Oak Cliff history: How our neighborhood came to be

This 2,500-seat Casino theater once was part of Lake Cliff amusement park. When the park closed, developer Charles Mangold relocated the building to Fifth and Crawford where it become the James P. Simpson Studio, which burned down in 1929. Photo courtesy of Joe Whitney
This 2,500-seat Casino theater once was part of Lake Cliff amusement park. When the park closed, developer Charles Mangold relocated the building to Fifth and Crawford where it become the James P. Simpson Studio, which burned down in 1929. Photo courtesy of Joe Whitney

Oak Cliff’s original name, Hord’s Ridge, honored William Henry Hord, one of Dallas’ earliest settlers. His 640 acres, across the river from John Neely Bryan’s cabin — and set roughly where the Dallas Zoo is now — rested in front of a “ridge” of sorts. The name made sense … then.

Six years earlier, Hord had traveled from his home in Tennessee to join Gen. Thomas J. Rusk in East Texas to assist with Native American issues. Known as a kind and courteous man, Hord was elected as Dallas County’s first county clerk in 1846 and later served as a brigadier general of Texas militia troops during the Civil War — before becoming one of the signers of a resolution to restore all confederate states. Hord, a founder and vice president of the Dallas Historical Association and the leader of the Dallas County Conservative Party, earned the title “judge” when he later became a longtime Dallas County justice of the peace.

The entrance to what was later renamed the Marsalis Park Zoo in 1925. Photo courtesy of Carla Boss
The entrance to what was later renamed the Marsalis Park Zoo in 1925. Photo courtesy of Carla Boss
The developer understood that naming the area for the stately green oaks on the cliff was more appealing and melodious than the earlier tag. He also developed a park that included a large pavilion where stage shows and summer operas were presented. Later the home of the city’s menagerie, the Marsalis Park Zoo existed until 1985, when the name was changed during a remodeling project.

When his wife, Mary Hord, became determined to educate the couple’s only daughter at home, she found herself running a boarding school for girls. Attracting young ladies from as far away as White Rock Creek on the north to Ellis County on the south, the schoolmistress was forced to begin charging 12 1/2 cents per day to cover both tuition and board.

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Henry Hord became a founder and trustee of the Oak Cliff Cemetery, where he and Mary are interred. The family’s original log cabin was rescued from demolition by Martin and Charlotte Weiss in 1926 and donated to local Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 275 in 1947. Of note: John M. Crockett, Mary Hord’s brother, served as the second mayor of Dallas. Also of note: The Hords’ daughter married W. A. Crawford, assumedly the reason for the naming of Crawford Street on the east side of Lake Cliff Park.

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In 1886, developer Thomas L. Marsalis bought land that included most of the Hord farm, where he opened his “Oak Cliff” subdivision — Marsalis’ new and more appropriate name for the town. The developer understood that naming the area for the stately green oaks on the cliff was more appealing and melodious than the earlier tag. He also developed a park that included a large pavilion where stage shows and summer operas were presented. Later the home of the city’s menagerie, the Marsalis Park Zoo existed until 1985, when the name was changed during a remodeling project.

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In 1906, Charles A. Mangold (along with furniture czar John F. Zang) developed Lake Cliff Park, which opened first as “The Llewellyn Club.” The 44-acre playground boasted a roller coaster, water rides, three theaters, a dance pavilion, a Japanese Village and a roller rink.

A testament to all these men, both the zoo/park and Lake Cliff Park remain today.

Lake Cliff Park water slide, 1910. Photo courtesy of Bill Melton
Lake Cliff Park water slide, 1910. Photo courtesy of Bill Melton

As shared in an earlier column, residential developers helped pay for the operation of rail lines to and from their subdivisions in a brilliant effort to bring potential homebuyers out to view the lots and new houses being promoted. One of the first in the region was that of the aforementioned T. L. Marsalis, who built the Dallas and Oak Cliff Railway in the 1880s for $250,000 and touted it as “the first elevated railway in the South.” Actually, the term “elevated” was a bit of a stretch. The only elevated section of the line was the trestle bridge across the Trinity River. The two termini (the eastern terminus at Record and Commerce and the western at Jefferson and Beckley — for a number of years the end of the line) all had ground-level approaches and extensions.

The railway was described as a steam-powered rapid transit railway that had canopy-covered stations every two blocks up Jefferson Boulevard, serviced by wooden coaches that Marsalis bought from the New York system — adding to the illusion that his system was “elevated,” like the one in New York City. According to quotes and information from Charles C. Walsh in the book “Dallas Yesterday” by Charles Acheson, the only charge to ride the shuttle railway was 5 cents when passengers traveled to or from Dallas. All residents of Marsalis’s sub-division were allotted annual passes, so according to Walsh, “All Oak Cliff youngsters had a ball in riding the trains without charge in Oak Cliff.” Walsh stated that the rail system had four locomotives that “were of unending interest to Oak Cliff youngsters of the day.” All were fueled by coal hauled in from West Texas. (Yes, Texas. Texas is a significant coal-producing state. Who knew?)

In his old age, William Henry Hord moved in with his daughter and son-in-law, who lived in what was called Flanders Heights off present-day Fort Worth Avenue. Business partners T. L. Marsalis and John S. Armstrong made their fortunes in the wholesale grocery world before entering the real estate development business. After forming the Dallas Land and Loan Co. to develop Oak Cliff, the partners had a disagreement and Armstrong pulled out. But he moved north and developed … Highland Park! Marsalis filed for bankruptcy in 1893 and moved to New York City, where he lived out his life in relative obscurity. But he is well remembered thanks to the familiar North Oak Cliff street and elementary school, both bearing his name.

Although these early Oak Cliff founding fathers all left their marks on our community, I’m sure they wouldn’t recognize the area today, especially if any of them were standing along Jefferson Boulevard waiting for one of the steam railway trains to the Lake Cliff Amusement Park. But I think they’d be amazed. Perhaps lunch at Trinity Groves followed by a trip over the Margaret Hunt Hill Bridge and a tour of Kessler/Stevens. Yep! I think the guys would be impressed.

Entrance to Lake Cliff Amusement Park, 1910. Photo courtesy of Joe Whitney
Entrance to Lake Cliff Amusement Park, 1910. Photo courtesy of Joe Whitney
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  • Denise

    I’m wondering if anyone else remembers the steak house that use to be near the intersection of Hampton Rd and Kiest Blvd during the early 1960’s? I believe the name was Ol South Steak House, I remember it was such a unique place to dine! There were real gas lights that flickered outside, they also had them inside too…it was a dimly lit place, the waiters wore black slacks, white shirts, and white wigs (the kind George Washington and others wore back in the day), the waiters would come to the table with a white linen towel draped over their arm! My uncle would take me and my brother there to eat, and I can remember I was always mesmerized by the place…it was so different! I would love to hear from others if you remember this restaurant.

  • Fernando Gonzalez III

    This would be great!

  • Fernando Gonzalez

    My family moved us to Oak Cliff in November 1978 and we lived near the corner of Colorado and N. Lancaster street. I remember how beautiful the area was with all the pecan and oak trees. I believed the address was 816 and we would go to the old James Bowie Elementary. We eventually moved to the apartments two buildings over at 807 N. Lancaster- but still on Lancaster. We kept doing this over the years moving to another apartment 612 N. Lancaster, then to 326 N. Lancaster right in front of James Bowie elementary. We moved one more time across 8th street before that middle school was built and we lived in front of the car dealership 223 N. Lancaster before we ended up buying a home near the Veteran’s Hospital again near South Lancaster and Fordham in South Oak Cliff. Alot of memories in Oak Cliff at Polar Bear, Lake Cliff Park, Dallas Zoo, Greiner Middle School, Adamson High School, Red Byrd Mall(called back then), Kidds Springs Park, and all the stores up Jefferson Avenue. Feel free to email me with old pictures from the time of if you went to any of these schools. fernandotheresa@att.net Have a great day!

  • Gayla Brooks

    I’ve asked the magazine webmaster to make the change/correction to the online version. Although the hard copy can’t be changed, at least for online reference, the facts should be correct now.

  • You probably agree, Tom, that “Oak Cliff’ sounds a bit more appealing than “Hord’s Ridge.” But the stories are all the same. Glad you enjoyed all the info. (You’d be surprised how much I had to leave out!!)

  • Great story, Ron! You sound like me. I’m glad I listened to all the Oak Cliff stories my mom told me. I use some of the info in my columns, plus they make nice memories.

  • Ron Brannon

    My Mom would ride the old Streetcar from across the river to Kidd Springs by herself when she was ten. She paid a whole nickel for the ride. She said there were no rails on the bridge over the Trinity and that made the trip more exciting for her because she looked out the window at the river just right there below her and it scared her every time she went to Oak Cliff. But…that didn’t stop her from making the trip many times because she loved going to Kidd Springs way back then in 1937.

  • Tom Robinson

    Great article! Learned a lot. My Great, Great Grandparents were married on Hord’s Ridge and show up on page one of the record kept. It was interesting to learn more about the Hord’s. Thanks!

  • Gayla Brooks

    Yes! You’re right, David! My mistake. I meant to be specific but wasn’t watching closely enough. However, to some people New York and New Jersey are “New England” (Ha!), although they are actually part of the “Mid Atlantic” states. Thanks for posting.

  • memyselfandi

    Gayla, nice article as always. Go Knights (David McNeely, ’63)

    From Dallas, Marsalis moved not to New England, but to New York City. He maintained offices there until his death at his home in Patterson, N.J. in 1918. A Ms. Sharon Marsalis and Mr. Jim Barnes of the Dallas Historical Society researched his life in detail in the past decade. A portion of their findings can be found here: http://dallashistory.freeforums.org/t-l-marsalis-epilogue-t2250.html . They also published a report that can be found at the Dallas Historical Society. More discussion can be found by tracing back from the thread I referenced.

  • B.C.

    This is great! The only thing missing is a map to show exactly where each of these areas were (e.g., an outline odd the boundaries of the original Oak Cliff subdivision, Hord’s estate, etc.)

  • Vicki Porter

    I always love your articles, and I really enjoyed the old pictures. It’s like a step back in time.

  • Terry Prichard

    Thanks Gayla for another informative article about our Oak Cliff.

  • lin lin

    We lived on Mountain Creek Lake Road…Hampton Illinois shopping Center and then Saner Ave by Kiest Park…parents then later moved to Woodmere St

  • Gayla Brooks

    Benny, You are certainly an Oak Cliff guy! Me thinks you and Miss Sarah need to “move back east” and re-join the tribe. Maybe???

  • Benny Kirtley

    Great article Gayla. It’s hard to visualize an amusement park at Lake Cliff. I used to live on Blaylock St. which is on the east side of the lake.