Trash heap of history

Alexander Troup leaves you wondering at first. He talks a bit too fast, and his conspiratorial tone can make a listener wary.

But once he draws you into the half-forgotten world that has been his hobby and obsession for most of his life--turn-of-the-century Dallas--his enthusiasm is contagious. Looking at a map of downtown Dallas, this self-proclaimed urban archaeologist and historian sees not the skyscrapers and freeways, but a long-gone city of wooden storefronts, saloons, and horse-drawn carriages buried beneath the pavement and cement.

"That was the Old West of our modern, cosmopolitan town," he says, pulling out the ancient maps and documents he collected over the years.

"The railroad tracks went right by Max Hahn's packing company, where cattle came in boxcars to be slaughtered. That was right here," he says, pointing at the strip of land between Stemmons Freeway and Flynn Street. "That is also where the Jews lived, around Josephine and Dorilta," two streets that no longer exist, "and here too, by Caroline and Ashland, where the synagogue was. And I'll tell you what else," he says, leaning over the table, his manner suggesting a secret about to be shared, "this whole area right here," he points to Houston and Young, "was a red-light district. Anna Wilson, the wickedest woman in Dallas, had her sporting house right where The Dallas Morning News now stands. It's all in the deeds and titles; you just have to look."

Troup has dedicated the past 25 years of his life to recovering and painstakingly cataloging Dallas' urban history. On his own, without support from museums or academic institutions, Troup has rummaged through downtown's empty lots looking for clues to Dallas' early years.

He has searched the sites of major downtown developments, sometimes with the cooperation of developers--and sometimes not.

In the case of Hillwood Development Corp. and the new arena development, it's definitely not. Troup says the construction and excavation is taking place at the site of an old dump--a treasure of history that is being hauled away without being properly sorted and cataloged.

For their part, Hillwood representatives say that there is nothing of archaeological significance at the site, and that they have done all the law requires to protect the city's history.

Troup gives the impression of having spent more time dwelling on lives lived long ago than on the one he is living right now. Try to talk to him about his job, and he'll wave off the question. The present is unimportant to him, or at least uninteresting when compared with the bustling young metropolis of 100 years ago. "This was a happening place," he says with almost palpable nostalgia.

Development companies in the past have accused Troup of being no more than a pot-hunter, disturbing their sites in his search for pieces he could sell for a few hundred dollars at an antique shop. But Troup's love for the items he uncovers and for the history they tell make him much more likely to give the artifacts away to an institution willing to exhibit them than to sell them for a profit. Troup's obsession with the preservation of Dallas' history ("its soul," he says) led him to invest thousands of dollars and endless weekends on the recovery, maintenance, and storage of the articles he has found. He hopes that one day they will be housed in a museum of urban Dallas history or made into an educational exhibit.

Following the bulldozer and the wrecking ball to construction sites in the Arts District--once known as Freedman's Town--he found thousands of pearl buttons fallen from laundry taken in by the freed slaves who lived in the area. When Trammell Crow started developing the site at 2200 Ross--now the San Jacinto building--Troup worked with them to uncover the remains of a confederate military school: medals with "Grand Army of the Republic" engraved on them, military tools, and coins dating to the 1860s. Sifting through the dirt on the site of Reunion Arena, Troup found gambling coins. "A construction worker on the site also found a derringer pistol and a bottle that said 'Glenn Lea.' That's the old saloon down on Main Street where Doc Holliday used to drink, and where they had cockfights," explains Troup with the compelling blend of history and storytelling that seems to be his trademark.

Unfortunately, Troup's storytelling is about to be cut short: One of the most fertile grounds for the recovery of historical artifacts in Dallas is about to be sealed forever, he says, by the construction of the new arena.

The stretch of land lying between Stemmons Freeway and Flynn Street chosen as the site of Hillwood Development Corp.'s new project, Troup explains, was used as a dump between approximately 1870 and 1905. Brick maker Thomas Flynn, after whom Flynn Street was named, owned the low-lying area and rented it as a trash site, hoping the landfill would prevent flooding by the Trinity River. In 1889, Flynn sold a parcel of the land to the city of Dallas, giving the Dallas-Wichita Railway passage through town. Ten years later, he sold another portion to Max Hahn, who established a packing company and allowed the St. Louis South Western Railway Co. to lay their tracks on his property.

During the years he spent recovering items from this area, Troup found ceramic cups, bone dominoes, glass marbles, and even a well-preserved "Three Merry Widows" compact for storing prophylactics. Simple domestic objects like these give us a glimpse of the daily lives of Dallas' first inhabitants, he says. "These are beautiful things that were lost, but now found again. They were the characters of a world we don't know anymore. Now all we've got are these little monsters made of plastic," says Troup. Destroying treasure troves such as this one, he feels, strips the city of its character.

Not only was the building of the arena itself a matter of much debate, but the ground it would be built on was a subject of much scrutiny also. After a century-long history of industrial use, the soil in the area contains contaminants such as petroleum products that must be removed before the land can be used again. And its history as a turn-of-the-century repository of what one day was trash but now goes by the respectable name of historical artifacts poses its own problems.

"Some parts of the site used to be an old dump," says Larry Rose, the city public works special projects manager in charge of the city's participation in the construction of the arena. "There are high levels of lead and chrome there because of it."

Texas officials placed the site on the state's voluntary cleanup program, and the Texas Natural Resources Conservation Commission has been following the process. They, too, are aware of the presence of an old landfill dating back to the 1800s, says Terry Hadley, a TNRCC spokesman.

Actually, it seems the only ones not aware of what the arena site holds are the ones holding the arena site: Hillwood Development. And it seems they don't want to know, either.

An archaeological expert did an evaluation of the area and found nothing of value, says David Pellatier, a Hillwood public relations official. But Pellatier, unable to contact the expert, would not provide further details or the expert's name.

"Extensive due diligence was done on this site before any selection was made, and I am sure that if there are any statutory and regulatory requirements, they have been met and complied with," says Del Williams, an attorney representing Hillwood.

It is true that, legally speaking, Hillwood has no obligation to recover or preserve any articles found during construction. According to the state antiquities code, as long as they operate on private land--even if they are building with public money--the development company does not need to conduct historical evaluation of the area, explains Mark Denton, director of the state and federal review section of the archaeology division of the Texas Historical Commission. "We are still checking into it," says Denton, "but so far we have come up with a dead end."

Hillwood does own the site now, but once it is cleared, it will be handed over to the city of Dallas, and the arena will be built on public land. But then the city will lease it back to Hillwood for a few years, after which the arena will belong permanently to Hillwood, says Rose. "Essentially, the land that now is private will later become public, and then private again," he explains.

Still, there is nothing Hillwood is legally required to do, and nothing is being done. The site is guarded, and the dirt removed will be either taken to an unspecified landfill or used in the construction of the arena.

"It is unfortunate, because we would certainly like to see a project like this be built while protecting or removing archaeological treasures that are important to all of us," says Jim Burseth, director of the archaeology division of the Texas Historical Commission.

"It breaks my heart to see this happen," adds Troup. "A lot of people ask why does all this matter. I say this is where the story of Dallas is told, and [Hillwood] never took the time to know what the land held," says Troup. "They never studied its history. They were in too much of a hurry to buy up all the real estate. You just can't trust people who only worry about their bank accounts.


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