From the Past, Lon Tinkle's Key to Unlocking Dallas's Present

Lon Tinkle's book The Key to Dallas has probably been out of print since its publication in 1965. Copies of the slim tome -- written for now-defunct publishing house J. B. Lippincott & Co.'s "Keys to the Cities" series, which also included books about New York City, Rome, Paris and London -- can be found for very little here and here. But among Tinkle's estimable bibliography, which includes the epic Thirteen Days to Glory: The Siege of the Alamo, it's seldom acknowledged; indeed, it doesn't even merit a mention on his Wikipedia page. And it's almost never mentioned when we speak of the other notable books written about this city.

Two weeks ago, during an afternoon spent in downtown McKinney, I bought a signed first edition that sat hidden within the impressive and invaluable collection of local-interest books at The Book Gallery. The Key to Dallas contains not only one of the most engaging histories of the city's origins ever put to paper, but it also reads like something published earlier this afternoon. As we head into the weekend, then, a little light reading after the jump: excerpts from the introduction, in which Tinkle describes "a city on the go" -- one with no interest in or tolerance for its history as it moves forever onward and upward. It, perhaps, contains the key to Dallas. --Robert Wilonsky

A City on the Go

Dallas is a city on the go. The people of Dallas like to do things; they prefer action to sitting around and talking and thinking about it. The city strikes the eye with all the brightness and freshness of a newly minted silver dollar. Most cities look weathered, like sturdy trees, or like ships at anchor after long voyage. Dallas, with its aluminum-skin buildings and its gleaming white structures, reminds you more of a jet plan ready to take off.

About a million people live in Dallas and the twenty-eight smaller cities and towns that touch hands with it in the county of Dallas.

Some the people are rich, very rich -- like certain oil millionaires. They live in mansions on big estates. They have their own private airplanes, and pilots ready to whisk them at a moment’s notice to and from their large Texas ranches, their private islands in the Gulf of Mexico, or even in Canadian waters, their other homes scattered in distant places around the globe.

Some are poor, very poor -- like hundreds of Dallas families, white and black, who live in flimsy wooden shacks on dusty streets (or muddy in the rain season), without city water or sewers to serve them.

But the vast majority are neither rich nor poor. They are ordinary people of average middle income, the same as most other city dwellers in the United States.

But one streak runs like a common thread through all the people of Dallas: a love of brand new things. They like to erect new homes, stores, schools, factories, office buildings, public structures of all kinds, places where they may work or play. And this leads them impatiently to tear down the buildings of yesterday to make way for new and larger ones. Dallas has a trouble keeping intact the few old landmarks it has. A hundred-year-old house in Dallas, for example, is as rare as a buffalo in the streets. A store front or a bank building half a century old is a source more of shame than of pride. …

Even more revealing, though, of the energy and drive of Dallas as a community is he series of large-scale public works on which the city seems constantly engaged. Citizens have been civic-minded ever since Dallas was started a century and a quarter ago.

These joint efforts of all the people of Dallas take many forms. They are spearheaded by their business and civic leaders and are paid for out of tax funds voted for improvements. They range from the laying of vast sweeps of new concrete expressways and a dozen viaducts spanning the city’s main floodway, to some ten miles of earthen dams thrown across streams on the outer reaches of the city. These dams impound more than thirty trillion gallons of water in a series of nine man-made lakes.

Engineers for the city thought nothing a few years ago of physically moving a river flowing past the foot of downtown Dallas. They dug a new ten-mile-long channel for the river, called the Trinity, half a mile to the west. They built levees thick and high enough on each side of the river to keeps its waters from overflowing. This cured the menace of costly flood damage in the very heart of the city. It also restored to use thousands of acres of former swampland. On these acres now, hundreds of new business concerns have their homes. Most of these are laid out, park-like real estate developments for business concerns created in the former wasteland. One of these planned industrial parks of Dallas has served as a model for other cities both in this country and also abroad.

Love of the new on the part of Dallas people extends to the latest in inventions and gadgets. Dallas has an enviable record for being among the first to adopt and try out the wonders of applied science. This has long been true, whether it be the last century’s new-fangled horseless carriage or the electric lamp replacing gas lights, or whether it be today’s jet airliner and refrigerated air conditioning to cool both homes and automobiles. …

Two curious facts about Dallas confront us, and each is a tightly wrapped mystery. Both have puzzled Dallas inhabitants. The first is not of earth-shaking importance, but it would satisfy the curiosity of a great many people if we could find its solution. It asks: who was the man or the place that gave Dallas its name? The second mystery is more far-reaching. It is stated in this question: How did Dallas ever grow from a one-room log cabin trading post into one of the key cities of America?

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Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky