1875

Though in the midst of a booming renaissance today, downtown Arlington came into creation as many American cities have begun – as a nameless railroad whistle stop.

Planners of the Texas and Pacific Railroad deemed it logical to create a stop midway between the booming cities of Dallas and Fort Worth. In 1875, they began surveying a future small city in a half-mile square divided into hundred-yard blocks, split in the middle by Center and Main streets. They drilled a windmill-powered water well to slake the perpetual thirst of steam locomotives and livestock, built a train station at Center and Front streets and began selling lots. Business was brisk, delight with opportunities in frontier Texas.

That first T&P locomotive, Engine No. 20, met by a cheering crowd, rolled into the just- named town of Arlington on July 19, 1876, there to find mostly unplowed buffalo prairie marked with dirt streets and survey stakes. Nevertheless, a few enterprising settlers were already building rudimentary pioneer homes and stores because they possessed two qualities that consistently typifies this city: The first is optimism; the second is a belief that growth will come.

There were mixed opinions on what to call this new place – Johnson and Hayterville were the early leading favorites – Presbyterian Minister Andrew Hayter suggested “Arlington '' after Arlington House, Robert E Lee’s home in Virginia. The name stuck, though the city didn’t officially incorporate until 1884. Though Arlington itself was new, settlement of the area itself dated from the 1840s, starting with Bird’s Fort in what is now the north part of the city. There were other small communities nearby, most notably Hayterville and Johnson Station, the populations of which immediately began relocating to the area around the downtown train station.

Though Arlington today occupies almost a hundred square miles and contains more than 400,000 people – it ranks among the nation’s most populous 50 cities – that original half-mile historic square remains the center of today’s downtown area. In the beginning, what is downtown today was the entire town. Pioneer residents promoted the growing little community as the place “Where East Meets West,” perhaps as a counter-ploy to nearby Fort Worth, which was already bragging that it was “Where the West Begins.”

Like many pioneer communities, agriculture – mostly cotton and wheat – was the major enterprise.  Arlington was not without its Wild West moments, one of them a famous 1892 “Christmas Eve Massacre” gunfight that left four men (and a horse) dead on Main Street near the rail station. Mostly, though, it was about trade and getting crops to market at the rail station. By 1900, the town had grown to a thousand residents and would soon have five downtown cotton gins (and five saloons, though the town voted itself dry in 1902), along with a plethora of new businesses and residential construction.

Though Arlington was a new kind of place and the word “branding” had a completely different kind of meaning at the time, those late 1800’s residents were already visualizing change. When a downtown public well at Center and Main streets came through spewing heavily mineralized “Carlsbad” water, enterprising residents quickly billed it as medicinal, creating spas and Arlington crystals – something like Epsom salts – for sale.

When residents decided they needed a college, in 1895 they publicly funded Arlington College – UT Arlington today. This same university presence, now with more than 50,000 students, remains an essential component of the downtown and community character. When the Interurban, an electric trolley system, went rolling down Abram Street in downtown Arlington in 1902, linking it to both Fort Worth and Dallas, the city billed itself as the natural home of traveling salesmen. This phenomenon also kicked off what would become a new phenomenon: The dawn of the age of commuting.

Photo By Unknown - University of Texas at Arlington, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=33408330

1900-1950

From a hindsight, historical perspective, Arlington could almost be said to be on two identify tracks from the 1900s onward. One of those tracks would be typical turn-of-the-century trends everywhere: Creation of water and sewer systems, electricity and natural gas, sidewalks and paved roads, telephone service, movies as entertainment (downtown had two movie theaters) and the emergence of the automobile as the primary mode of transit. Downtown would also continue to be a center for produce and agricultural sales, as well as rail transit.

The untypical? Recollect that the Texas and Pacific wanted a mid-city location between Dallas and Fort Worth? The primary highway linkage between the two turned out to be the former U.S. 80, the most important southern highway across the U.S., running from Washington, D.C., to San Diego, Calif., in the process running right through downtown Arlington on what is now Division Street.

This connection would also prove crucial as a factor in Arlington’s first major industry that was not agriculture -- gambling. Arlington Downs, a horse racing track, located on Division, would attract thousands of people.

So would the infamous Top O’ Hill Casino, an illegal but nevertheless full-blown casino that survived for two decades, also located on Division Street. Though the gambling enterprises would not survive, the idea that Arlington should be an entertainment destination has persisted.

Division Street, including the downtown section, would also emerge as the “Arlington Auto Aisle,” a mix of new and used car dealerships that would attract people from all around the Metroplex – the name given to the sprawling North Texas region centered by Arlington.

From left, Frank Hawks, W. T. Waggoner, Will Rogers, and Amon G. Carter Sr. on Opening Day at Arlington Downs racetrack, 10_19_1933

Arlington also became a pioneer in higher education, its leaders campaigning for what was a relatively new concept – the two-year community college, by then Arlington College having morphed into the two-year Grubbs Vocational College, which would be under the Texas A&M umbrella but still located downtown. In time the college would go through three more name changes and a further evolution into the University of Texas at Arlington – but that would have to wait until the next couple of decades.

By North Texas Agriculture College - NTAC Junior Aggies, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=37143486

By 1950, the city’s population was just under 8,000. But trends – and the fortunes of the downtown area – were about to change significantly.

1950+

Given its mid-cities location, it should be no surprise that Arlington became an early “Edge City” in the 1950s. If the early 1900s was typified by immigration of people from agrarian areas to big cities, the 1950s was marked by decisions of millions of people to leave the big cities for surrounding suburban communities.

Military men after World War II married, had children, bought a car – or two – and moved to new homes and apartments being built in cities like Arlington. This phenomenon was accelerated because at the same time Arlington became the home of job-providing entities like a new G.M. assembly plant, creation of the Great Southwest Industrial District and an assortment of retailers, shopping centers (Six Flags Mall, Forum 303 Mall and others) and service industries catering to new homeowners.

Though Arlington as a whole blossomed – for three decades it was one of the fastest growing cities in the nation – fortune was not so kind to Arlington’s aging downtown areas. Much of it was razed. Streets were changed.  Two interstates, first I-30 and then I-20, diverted traffic that had once flowed through U.S. 80 and the downtown area.

Businesses moved, and city leadership focused much of its attention on new growth and a prospering Entertainment District along I-30 that began with Six Flags Over Texas and expanded to include the Texas Rangers. The city grew north and then – with I-20 as a catalyst -- exploded southward with multitudes of new homes, businesses, industry, restaurants and shopping centers. Before long, much of the city’s already-small downtown area shrunk and sometimes disappeared in unintentional disinvestment. The downtown mineral well was demolished. The train station disappeared. New car auto dealerships on Division Street moved to interstate locations.

There were, however, some who developed a new passion for downtown Arlington, seeing it a palette of reinvention, repurposing and rediscovery. Early leaders like Lana Wolff, Tom Cravens and Victor Vandergriff led the change for a better downtown.  They dubbed the downtown area as “everyone’s neighborhood” and over time their numbers and enthusiasm grew, particularly from the mid-1990s onward, with real estate development trends and consumer preferences discovering urban centers again. This renewed belief in downtown Arlington’s importance eventually evolved into the creation of the Downtown Arlington Management Corporation, and a refocusing by the City’s leadership on the city’s central area.

Flash forward to the current time and the downtown area is evolving into a live-work-play community in proximity to a major university with tens of thousands of students.  With a growing downtown workforce of more than 8,000 people, along with 10,000 residents now living downtown – Downtown Arlington is becoming a different kind of place today, filled with new mid-level apartments, townhomes, restaurants, live music, offices and revamped streets. And it’s still growing.

It’s not random. Early strategic public investments in infrastructure helped set the table to attract private investment, and the creation of the Levitt Pavilion and Founders Plaza served as the first catalyst project for Downtown Arlington. A second major catalyst project was the University's $78 million investment in 2012 in the College Park Center development, bringing a 6,500 square foot Special Event Center, as part of a mixed use public-private partnership to provide more retail, entertainment, sports and parking infrastructure to our shared downtown district. 

The City of Arlington in 2018 adopted a new Downtown Master Plan to guide development in the Downtown and surrounding areas of the city. The Master Plan accounts for a wide range of existing and future uses to create a vibrant destination for residents and visitors. The Master Plan establishes a vision for Downtown Arlington as an area with a strong sense of place that is responsive to the history and future needs of the area. Additionally, the plan connects Downtown to the adjacent University of Texas at Arlington campus, as well as growing entertainment, employment, and commercial centers within Arlington – an amenity and attraction both to residents and to visitors. 

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We are grateful to Special Collections: UT Arlington Libraries, the Arlington Historical Society, and O.K. Carter for their work providing historical photos and context, as well as all the good folks of Arlington who shared their family histories and photographs. Learn even more by tuning in to our Downtown Roots Podcast, a six-episode series of conversations with artists, entrepreneurs, community leaders and other Arlingtonians sharing personal stories about our history and bright future.