When the past comes alive...

Deadly Dallas

It never fails to amaze me — whether I’m spinning the microfilm reels, looking at digital images, or turning old yellowed pages of newsprint — just how many quirky stories those local newspapers published. “Legless Man Wins Swimming Contest,” “Thieves Steal City’s Fire Wagons,” and “Missing Wife Returns After 41 Years,” for example.

And that’s what gave me the idea for Deadly Dallas: A History of Unfortunate Incidents and Grisly Fatalities.

If you think life in Dallas at the turn of the twentieth century was quaint and safe, read the newspapers and think again.

Tradesmen—painters, plumbers, shoemakers, cleaners, furniture makers, and haberdashers—used materials permeated with lead, deadly chemicals, flammable compounds, or all three. At construction sites, crews fired up huge locomotive-sized steam boilers, explosive boilers that could level a city block. The beautiful carriage horses—not to mention pigs and goats on their way to market—left the road surface a soupy mixture of pestiferous liquids. You risked being run over by carriages, wagons, horses, trolley cars, early automobiles, and even locomotives that were competing for space on roads that, as of yet, had no traffic laws. 

Air Crash

A History of Unfortunate Incidents and Grisly Fatalities

Wood stoves, gas lamps, and kerosene lanterns assured there were open flames throughout your house. Touched by a spark, your frilly cotton clothing would burn like a straw scarecrow.In the shed, you’d probably store powdered rat poison, deadly to curious children. For recreation, you could boat at your own risk on the Trinity River—much of the city’s sewerage was dumped there.

This darkly humorous account of sudden death in Dallas might convince you that living under quarantine wasn’t so bad after all.

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The Red River Bridge War

In his autobiography, Tony Hillerman, the late mystery novelist who set his novels on the Navaho reservation, wrote about his days as a wire service reporter in Oklahoma. He was sent to interview an ex-governor, an old man living on the second floor of a down-and-outer hotel in Tishomingo. All the old man wanted to talk about was when he sent the Oklahoma National Guard into Texas to seize control of the Red River bridges from the Texas Rangers.

What? An invasion of Texas? I’d lived in Texas most of my life and I’d never heard of this! But I found soon enough that an armed Texas-Oklahoma standoff over the Red River bridges actually happened, even if the details weren’t quite what old Gov. “Alfalfa Bill” Murray remembered.

The story of the Red River Bridge War grew into a bigger story involving the history of improved highways in the two states, privatization of transportation infrastructure, and a battle of wits between two very different types of state governors.

Listen as Texas Public Radio interviews Rusty Williams

This armed conflict entertained newspaper readers nationwide during that early Great Depression year, but the Red River Bridge War was a deadly serious affair for many rural Americans at a time when free bridges and passable roads could mean the difference between survival and starvation.

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Historic Photos of Dallas

in the 50s, 60s, and 70s

An editor who had seen one of my earlier books contacted me and asked if I’d write the essays and captions for a book his company was preparing about Dallas, Texas, in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s. Sure, I said. I’d spent much of my life in Dallas and I figured I could snap the thing off in a week or two.

Man, was I wrong.

Instead of writing, I found myself captivated by the 200-odd photos they sent me. I studied every square inch of those crisp black-and-white images. I saw people dressed like I remember my grandfather and grandmother dressed. I saw streets that looked familiar, but with older buildings and older automobiles. There were storefronts I remembered as a child but filled in the photos with merchandise that now seemed so dated. There were events and celebrities and disasters and people going about their workaday business.

the birth of a powerhouse

And I saw in the pictures a city that was changing before my eyes, a proud city of some regional importance in the 1950s that was recasting itself into the glittering city of the Dallas tv show by the 1970s. In the end, that’s what I wrote.

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My Old Confederate Home

Beside a country road running through the middle of a sleepy little village in Kentucky is a historical marker that reads: “In burying ground one mile south lie the remains of 313 soldiers who died while residents of the Kentucky Confederate Home. The Home was located on high ground just northwest of here. It was used for CSA veterans from 1902 to 1934.”

A dozen questions came to mind. Who built the home? Was it a poorhouse? What was it like to live there? Were they all disabled? Homeless? How did they spend their days.? Were they taken care of? Were there other homes like this?

In answering those questions, I discovered a remarkable story of generosity and the human desire to care for others.

I found that, despite the causes and outcome of that terrible American Civil War, men and women of the South recognized they owed a debt to the men who took up arms on their behalf.

I discovered a final, untold chapter of the Civil War.

A Respectable Place for Civil War Veterans

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