Dig This

Amateur archeologist Alex Troup has some advice for those who would bring life back to downtown Dallas: The answers are under your feet.

Smith, who has published an article about a drug epidemic that swept through Dallas in the late 1800s, argues that historians have recognized the city's history of vice. For reading material, he recommends a book about Isadore Callaway, otherwise known as "Pauline Periwinkle." She was a turn-of-the-century Morning News columnist who advocated women's suffrage and later became president of the Dallas Federation of Women's Clubs.

The suggestion makes Troup's stomach turn.

"That's the most hideous crap that's ever popped out from an elephant's tail," Troup says. Oh, sure, Callaway was a commendable sort--a social reformer who held bake sales and donated the proceeds to charity. Her story, Troup says, is exactly the kind of historical treacle Dallas boosters use to clean up the city's reputation.

This collection of artifacts Troup unearthed downtown, including a doll's head and bottles once filled with tinctures of opium and cocaine, convinced him he'd found an old bordello.
John Walker
This collection of artifacts Troup unearthed downtown, including a doll's head and bottles once filled with tinctures of opium and cocaine, convinced him he'd found an old bordello.

One Dallas historian who has delved into the city's bawdy past is Darwin Payne, author of Big D--Triumphs and Troubles of an American Supercity in the 20th Century. Payne dedicates eight pages of his book to the "Reservation," a neighborhood north of Troup's dig that later became Little Mexico. Payne discovered that the Dallas City Charter specifically designated the area as a red-light district in the early 1900s. At the time, an estimated 240 to 400 women worked there.

Payne's material on the Reservation, however, mostly focuses on J.T. Upchurch, a Dallas preacher who led a crusade against prostitution that ended in 1913 when Dallas police forcibly evicted the women from their homes, shutting down the Reservation. Asked whether Dallas historians have intentionally concealed this aspect of Dallas history, Payne initially starts to say they haven't, but stops. He pauses.

"Well, here's what I would say," Payne continues. "After [the Reservation] was shut down, Dallas was so concerned for so many years about its image that it shut out those things. By the time the '60s came along, there was nobody around to remember it because they hadn't been reading any references to it. It's like the Ku Klux Klan in Dallas--it had been 'forgotten.' We didn't want that sort of image."

Like Troup, Payne agrees that this side of the city's history has been ignored. That's why he wrote his book.

"With Big D, I wanted to show that Dallas has a very interesting, lively past. We have glossed over it for so many years, trying to put forth this very positive image," Payne says. "When we did that, Dallas became plain vanilla."


"I think it's perceived to be boring," Payne says. "But I don't think it has a boring history."

"I am a creative spirit in this city," Troup says. "I represent urban history and recovery."

Troup is sitting behind an antique desk in the living room of his Oak Cliff apartment. The tiny run-down pad is packed with brown boxes containing carefully wrapped objects Troup has unearthed over the past 20 years.

Troup holds no college degrees, but his ability to unearth pieces of Dallas history has been recognized by the Dallas County Pioneer Association and cited in numerous newspaper articles. At 42, Troup is unemployed, though he used to work for Dallas County as a clerk. Sometimes Troup gets paid to conduct research, and he makes some money selling the objects he digs up. Mostly, though, he lives like a magician. "I levitate between paper and plastic," he says. Cash and credit.

While Troup could be accused of living in the past, he is not oblivious to what's happening today. He knows there's a new party going on downtown, and he didn't get invited. The problem is, Troup can't afford to partake in the version of fun that Dallas serves up so well: The opera. The symphony. Days spent shopping, nights feasting on white tablecloths. Loft living at $1,400 a month.

Instead, Troup watches in horror as his hometown grows into a city that has less room for him. Troup isn't even safe in his own home: His apartment building has a new owner who's planning to renovate. Like downtown, Troup is about to get gentrified.

"I love the future," Troup says. "I just hate progress."

Troup knows that one man cannot turn back progress. But one man can try to salvage history. That's why he digs.

Troup presents an 1888 map of downtown on which he has marked the spot of his dig. The site is located two blocks south of Old Red along Market Street, bounded by Jackson Street on the north and Wood Street on the south.

Troup unseals one of his boxes. Out come the opium vial and an empty bottle of "Thompson's Wild Cherry" imprinted with the description "A hygienic phosphate." "That's a cure-all," Troup says, "like snake oil."

In the late 1800s, cocaine, opium and prostitution weren't only legal, they were part of the entertainment. Troup brings out the cocaine bottle and a soda pop bottle manufactured by the "Dallas Bottling Co."

"If you mixed the three elements--soda pop, cocaine and ice--you had a wonderful drink," Troup says. "The party was going. The party would go all night."

When he was digging, Troup says, the ground itself suggested that he had discovered an outhouse--human waste turned the red clay into sand--but he didn't know for sure until he went to the Dallas County Records Building. There he found the map from 1888, and another from 1899, that clearly shows a boarding house, complete with outhouse.

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