, but the Great Depression forced them to close after a couple of years. Over the next few years her five sons tried unsuccessfully to operate restaurants in several East Texas towns, until 1940 when sons Macario and Gilbert, using Mama Cuellar’s recipes, opened El Charro in the Oak Lawn neighborhood of Dallas. As the restaurant became more profitable, all five sons pooled their resources and expanded to other locations under El Chico Corporation.

In 1961 Angus G. Wynne, Jr. owner of the Star Brand Ranch that had employed Macario Cuellar in the early days, planned to open an amusement park in Arlington to be called “Six Flags Over Texas.” Wynne wanted to serve food representing all the cultures in Texas, and he invited the Cuellars to open a restaurant in the Mexico section of the park. El Chico proved so popular at the opening that it ran out of food and even paper plates and cups.

Mama Cuellar

Mama Cuellar

By the time Mama Cuellar died in 1969, El Chico had expanded into twenty different businesses from canning to restaurant franchising. Over the years the business went public and then returned to the family’s hands several times, each time at considerable profit. Many of the El Chico employees, realizing the growing popularity of Mexican food, opened their own Mexican restaurants. Some facilities were white tablecloth and fine dining establishments, while others served Mexican seafood, and some catered to the post-college boomer crowd.

In 1974 Mariano Martinez, one of Mama Cuellar’s grandsons who owned Mariono’s in Old Town, hit on the idea of refitting a soft-serve ice cream machine to serve frozen margaritas. His invention opened a whole new line of Mexican restaurants and bars and a whole new way to enjoy Mexican food. That original machine is now in the collection of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.

Original frozen margarita machine on display at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History

Original frozen margarita machine on display at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History

Today the tiny Mexican immigrant’s dream of using hard work to be successful has expanded into almost one hundred El Chico restaurants in Texas and the surrounding states and twenty-seven El Chico Restaurant franchises.

Home for Unwed Mothers

In a plan to redeem prostitutes and “combat the social evil of fallen women” in 1894, the Rev. J. T. Upchurch and his wife Maggie Mae organized the Berachah Rescue Society in Waco. One newspaper account claims he was “driven away [from Waco] by angry fellow Methodist church members who opposed his missionary work with prostitutes.” Regardless of the reason, the Upchurches moved in 1903 to the Dallas slums to continue their mission.

Portrait photograph of Rev. J.T. Upchurch and his wife, founders of the Berachah Rescue Work library.uta.edu

Portrait photograph of Rev. J.T. Upchurch and his wife, founders of the Berachah Rescue Work library.uta.edu

Sometime in 1903 Mrs. Upchurch’s father donated twenty-seven acres in Arlington between Dallas and Fort Worth, and the Upchurches opened the Berachah Industrial Home for homeless, often pregnant girls, from all over Texas and the surrounding states.

Although Upchurch held conservative theological views, his ideas for social reform were liberal for the time. His home, unlike others for unwed mothers, required that children remain with their natural parent and that the mothers learn to care for themselves and their children. He believed that there were no illegitimate children, only illegitimate parents.

Upchurch published The Purity Journal for financial contributors who were primarily Dallas-Fort Worth businessmen. In the journal articles Upchurch wrote of the evils of brothels, saloons, and social corruption. His stories about the slums and the shelter included accounts of redemption and salvation. He also described the work being done at the home and detailed individual case histories. The residents worked in the home’s handkerchief factory, operated the press for the Purity Journal, and maintained the large gardens and orchards. Upchurch required all residents and staff to attend worship services on the premises and to refrain from using the phone on Sundays, eating pork, or consuming coffee, tea, or tobacco.

At the height of the operation in 1928, the home added an additional forty acres and expanded to at least ten buildings including a hospital/clinic, nursery, dormitory and dining room, handkerchief factory, school, auditorium, and barn. The home closed briefly in 1935 and Upchurch’s daughter and son-in-law Allie Mae and Reverend Frank Wiese reopened the facility as an orphanage that served until 1942.

Today the property is on the campus of the University of Texas at Arlington, and the only physical reminder of the history of the site is the cemetery opened in 1904 that contains over eighty graves of unwed mothers, stillborn babies, children who died in measles epidemics, and employees and their children.

Berachah Home and Cemetery marker, Arlington, TX

Berachah Home and Cemetery marker, Arlington, TX

Nobility in Big Spring

Texas claims its share of frontier characters—buffalo hunters, Indian fighters, gunslingers, and cowboys—who roamed and sometimes helped settle the vast western regions. The remittance man, although a less well-known frontier character, represents a few hundred wealthy Europeans, mostly Englishmen, who found themselves exiled in the wilds of West Texas. Although these nobles lost their positions at home, their families continued financial maintenance (remittance) in an apparent effort to keep them out of sight.

Heneage Finch, 7th Earl of Aylesford

Heneage Finch, 7th Earl of Aylesford

Joseph Heneage Finch, Seventh Earl of Aylesford, fits the bill as a remittance man. He held claim to one of the finest estates in England until his life blew up in a scandal that shook British nobility, including such personages as the Prince of Wales (future King Edward VII), and Lord Blandford Churchill, uncle of the future Sir Winston Churchill. It seems Finch accompanied the Prince of Wales on a goodwill trip to India in 1875-76 only to abruptly leave his sponsor and return home to confront his unfaithful wife and her lover. A divorce followed that shook the highest levels of English society. Finch lost his estate, and he left for adventure in America.

Upon arriving in New York, Finch met Jay Gould, president of the Texas & Pacific Railroad, who described the cheap land and good turkey and antelope hunting in West Texas.

With former buffalo hunter John Birdwell serving as his guide, the earl bought a 37,000-acre ranch northeast of the new railroad town of Big Spring in 1883 and stocked it with $40,000 worth of cattle. Birdwell warned Finch that cowboys “don’t cater to big names and such, so we’ll just call you ‘Judge.’ ” The Judge became popular with the local cowhands for his tales of hunting in India with the Prince of Wales and for footing the bill for their drinking parties.

Storytellers say Finch bought a saloon, tended bar himself, and at the end of the party gave the establishment back to its former owner. We know he satisfied his yen for mutton, which did not sit well with local cowboys and cattlemen, by building his own meat market, the first permanent building in Big Spring. He lined the walls of his lodge with an amazing collection of hunting gear and after the structure burned, he bought the Cosmopolitan Hotel. Some folks say he bought the hotel because he and his friends needed a place to party for one night. He gave the hotel back the next day with the understanding that there would always be a room for him and his buddies. On January 13, 1885, after throwing a lavish Christmas dinner and drinking party that lasted two weeks, the Seventh Earl of Aylesford died in his hotel room at the age of 36.

A Texas Historical Marker in Big Spring tells the English nobleman’s story.

Texas Historical Marker, Big Spring

Texas Historical Marker, Big Spring

Ex-Slave Becomes Community Leader

Born into slavery in Arkansas in 1845, Nelson Taylor Denson moved, at age eleven, to Falls County in East Texas with his master. Denson, who had been educated by his master, developed high regard for Sam Houston after hearing Houston speak when he visited Marlin in his campaign for governor. During the Civil War, Denson accompanied his master in the Confederate Army, serving as a saddle boy looking after the horses.

An account titled Slaves Narratives—Rural NW Louisiana African American Genealogy includes Denson’s account of the Civil War in which he praises Sam Houston for standing by his principles and refusing to take an oath of loyalty to the Confederacy, which resulted in Governor Houston being removed from office. Denson says he that at age sixteen he went to war as his master’s “bodyguard.” In his gripping account of the night before the Battle at Mansfield on the Sabine River, he describes the sound of whippoorwills calling and the low mummer of the men singing spirituals and listing for an attack from the Yankees camped just across the river.

Denson views the slaves who ran away and joined the Union forces as not properly caring for the women and children left behind on the plantations. He goes on to share his concern after the war for the change in the “old order,” and the decline in virtue and chivalry.

After the Civil War, Denson returned to Falls County as a free man and began working to fulfill his two dreams—to preach and to teach. Incorporating a deep understanding of human needs and rights, Denson became a circuit preacher in the Baptist denomination.

On November 8, 1868, the Reverend Denson, his wife, and eleven other blacks organized the Marlin Missionary Baptist Church, the first black congregation in Falls County. Denson believed that black citizens must have the basic rudiments of education, which led him to teach the fundamental skills of reading, writing, and arithmetic. He helped start a school sponsored by the Marlin Missionary Baptist Church, and others soon followed. By the mid-1880s Denson won election as county commissioner, becoming the first black official in the county. His good judgment and spirit of cooperation won the respect of both the black and the white communities, and he continued to be respected and called on for advice and counsel until his death in 1938 at the age of ninety-three.

The Rev. Nelson T. Denson and the Marlin Missionary Baptist Church historical marker is located at 507 Bennett at George Street in Marlin, Falls County.on

Sally Skull: Legend in Her Lifetime

Chroniclers say the tiny, hook-nosed, blue-eyed Sally Skull rode a horse like a man, cursed like a sailor, shot like an Indian, and spoke Spanish like a Mexican. Stories abound of her five husbands—she may have killed one or two, and number five may have killed her.

Sally grew up young, and she grew up tough. Born in 1817 as Sarah Jane Newman, her family moved to Texas in 1821 and settled in the northernmost part of Stephen F. Austin’s original colony. Besides the constant threat in her childhood of Indians stealing the family’s horses and corn, Sally watched as an Indian stuck his foot under the cabin front door to lift it off the hinges and her mother used an ax to chop off his toes. At other times her mother put the children to bed and blew out the candles fearing Indians might shoot them through the cracks between the log walls of the cabin. Finally, the family moved to Egypt, a settlement south of present Houston that was less prone to Indian attack.

Like many girls of that time, Sally married at age sixteen. Jesse Robinson, a man twice her age, served as a volunteer in the Battle of San Jacinto that won Texas independence from Mexico and in several subsequent military campaigns. When they divorced in 1843, he claimed Sally was a scold and “termagant” and committed adultery with someone she kept in the washhouse. Sally said Robinson was excessively cruel. They both fought for years over custody of their two children.

Sally married again on March 17, 1843, eleven days after the divorce, but not to the accused in the washhouse. Despite three more unions, husband number two, George H. Scull, provided her famous name with a slight variation in the spelling.

After the Scull marriage, Sally sold her inherited property around Egypt and disappeared for about ten years. She may have spent that time near her children who attended convent schools in New Orleans. Those who knew Sally reported that she adored her children and always found other children delightful. However, as her notoriety spread, mothers often chided their children to behave or Sally Skull would get them.

George Scull disappeared from the record by the early 1850s about the time Sally established a horse-trading business twenty miles west of Corpus Christi at the crossing of Banquete Creek and El Camino Real (the old road from Matamoros on the Rio Grande to Goliad and beyond). Several accounts place Sally at the great 1852 State Fair in Corpus Christi because she is remembered for shooting a man—in self-defense, of course.

Her reputation also spread over her lifestyle choices: she often wore men’s pants, she rode her horse astride rather than side-saddle, and she buckled at her waist a wide belt anchoring two cap and ball revolvers. Her only nod to feminine attire consisted of a slatted sunbonnet to protect her once-fair complexion.

She hired a few Mexican vaqueros that rode with her on horse-trading trips as far south as Mexico and along the Gulf coast all the way to New Orleans. She purchased up to 150 horses at a time with gold carried in a nosebag around her neck or over her saddle horn.

Sally did not allow anyone to inspect or cut her herds, which may have fueled rumors that after she visited ranches, Indians drove off the best horses that appeared later in Sally’s herds. Wives sometimes claimed she made eyes at their husbands while her vaqueros stayed busy running off their horses.

Several tales surround Sally’s loss of husband number three, John Doyle, who like George Scull simply disappeared from the scene. Some accounts claim Doyle and Sally had a duel and her superior marksmanship won the day. Others said that while in Corpus Christi for a fandango, which she loved attending, she did not wake quickly enough the following morning and Doyle poured a pitcher of water on her head. She leaped from the bed not fully awake, drew her pistol, and became a widow. Another tale tells of her insisting that John Doyle and her vaqueros ride across a swollen river. The rushing current swept away Doyle and his horse. When the Mexicans asked if they should look for his body, she said, “I don’t give a damn about the body, but I sure would like the $40 in that money belt around it.”

In December 1855, Sally married Isaiah Wadkins and divorced him the following May for beating her, dragging her nearly two hundred yards, and living openly in adultery. After she won the divorce, the Nueces County Grand Jury indicted Wadkins for adultery.

Sally’s number five was almost twenty years her junior. Christoph Horsdorff or “Horsetrough,” a moniker he earned for just sitting around.

With the start of the Civil War Sally quit horse trading, fitted out several mule train wagons, converted her Mexican vaqueros into teamsters, and began the highly dangerous and lucrative business of hauling Confederate cotton to Mexico. The Union blockade of all the ports on the Gulf Coast made it necessary for the Confederacy to ship cotton to the mills in England through the neutral Mexican port of Baghdad at the mouth of the Rio Grande. Hundreds of English ships waited for the precious cargo in exchange for Winchester rifles, ammunition, and medical supplies for the Confederate Army. The old route to Matamoros that led through Banquete became known as the Cotton Road as ox-carts and mule-drawn wagon trains lumbered along its sandy route hauling thousands of bales of cotton from all over the South.

Some storytellers believe Horsdorff (number five) killed Sally because she was seen riding away from Banquete with him and he returned alone. Later, a man claimed to have noticed a boot sticking out of a shallow grave and discovered her murdered body. No one was ever charged.

  1. Frank Dobie, historian and folklorist best described the illusive lady: “Sally Skull belonged to the days of the Texas Republic and afterward. She was notorious for her husbands, her horse trading, freighting, and roughness.”

And that’s the truth.